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    A Guide to Mastering Assessment Language: Tips, Terms & Tools

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    A Guide to Mastering Assessment Language: Tips, Terms & Tools

    The formative assessment rubric is an amazing and revealing tool. They are made all the more effective by carefully considering the language we use. Mastering assessment language is an art form in itself, but like all other art forms it takes time to perfect.

    Proper formative assessment tells us what students have learned and what areas need improvement. In addition, it also reinforces the learning process. It helps the learner by addressing 3 important questions. This creates a cyclical learning process for constant growth and progress.

    • Where Am I?—Every learning journey needs a starting point. Where are we at in terms of knowledge, understanding, ability, engagement, etc.?
    • Where Do I Want to Be?—The goals are just as important. What are we expected to learn, what do we want to learn, and how do we want to improve?
    • How Will I Get There?—There must be a plan of some kind. What are the necessary steps we'll take to reach our intended learning goals?


    As we discuss in our book Mindful Assessment, formative assessment is, first and foremost, a partnership between teacher and student. It requires timely and constructive feedback between the learner and the teacher.

    The student then takes that feedback and uses it to adjust or improve their learning. That means the better the feedback is, the better the learning is for the student. This is where mastering assessment language comes in.

    Tips for Mastering Assessment Language

    When writing a question or developing an assessment, ask yourself:

    1. What does this show?
    2. What is its purpose?
    3. How does it connect to students' learning?
    4. Can it be misunderstood or misinterpreted?
    5. What is the answer we could get from this?
    6. What are our command terms?
    7. Is this suitable for our audience?

    Our goal is to have our students performing at the higher end of Bloom's Taxonomy. These are the problem-solving and critical thinking skills our students need.

    Terms for Mastering Assessment Language

    Part of mastering assessment language is making sure we are targeting the right skills. Of course, recall and understanding are necessary in higher-order thinking. To analyze, evaluate, or create we must be able to understand, remember, and apply. That said, there are better modes of assessment that are exemplified in the terms we use. 

    Let's look at some assessment terms connected with lower-order thinking (LOTS) in Bloom’s Taxonomy:

    • list (remembering)
    • state (remembering)
    • identify (remembering)
    • name (remembering)
    • describe (remembering)
    • comment (understanding)
    • discuss (understanding)
    • explain (understanding)
    • exemplify (understanding)

    Now consider this list associated with higher-order skills (HOTS). How often do we see these in our assessments and examinations? These are the terms we need to use more of when writing assessments:

    • compare (analyze)
    • analyze (analyze)
    • evaluate (evaluate)
    • judge (evaluate)
    • review (evaluate)
    • design (create)
    • construct (create)
    • devise (create)
    • critique (evaluate)
    • plan (create)
    • develop (create)

    The general rule is that action terms and descriptors should be:

    • Specific—They always target a specific action.
    • Observable—A skill should be a performance skill or an action taking place. A good and thorough task analysis should be performed to determine what skills you’ll need to observe.
    • Measurable—What degree of proficiency is acceptable? A percentage? A set number of times to deem consistent? In the end, we want our descriptors to determine the consistency and predictability of a behaviour.

    Tools for Mastering Assessment Language

    This infographic of Bloom's Taxonomy Verbs is a useful reference chart of action terms.

    Bloom's Taxonomy Verbs

    Another Bloom's Tool we've made recently is the Bloom's Periodic Table. This resource features activities connected to every level of Bloom's Taxonomy, from LOTS to HOTS.

    bloom's taxonomy periodic table

    Never Stop Encouraging

    When it comes to mastering assessment language, keep your eye on the future. Consider where you want your students to be and visualize the skills they need to be successful for the future. Most of all, use mindfulness when looking at their capacity for improvement.

    The truth is we all have greatness within us; it’s the words we hear that help us find it and let it out. Perfect assessments use the right words at the right time. From there, who knows how powerful learning can become?

    Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2017 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

    Originally published Nov 17, 2017, updated Nov 11, 2021

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