The Purposes of Assessing the Brain

Assessment is about guaranteeing optimal performance

By Scott Sterling

As we discussed last week, a goal in assessment is to measure how correctly and efficiently the brain has stored new knowledge or skills in its long-term memory. That’s the best definition we have for learning, but many assessments and tests fall short of this ideal, due to complications brought on by time, money, or both.

Every prospective teacher learns about the forms of assessment in college, but let’s talk about its purposes in relation to how the brain moves information around.

Assessment and its three forms

Preassessment is crucial at the beginning of a unit or lesson. Many strategies help accomplish preassessment; they can be quick, like entry/exit slips, or deliberate with multiple steps.

When the brain encounters new information, it always tries to frame it with information stored in its long-term memory to produce meaning (remember, sense and meaning are needed for long-term storage). Preassessment helps teachers:

  • See what already exists in students’ brains
  • Determine how existing knowledge can help them reach learning goals
  • Plan units accordingly


Formative assessment

The matching of old information with new is ongoing throughout any learning endeavor. However, just like any consistently working machine, the brain can encounter snags and breakdowns during the matching process. That’s where formative assessment comes in.

Think of formative assessment as taking your car for regular maintenance. You’re preventing breakdowns through the use of lubricants and other strategies. Occasionally, unexpected and immediate issues are brought to your attention—issues that could harm your car if not dealt with promptly. In formative assessment, your goal is to determine:

  • That students’ brains are working correctly
  • Whether any further action is needed


Strategies that can help students see these things for themselves can make this work much easier. Dr. David A. Sousa’s upcoming book, Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them, goes into detail about how formative assessments can reflect what’s going on in the brain.

Summative assessment

Naturally, the next step is to use summative assessment to make sure the brain has accomplished its task satisfactorily. Although it doesn’t inform instruction for the student currently being assessed (that ship has already sailed), summative assessment serves two key purposes:

  • It helps educators refine and modify curricula for the next group of students
  • It alerts students and teachers about potential future difficulties. If a student didn’t quite get multiplication, they’re going to have an uphill battle with division, and the teacher needs to plan accordingly


Not surprisingly, summative assessment in the form of high-stakes testing is not brain-friendly. It’s stressful and, over time, can actually inhibit the brain from assimilating new information by activating the incorrect systems for knowledge storage. Summative assessment should be treated as a collaborative process between the assessor and the assessed. No surprises. In fact, students should never be surprised by their performance on a summative assessment; they should already understand their progress through student-centered formative assessment.

Next week: Brain-Friendly Conditions for Assessment

To go on a much deeper dive into the world of neuroscience and assessment, order Dr. Sousa’s Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them from the Learning Sciences International bookstore.

Other articles you might like:

We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

One Reply to “The Purposes of Assessing the Brain”

Comments are closed.