Students as Moving Targets: How Assessment Shapes Student Identities

Dr Juuso Henrik Nieminen

How does assessment assessment shape student identities? This is a question that has received surprisingly little attention in empirical higher education research, despite the fact that assessment has become part of the ‘fabric of life’ in higher education, as phrased by Stobart (2008, p. 56). Contemporary student life is characterised by grades, examinations, essays, projects, metrics, rankings and learning analytics. So far, researchers have written a  lot about how assessment shapes student learning but much less about how assessment changes students themselves. In my new integrative review article, published in Studies in Higher Education, I shed light on this issue by reviewing 32 empirical studies on this topic and propose a theorisation of how exactly assessment sets the boundaries for students’ being and becoming.

But what does assessment have to do with student identities? Typically, assessment is considered as an ideally objective measurement of student learning outcomes. It is generally seen as fair in that assessment targets students’ merits, not their identities or personalities. While there is a lot of truth here, this idea fails to acknowledge that as a social practice, assessment shapes its target, the students. You can measure the physical length of an object – say, the length of your pencil – and the length of the pencil itself does not change as a result of your measurement. However, students are not objects but complex human beings. As we assess students’ work by assigning numbers and letters and by providing feedback comments, we influence students’ identities, self-worth, well-being, sense of belonging, and so forth (Nieminen, Moriña, & Biagiotti, 2023). In this way, students are ‘moving targets’ in assessment. Every attempt to assess students necessarily changes the students themselves; every assessment situation leaves a trace, no matter how small or insignificant. These processes are largely unintended.

This might sound obvious because we all carry such memories of assessment within us! I reckon every teacher knows what I write about in this academic review article. Moreover, we all carry these memories of how assessment has changed something within us as we have studied in school and university ourselves. For example, most of us can recall a memory of grades, marks, scores and Grade Point Average (GPA) defining our social worth and enabling comparisons and competition between students. In that sense, these ideas are not new: we already know this. However, I argue that educational research lags behind. While we have a lot of social and cultural knowledge about how assessment shapes students, the research community has not been able to capture this knowledge (Nieminen & Yang, 2023). I propose this is a limitation of mainstream research on assessment and propose a research agenda to better understand student identity formation in, and through, assessment.

How then, does assessment shape student identities? You can read the whole story from the published article, but I want to provide some snapshots. The figure below summarises the findings. Let me introduce each of these ideas with a brief vignette.

Imagine that a student receives an A+ for their excellent work in a university course. This grade will most likely contribute positively to the student’s future opportunities in educational and job markets (gatekeeping). This grade validates the student’s skills because grades are socially considered as ‘powerful knowledge’ (legitimisation). The A+ makes certain skills, abilities and identities tangible, offering concrete building blocks for student identity as a future professional (concretisation). In the process, the A+ might instil the student with various academic norms and values, such as competition, diligence and excellence (socialisation). The grade is a testament to how education shapes students as individuals, given that course grades are rarely if ever assigned to groups or communities in higher education (individualisation). Finally, the student might also use the A+ to agentically build identity. The student might gain increased awareness over how grades influence identity. Perhaps, after realising how grade-driven their own behavior has been, the student might think: ‘My identity is not determined by grades!’ Finally, students could be provided real, reflexive agency over assessment and thus their identity formation. This calls for creative and holistic approches to assessment design so that students themselves – rather than teachers – could read and write their own lives (as phrased by Nguyen, 2013, p. 139).

So, what could come next in future research? In the study, I outline a few fruitful trajectories. First, academic research could learn from the vast social and cultural knowledge about how assessment shapes student identities. This calls for creative methods to grasp how students build their identities in situ, supplementing earlier research that has mostly focused on understanding the topic in retrospect, such as through interviews. Examples of such work might be media analyses (e.g. how students narrate assessment and grades in social media) and ethnographies (e.g. how students narrate their selves through assessment in various cultural contexts). Longitudinal studies wuld be particularly helpful in understanding how identities develop over time. Finally, I find it extremely important to focus on how assessment may marginalise certain student identities. For example, disability identity might be something that students try to hide and mitigate in their assessment tasks (see Nieminen et al., 2023).


Nguyen, C. F. (2013). The ePortfolio as a Living Portal: A Medium for Student Learning, Identity, and Assessment. International Journal of ePortfolio, 3(2), 135-148. Link to the study

Nieminen, J. H. (2024). How does assessment shape student identities? An integrative review. Studies in Higher Education, 1-19.

Nieminen, J. H., Moriña, A., & Biagiotti, G. (2023). Assessment as a matter of inclusion: A meta-ethnographic review of the assessment experiences of students with disabilities in higher education. Educational Research Review, 100582.

Nieminen, J. H., & Yang, L. (2023). Assessment as a matter of being and becoming: theorising student formation in assessment. Studies in Higher Education, 1-14.

Stobart, G. (2016). Assessment and learner identity. In M. A. Peters (Eds.), Encyclopedia of educational philosophy and theory (56–60). Springer.

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