Assessment is a central component of course curriculums and is used to certify student learning, but it can also be used as a tool to improve teaching and learning. Many laboratory courses are structured such that there is only a grade for a particular laboratory, which limits the insights that can be gained in student learning. We developed a laboratory program that incorporates assessments designed to probe student understanding of different components of the individual modules making up the program. The challenge was to analyze and present grades from these assessment tasks in a format that was readily interpretable by academics. We show that a simplified synthesis of grade distributions (grade distribution digests) provides sufficient information to make decisions about changes in course components. The main feature of the digests is its data visualization approach, where student grades for individual laboratory practicals, individual assessment tasks or individual assessment items are graphically presented as an overall average grade, an average top quartile grade and an average bottom quartile grade, and relative averages across all assessments. This ability to visualize student grades in variety of contexts enables academics with many other demands on their time (e.g. research and administration) to more efficiently identify ways to improve teaching delivery and learning outcomes. Examples are presented of the use of such data to identify and improve deficiencies in both student skills and teaching practice, resulting in improved learning outcomes.