How in-class assessments can improve learning

Traditionally, we think of assessments as a way to measure our students’ knowledge. We use them to define whether they pass the class or not, and occasionally to know if we can move on to a new topic or need to delve deeper into the current one. However, cognitive psychology shows us that assessments not only measure knowledge but also help strengthen it. Engaging in these types of activities, whether generated by the students themselves (self-assessments) or by teachers, actually yields greater learning benefits than other common study strategies, such as repeated studying or elaborative encoding of information. This phenomenon is known as the “test effect” and refers to the fact that the retrieval of information from memory to use it in practices or evaluations increases its long-term retention. Actively remembering information improves the consolidation and storage of that information, resulting in better retention over time and retrieval in the future. Why are assessments so effective in enhancing learning? First, it is believed that retrieving information stored in memory reinforces the neural pathways associated with the learned material. Secondly, it helps each student assess how much they know about the subject, identify the areas where they have more difficulties, and pinpoint where they need to concentrate their efforts. In general, we are not very skilled at judging our own ability. Many times, both students and teachers believe they understand more than they actually do, and this can only be recognized through an assessment. Finally, the effort required to solve these types of activities improves attention and deep processing of the material, ultimately promoting better encoding and storage. Studies on the use of formative assessments with university students consistently show improvements in performance when compared to control groups (without formative assessments). Moreover, there are benefits that are not directly associated with academic performance. Some research has found that implementing formative assessments improves students’ attitudes towards the class and the material. Furthermore, it has been observed that end-of-course assessments generate lower levels of anxiety and stress when formative assessments have been used beforehand.

So, how can we help our students maximize their learning? Let’s use formative assessments! Let’s rethink assessments as part of the teaching process and not as closing stage, but let’s keep in mind the following recommendations:

  • They should be quick and agile to administer: We want our students to have the opportunity to test themselves in most of the concepts we are teaching.
  • They should have a clear correct answer that is not ambiguous: If it can generate confusion and perhaps reinforce a misconception, let’s consider another alternative.
  • They should be measurable: errors should allow for diagnosing which misconceptions need to be addressed.
  • They should not be excessively straightforward: If the resolution is automatic and does not require the activation of what has just been taught, it may be useful for assessing prior knowledge but not for reinforcing learning.
  • They should be attainable: If a large proportion of students cannot solve the activity no matter how much effort they put in, not only does it fail to fulfill the purpose of reinforcing what has been learned, but it can also have the effect of demotivating them and, therefore, interfering with the learning process.
  • We should always make time to talk about the results and clear up any doubts that came up during the exercise.
  • We should try to make the assessments (at least some of them) look like the kind of exercises the students will face in the final evaluation. It’s important for them to know what they’re expected to learn.

If you want to delve a little more into the subject, here you have some extra links and references:

  • Yang, C., Luo, L., Vadillo, M. A., Yu, R., & Shanks, D. R. (2021). Testing (quizzing) boosts classroom learning: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 147(4), 399–435.
  • Morris, R., Perry, T., & Wardle, L. (2021). Formative assessment and feedback for learning in higher education: A systematic review. Review of Education, 9(3), e3292.
  • Karaman, P. (2021). The Effect of Formative Assessment Practices on Student Learning: A Meta-Analysis Study . International Journal of Assessment Tools in Education , 8 (4) , 801-817 .
  • Carpenter, S.K., Pan, S.C. & Butler, A.C. The science of effective learning with spacing and retrieval practice. Nat Rev Psychol 1, 496–511 (2022).
  • Wilson, G. (2019). Teaching Tech Together: How to Make your lessons work and build a teaching community around them. CRC Press. Versión online:
Jesica Formoso
Jesica Formoso
Governance and Impact Measurement Teams