How could we improve student learning by using frequent assessment and feedback?

Students could be frequently assessed and provided with feedback by tasking them to do assignments throughout the module, not just at the end. The type of assignment may differ, it may range from a weekly test with 10 multiple choice questions to a weekly essay of 4000 words. The type of feedback could also differ:

  • feedback on the task (e.g. ‘your score is 8 out of 10),
  • feedback on the learning process (e.g. ‘you held 4 interviews and processed them in time’);
  • or feedback on the person of the student (e.g. ‘you did well’).

Offering feedback frequently is one method of promoting regular study effort as well as engaging students with the course. Students’ study effort, or time spent on studying, is a predictor of study success. The more time students spend on learning, while the quality of education remains the same, the better they perform.

Intermediate assessments support students in increasing their time on tasks and spreading their learning efforts more regularly throughout a period of time, and affects learning outcome positively (Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006). Research shows that formative feedback based on, for example, a series of assignments or tests, supports students in their attempt to spread their learning effort more evenly throughout a period of time (Hattie, 2009). This evenly spread learning positively effects learning outcome (Black & William, 1998; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006; Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

Regarding the design of feedback, Hattie and Timperley (2007) make a distinction between feedback about the task (FT), about the processing of the task (FP), about self-regulation (FR), and about the self as a person (FS). They argue that FR and FP are powerful in terms of deep processing and mastery of tasks, and FT is powerful when the task information subsequently is useful for improving strategy processing or enhancing self-regulation (which it too rarely does). FS is the least effective type of feedback.

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  • Divide the subject matter into small sections (e.g. the subject material per week).
  • Formulate test questions for each part.
  • Write feedback per answer (multiple choice), per question (different forms of examinations) and/or per group of questions. Include in the feedback a reference to the course material.
  • Ask a colleague to take the test and check for mistakes.
  • Select an appropriate kind of test, for example a pen-and-paper test or a test through the digital learning environment of the university.

  • Black, P., and Wiliam, D. (1998) Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 7–74.
  • Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007) The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77 (1), 81–112.
  • Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31 (2), 199–218.
  • Shute, V. L. (2008) Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78 (1), 153–189.


How do I find out what my students already know?

Knowing what your students know enables you to design your teaching based on students’ understanding. It can also inform you about the effects of your teaching before the results of final assessment are in (when it is  too late to adapt your teaching!). Yet, how can you tell what your students are thinking?

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Below are three examples of teaching and learning activities that activate and explicate students’ (prior) understanding. Using them at the start of a lesson or course helps determine prior knowledge and understanding and activates their learning; using them later on is more informative about the effects of your teaching.

Quiz- Quizzing students, for instance with a series of multiple choice questions or statements, is a fast way of determining students’ understanding. Offline quizzes can use answer options as raising hands, standing up or moving to different corners. Several interactive digital Apps (e.g., PresentersWall) offer more options, including voting, rating, or open questions. Students vote using their own phone, tablet or laptop.

Mindmap – Asking students to draw a mindmap about a central concept or question, visualising (hierarchical) relations between the central concept and related ones. It informs you about their understanding and activates their learning. Depending on their purpose mindmaps can be done in class or as preparation, by hand or online, individually or in groups. You can also ask students to continuously update the mindmap as they progress through the course, challenging them to directly link course content to their developing understanding.

Exam questions – Developing examination questions and answer models is a task usually reserved for lecturers, but when you ask students to do so, it requires them to think about the essential aspects of the course content,  activating their learning. The wording and level of the students’ questions (e.g. asking for (rote)memorisation, application, or understanding of course material) also informs you about students’ expectations in terms of the level of required understanding. Using one or more of the best questions in the actual examination is motivating for students and saves you work.