We tend to think of assessments solely as devices for measuring learning. But they also influence how students learn because students will tailor their study strategies to their assessments. This means that you need to think of your assessments as teaching devices themselves.
Naomi Holmes at the University of Northampton tested how assessments influenced learning by comparing learning outcomes and student preferences for a single online assessment at the end of a geography course to short online assessments given weekly during the course. The short assessments were mostly multiple-choice questions, though they sometimes involved short answers. Soon after submitting a weekly quiz, students were also given feedback on whether they had answered questions correctly and why.
One major outcome of the study was that students given weekly tests showed improved grades compared to their single-test peers. The percentage of students achieving the equivalent of a first-class or upper-second-class grade in the module went from 54 percent to 63 percent. As a result, a whopping 82 percent of students preferred the weekly tests, while only 6 percent preferred the term test, with 94 percent of students believing that the weekly quiz format improved their learning.
Students opined about the various ways that the continuous assessments improved their learning. A common view was that the quizzes improved the students' study habits by helping them structure their study. The single assessment at the end of the term allowed students to put off studying to the indefinite future, causing them to lose much of the information that they were given in lectures and readings. Students who were given weekly quizzes were focused on keeping up with material during the course.
Students who took weekly quizzes also showed a marked improvement in their lecture attendance, with the number of students attending all lectures going up from 8 percent to 59 percent. Plus, students taking weekly quizzes were far more likely to review their notes after a lecture. This after-lecture review was critical to learning and something that most students did not consider when the assessment was not looming on the horizon. Some students also said that the quizzes led to spending more time studying overall.
Another finding was that students found the quizzes more stimulating and engaging than the end-of-term assessment. This led them to be more focused during the assessments and to pay more attention to making sure they understood what was taught. It also gave them the feeling of building their knowledge base each week.
Finally, the immediate feedback provided by the weekly assessments allowed students to check their understanding of the material immediately after being introduced to it, which provided them with opportunities to correct any misunderstandings. The feedback also showed them where they were studying incorrectly, allowing them to revise their study habits as they went along. This meant that students could better prepare for the next quiz, which lowered their overall stress when taking the assessments.
It is easy to set up auto-graded quizzes in online courses. While there are many good reasons for including large assessments such as research papers and projects in a course, this study shows that the online instructor can improve learning outcomes by adding short, frequent assessments throughout the course.
Holmes, Naomi. 2015. “Student Perceptions of Their Learning and Engagement in Response to the Use of a Continuous E-Assessment in an Undergraduate Module.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 40 (1): 1–14.