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Early and Frequent Assessment of Learning


It is important for learners to know if they truly understand concepts covered in class. However, when assessment comes too late and is paired with high stakes, the results can be damaging to a learner's motivation and success in the course. Assessing learning early and frequently throughout the semester has many benefits:

  1. It informs the learner where they stand.
  2. If a learner is struggling early on, they may be more likely to seek help.
  3. It allows learners to take action before performance turns more high stakes. For example, failing a quiz that is only worth 1% of your final grade is better than failing an exam worth 20% of your final grade.
  4. Frequent assessment can improve retrieval and promote deeper learning and study habits.

Tips for Assessing Early and Frequently

Below are some tips and strategies for incorporating early and frequent assessment into your courses.

Formative assessment provides an opportunity to measure student learning along the way and give feedback intended to improve performance. Formative assessment gives the instructor valuable information that can be used to better adapt instruction to fit learners' needs. Formative assessment can take many forms. Here are just a few examples: quizzes, polls, entry or exit slips, in-class problems, homework, summaries, lists, charts, graphs. Feedback does not have to be formal or individualized for formative assessment to be valuable. Students can self-check their work and instructors can provide real-time feedback to the whole class verbally. For example, if half the class misses a polling question, the instructor can address common errors on the spot.

Retrieval practice, also known as the testing effect, is the active process of recalling – or retrieving – information from memory and using it. By exercising our memory, we improve it. Recalling information takes mental effort and that effort helps us grow as learners. Actively practicing recalling information, which is more cognitively demanding than re-reading and taking notes, invites more long-term learning because of the effort involved on the learner’s part. Retrieval practice can take the form of quizzes (no or low stakes) or in-class activities such as listing, discussion, guided prompts, questions, etc. Visit our page on retrieval practice to learn more.

Take a look at your proposed course calendar. When does the first assessment occur in your course? If you're going a few weeks or even until mid-term before students have a chance to measure how well they're doing, take some time to think about where you can incorporate earlier assessment. Remember, it doesn't have to be formal or graded assessment in order for students to benefit.

The return of the first major assignment or exam in a course is a milestone in the semester. It sets the tone for how the remainder of the semester may go for the student and provides a formal indictator of whether or not a student should seek learning assistance (e.g., tutoring). While discussing available resources early on in the semester is valuable, consider discussing these resources again at this time when students are more open to taking advantage of them. In addition, go a step further and do a short lesson on effective study strategies for your course and discipline. Students will be more receptive to ideas at this time if their performance was not as expected.