Formative Assessment

In one of my earlier posts, I talked about effort in recall being a fundamental principle of learning. The testing effect is a good example of effortful recall – you have to work hard to remember the answers for a test.

I was giving a presentation to the faculty of the business school about using clickers in teaching, and demonstrated the importance of using something like clickers as a method of building in formative assessment in the lecture.

From the Roediger & Karpicke (2006) paper, I did the following to make the point. First I explained the study very simply.

There were three groups in the study (see Figure 1). In one group, the subjects read through a piece of information and studied it for ten minutes, took a five minute break, and then studied again, repeating the process four times. After a final break, they were tested on the  material. The second group did the same thing, but took a test in the final ten minute slot. The third group studied the material for one ten minute slot, and then after the break were tested on the material. This was then repeated twice more. Finally, all the subjects were brought back after a week and tested again.

After the session was over, the subjects were tested on the information. Their results are in Figure 2

I asked the faculty at the business school to guess at how well the subjects did on their tests a week later. Needless to say, the figure of their results was a real surprise to most (if not all) of them (see Figure 3).

I think this study makes a compelling case for formative assessment. Asking the students to recall information shortly after they have learned it makes a significant difference to their long term retention.

A few years ago, I used my weekly statistics tests as a means to measure the effect of participating in a formative session prior to taking their test. I asked them, on their test, to indicate whether or not they had been to the formative session that week, and whether or not they had studied before the test (they were open-book tests). Across the 350 students, there was a massive effect of attending a formative session (see Figure 4).

For years formative assessment has been pushed as an important aspect of education. I think that the concept of effortful recall is one of the underlying psychological principles that makes formative assessment so powerful as a leaning tool.


Roediger, H. L. & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 1, 181-210.


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