How to Use Assessment as a Teaching Tool

A photograph of die on a desk spelling out the word “Teach.”

Assessment includes the various procedures and processes used to evaluate student learning so that instructional and evaluative decisions can be made. Administering a selected response test (i.e. multiple-choice, true/false, etc.) or a constructed response test (i.e. essays, performances, etc.) are the most common assessment procedures. Assessment can be formative, to determine the degree to which the student “is learning,” and summative, to determine the degree to which the student “has learned.” Assessment is effective because it requires students to pull information from their long term memory storage. This article explains how formative assessment can be used for teaching to help students strengthen their long term memory storage.  

Using Questions to Improve Memory  

Questions have beneficial effects whether they are presented before or after learning material is presented. Research shows that questions in the form of quizzes and tests can improve learning by 150% or more when used for learning (Thalheimer, 2003). Test and quiz questions provide this benefit because they provide students with practice retrieving information from their long term memory storage, which strengthens the brain cells associated with the memory. This retrieval practice also works with self-quizzing. The three types of memory pertinent to learning and the retrieval process are sensory memory, short term working memory, and long term memory storage.  

Sensory Memory

Sensory memory is what students retain for a short period of time from sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Sensory information is stored just long enough (a couple of seconds) to be transferred to the part of the brain where working memory is stored.

Working Memory

Working memory stores a small amount of the sensory information for a short amount of time (estimated up to eighteen seconds), which allows the information to be rehearsedin order to keep it

Long Term Memory Storage

When students want to store what they learn for a longer period of time, they need to use what is in working memory enough to get the information connected to the part of the brain where it can be stored indefinitely. How long it will stay in long term storage and how easily it can be retrieved from storage depends on the how strong the memory neural-connections are. The memory neurons are strengthened by retrieval practices, such as answering questions on quizzes, self-quizzing, and sharing information with others.

Assessment as a Teaching Strategy

Administering a selected response test (i.e. multiple-choice, true/false, etc.) or a constructed response test (i.e. essays, performances, etc.) are the most common assessment procedures used to obtain information to determine what a student knows or has learned. The purpose of testing can be formative, to determine the degree to which the student “is learning,” or summative, to determine the degree to which the student “has learned.” Read on for suggestions for how to use assessment as a teaching tool.

Beginning of the Year Testing

New learning requires prior knowledge. Instructors can evaluate students’ prior knowledge at the beginning of a course to determine what knowledge students have in terms of course content and course learning outcomes. A beginning-of-the-course test that addresses the main learning goals and outcomes is a good way to start using assessment for instruction and learning. To use beginning-of-the-course test data for instruction and learning, review the test results with the students and show how the test and the results relate to your student learning outcome statements. The test review process introduces new learning and acts as a rehearsal for what is in the student’s short-term working memory.

Formative Quizzes

Student learning is about acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so the knowledge and skills can be used to make sense of new learning and be applied to higher order thinking. Repeated formative quizzing is excellent for retrieval practice of course content from students’ long-term memory storage. Each retrieval strengthens the neural paths associated with the memory. When feedback is provided, the quizzes become an opportunity to learn. For long lasting memory results, instructors should wait a day or two between formative test attempts.

Asking Questions

Asking questions is an important teaching and learning strategy because answering a question requires students to retrieve information from memory. Posing questions at the beginning of class, during class, and at the end of class are opportunities to help students strengthen the neurons associated with the information being recalled. When students are expected to work in a group, for example, one technique is to have questions on the projection screen or an opening page of an online activity when the students enter the classroom. Handing out a couple notecards with questions for each student to respond to in groups is also a useful technique. The reasoning is that asking students to work together on a problem solving assignment does not guarantee that students are actually thinking the way you intend, but if a student group is given two questions to answer related to the assignment at the beginning of the exercise, then memory retrieval will begin right away and so will engagement (Agarwal, 2018).

Assessment and Thinking Critically

Assessment is important for helping a student become proficient at thinking critically. Cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham (2007), explains that a student has to know a topic well in order to think critically about it. This means that the student needs to be able to retrieve the necessary knowledge from long term memory. Developing strong memory requires retrieval practice in the form of formative assessments, self-quizzing, sharing in a group, and other types of retrieval exercises. When students’ knowledge is proficient, then students are ready to solve problems, make judgments, and draw conclusions using critical thinking protocols.


Agarwal, P.K. (2018). Retrieval practice: A powerful strategy to improve learning. Retrieved from

Thalheimer, W. (2003, January). The learning benefits of questions. Retrieved Feb. 12, 2018, from

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? American Educator, 31, 8-19. Retrieved from