The Power of Formative Assessment and Feedback

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When students cram to pass an exam, what they have learned does not stay in their memory for more than a day or two. Because of this forgetting, teachers complain that they have to re-teach previous course material; institutions and governance complain that retention rates are too low; and employers complain about graduates’ knowledge, abilities, and competency. How then can instructors ensure that students attain a high degree of learning, do well on summative assessments, and retain long term what they have learned? The answer is formative assessment that includes feedback to the student because learning is more effective if learners receive frequent, substantive, and timely feedback (Quality Matters, 2014).

The Purpose of Formative Assessment

The purpose of formative assessment is to determine the degree to which students “are learning.” In their 1998 article, the most widely cited reference on formative assessment, Black and Wiliam claim that formative assessment improves learning. After synthesizing over 250 publications, they conclude that formative assessment is perhaps the most effective educational practice when it comes to improving academic achievement. For a formative assessment to work well, students must be allowed to take formative assessments as many times as needed to achieve a certain level of proficiency. Formative assessment should help students answer self-questions like: Where am I trying to go? Where am I now? How do I close the gap?

Formative assessment requires the development of quizzes that match the expected learning outcomes. This requires a course design plan for quizzes, administering the quizzes, scoring the quizzes, and giving feedback. This is not an easy task, and it requires a time investment, but educational technologies continue to make the task easier. If student learning and long term memory of what was learned is a priority, then formative assessment is worth the effort.

Improved Memory Retention

Learning is the process of acquiring knowledge and skills. Memory is the process of retaining the learned knowledge and skills for future use. Retrieval is the process of retrieving the knowledge from long term memory. Repeated retrievals (retrieval practice) maximize learning and minimize forgetting. Each time a student retakes a formative quiz, it forces the student’s brain to retrieve the information needed to answer the questions. Each time the information is retrieved, the neurons where the information is stored grow stronger and better connected. This repeated retrieval with feedback makes the memory stronger, and thus the information can be more easily recalled when needed, including on summative assessments, such as midterm and final exams. The more students retrieve, the less they have to study for a final exam, and the longer into the future the memory will be available when needed (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

The process of converting a memory from working memory to long term memory storage is called consolidation. A student recalling what they have learned causes their brain to reconsolidate the memory, which strengthens its connections to what they already know, and makes it easier for the student to recall in the future. Forgetting is about not being able to retrieve what was learned. In effect, retrieval by formative testing strengthens memory and interrupts forgetting (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014).

Formative Assessment, Feedback, and Retention Rates

There are many success stories on the use of feedback. For example, a Stanford University program with 17 schools with retention challenges used coaching with feedback which resulted in a 5.3% increase in retention over a twelve month period (Baker & Bettinger, 2011). A Purdue University program that used an email-based feedback program for at-risk students resulted in an 11.7% increase in retention over a twelve month period (Arnold & Pistilli, 2012). A Touro Osteo Medical School program for detecting students at risk of board failure and dropout used feedback and guided self-study that resulted in a 6% reduction in dropout rates and an increase in board passage rates (Lenihan, 2012). Such increases show that formative assessment is worth the time for improving student learning.


Arnold, K. E. & Pistilli, M. D. (2012). Course signals at Purdue: Using learning analytics to increase student success. ACM International Conference Proceeding Series. doi: 10.1145/2330601.2330666

Baker, E. & Bettinger, R. (2011). The effects of student coaching in college: An evaluation of a randomized experiment in student mentoring. NBER Working Paper No. 16881. Cambridge MA: The National Bureau of Economic Research.

Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Brown, P. C., Roediger, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Lenihan, D. (2012). Improve retention and remediation using a data-driven feedback system [White paper]. Retrieved from

Quality Matters. (2014). Quality matters higher education rubric workbook: Design standards for online and blended course (5th edition). Annapolis, MD: Quality Matters.