Why You Should Teach Students How To Use Assessment as a Learning Tool

A photograph of a pile of scrabble tiles with the word “learn” spelled out.

While instructors may know that assessment can be a powerful learning tool, students may not know. This is why teaching students how to use assessment for learning should be part of course design. Teaching students how they can use assessment as a learning tool helps them develop important study skills and learning strategies to guide them on their educational journey. By teaching students how to use assessment as a learning tool, instructors can teach students that:

  • their brain is always ready to change and learn and grow stronger;
  • the knowledge and skills students acquire and have in their long term memory become more permanent with retrieval practice using assessments like quizzes and self-quizzing (Doyle & Zakrajsek, 2013);
  • the more they practice, the easier it will be to retrieve the information when they need it;
  • forgetting just means that they are not able to retrieve what is in their long term memory at that time, not that the memory is permanently gone, and therefore they just need more retrieval practice to strengthen the neurons associated with what they are trying to remember; and
  • the key to retaining information over a long period of time requires retrieval practice spaced out over time, not cramming before a test.  

This article delves deeper into the above points and why they are important for students’ independent learning development.

Self-Quizzing for Memory Retrieval Practice

To reinforce assessment for learning, students should be encouraged to do self-quizzing where they make up test questions, make flashcards, or simply try to remember what they can about what they have learned. Each of these learning strategies requires memory retrieval, and when quizzing is spaced out over time rather than immediately repeated over and over again (called “massed” or “blocked study,” or more colloquially “cramming,”), the student’s brain will have the time it needs to solidify the memory. Massed study can help in the short run, but for lasting memories that can be available for recall in the future, the spaced approach is what the brain requires.

Spaced Retrieval (Distributed Practice)

The more students practice retrieving information, the stronger the neurons associated with the memory become, and the easier it will be for students to recall the information when needed. Successful relearning is a combination of engaging in retrieval practice multiple times while also spacing those retrievals out over time (Agarwal, 2018).

Spaced retrieval is the opposite of blocking or cramming just before a test. The student needs to make a choice between cramming to pass an exam and the next day forgetting most of what was learned or distributing retrieval practice over time and being able to recall most of what was learned for days and months after the exam, and thus being prepared for the next course level or for employment. An example of distributed practice would be as follows: take a formative quiz; wait two days and retake; wait five days and retake; wait ten days and retake; wait thirty day and retake (just before the final exam). The time put into the distributed practice would be no more than the time put into cramming just before the final exam and would result in long term memory benefits plus less stress before taking the final exam because of being well prepared.

Flash cards

Flash cards can be a powerful tool for learning and for self-assessing learning. The best flash card method is the Leitner system. The Leitner system was introduced by Sabastian Leitner in the 1970s and uses four or five boxes for the flash cards. The first box contains the cards to be learned, and any card that is answered correctly in box one is moved to box number two. Any card in box two that is answered correctly is moved to box three, and so forth with the other boxes. When retesting, any card that is missed in any box is moved back to box one. Thus, the cards in the lower boxes, which the student knows less well, are reviewed more frequently than the cards in the higher boxes. This method works because it requires spaced retrieval practice, which makes learning the material more efficient and effective.


Reflection is about thinking back to an experience or what was learned. It requires the student to remember what happened, what the student did, and how it worked out. Reflecting can work as a form of self-quizzing because it requires memory retrieval and thus is a form of retrieval practice. Through the reflective process, students become more aware of what they know and what they need to learn. Reflection enables assessment of the “why” and “how” of learning and what needs to be done as a result (Te Kete Ipurangi, 2018). To promote reflection, the instructor could stop at different points during a lecture and have students write down what they think are the most important points from the lecture, and then have students compare notes. Saving the last few minutes of the class to allow students to reflect on what they learned is also a way to help students benefit from the reflection process.


 Agarwal, P.K. (2018). Successive relearning. Retrieved from www.retrievalpractice.org/archive/ 2018/successive-relearning

Doyle, T., & Zakrajsek, T. (2013). The new science of learning: How to learn in harmony with your brain. Sterling VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Te Kete Ipurangi (2018). Reflection on the learning. Assessment Online. Retrieved from http://assessment.tki.org.nz/Assessment-in-the-classroom/Assessment-for-learning-in-practice/Reflection-on-the-learning