Using Assessment to Improve Students’ Learning




Professor Terry Doyle

Ferris State University



Using Assessment to Improve Students’ Learning



What has been the traditional role of assessment in college?


What do students expect when it comes to assessment in their college classes?


What do traditional assessments usually measure?


What can memory research tells us about assessing college students’ learning?



These are some of the question to be explored in this discussion about how assessment tools can be used to improve the depth and permanence of students’ learning.


What neuron-networks for school have students formed over their 12-15 years in school?


  1. Teachers give information
  2. Students record the information
  3. Students memorize the information
  4. Students read about the information
  5. Students write about the information
  6. Students try to get passing grades on assessments
  7. Others acknowledge  students who get really good grades


What do faculty want students to get out of their courses?


  1. Learning content and skills
  2. Develop critical thinking skills
  3. Develop problem solving abilities
  4. Develop lifelong learning skills


Let’s Define Learning

Learning is a change in the neuro-networks of the brain (John Ratey, User Guide to the Brain, 2001)


Learning is the acquiring of new knowledge and skills (David Sousa, How the Brain Learns, 2001


Learning is the ability to use information or skills after long periods of disuse and learning is the ability to use information and skills to solve problems that occur in a context different (if even slightly) from the context in which the information or skill was first learned. (Robert Bjork, UCLA Memories and Metamemories, 1994)


What is the Purpose of Learning?


The purpose of learning is to use the knowledge and skills learned in the future. (David Sousa, pg 78)


For this purpose to be fulfilled in any meaningful way this new knowledge and skills must create more than temporary changes in the neuro-networks of the brain.


College teaching and students’ learning must be about long term memory formation.


How do we make this happen? First—Use it or lose it.


  1. Each time a neuro network (pattern) gets fired, the potential for that pattern to remain together (its LTP), increases significantly the likelihood that the pattern will become an engram or memory trace. ( M. Sprenger, Teaching so Students Remember, 2005)
  2. Once a pattern exists, the firing of any part of the pattern will cause the firing of the whole network.
  3. Use it or lose it holds true for neuron-networks—when new information or skills are not used the neurons have no reason to stay together and the pattern most likely will be lost.


So the first key to using assessment to drive long term learning is to give assessments that require students to use the new knowledge and skills on a regular basis.

Asking students to use, discuss or review important information on a daily basis is an example of an informal assessment that leads to long term memory formation.


 Second— how information or a skill is learned has a big affect on if it gets retained.


  1. Students need adequate time to learn new information or skills—this includes time for reflection on how best to organize it and an analysis of what is important to remember.
  2. When students do not have enough time to “ learn” the new material they  are very likely to become surface learners and try and just memorize it—faculty want students to become thinkers but this  takes time and practice.
  3. The way in which a student organizes the new information—the degree to which she can create meaningful patterns-familiar patterns is a key to retaining the information.




For example—Try to remember the following 4915082637


                        Now try again   (491) 508-2637


Try to remember LSDN BCT VF BIU SA


                        Now try again    LSD NBC TV FBI USA


  1. How the information gets connected to prior knowledge—the linkage can create many ways for the information to be recalled or can severely limit the cues that will work for recall.
  2. The relevance and importance of the information affects what gets retained. Humans remember things more readily when they have the emotional connection of importance or relevance.
  3. When the information or skills are elaborated—that is, when the student looks to find as many areas of connection to prior knowledge as possible retention is enhanced.( Daniel Schacter, Seven Sins of Memory)
  4. When students put the information into their own words it enlarges the potential of detecting connections to already held patterns—summary writing is a good example of this.


Key assessments would include:


1. Questions that ask students to put the information into their own words—translate the content into language they use.


2. Questions that ask students to give examples, analogies, metaphors—coming up with an analogy means the student found a similar pattern to the information and saw the connection between the two.


3. Ask students to explain the relevance and importance of the information or skill—this will raise their awareness of why the information is valuable and assess if they indeed do see the relevance and importance.


4. Ask the students to visually display the relationships between the new information and previous information—draw a mind map (for example)



Teaching students to remember.


  1. The one who does the talking does the learning ( Thomas Angelo)

Students should teach each other

Students should present their work in public (classroom)

Students should share their understanding orally in public (classroom)


  1. Learning that is firsthand, multi-sensory, meaningful, interesting, important, collaborative, authentic and challenging will offer the greatest chance to be recalled.
  2. Recognize the Primacy and Recency Effect—the information that is presented in the first 20 minutes will receive the students’ greatest attention and offer the best chance to be recalled. The information presented in the last 10 minutes has the next best chance of being recalled (David Sousa, pg. 91)


  1. Recognize the effect teaching methods have on potential for retention-the one who doers the work does the learning.


  1. Perfect practice makes perfect—the more students are asks to demonstrate they have learned the more permanent their long term memories can become.


Assessments that require students to do the teaching, presenting, or explaining all will drive the formation of long term memories.


Examples         Case studies

                        Problem solving especially ill-structured problems

                        Students prepare the test questions

                        Presenting to authentic audiences


Aids to forming Long Term Memories


  1. Rehearsal
    1. Sustained practice—an intensive engagement with the material
    2. Distributed practice—ongoing regular review and use of the information or skill
  2. Sleep—encoding into Long Term Memory sites is believed to occurs during REM sleep

If a student gets 5-6 hours of sleep they may have only 3 REM cycles

If a student gets 8 -9 hours of sleep they may have 5 REM cycles


  1. Use emotion—the brain has more connections (wiring) for emotion than for cognition. ( James Zull, pg 74 ).The brain that encodes a memory as not only a bit of content but  also as an emotional connection has increased the  possibilities for the information to be retain.


Assessment Ideas


  1. All exams should be cumulative—this will require the students to go back and relearn and review previous learning and strengthen the connections made between early course learning and later course learning.
  2. Practice quizzing—using an online delivery system (WebCT or Blackboard etc,) set up quizzes that allow students to practice material and get immediate feedback on their performance.




Aids to Retrieval


  1. The more information or skills are recalled the clearer and stronger the pathways for their future retrieval become. Otherwise, the pathways for retrieval can be obscured by other pathways


  1. Cues—students reconstruct memories bases on the cues received—if the cues are not clear or too similar in their nature then it is likely to make the memory retrieval less accurate.  This is the problem all test writers face—do the questions (the cues) accurately reflect what was taught and learned by the students.


  1. Mood of the learner can affect retrieval


  1. The context of the questioning (cuing) can affect recall. Because  “where”  learning takes place is also a cue for retrieving—taking tests in the same classroom where the information was learned can help recall.


  1. The system of storage of the memory Rote memory has a very narrow network for recall.


Example   Memorize the word and the definition is different than memorizing the definition and the word.


A Note about Confabulation


The brain will fill in missing parts of memories by choosing the next closest item it can recall-in other words, it will make things up in order to not have an incomplete memory.  This is why students sometime feel so strongly that they are correct in their answer—they may have only learned (remembered) 80% of something but the memory they recall appears to be a whole 100 %.( Sousa pg.114)



Assessments that will Drive Long Term Learning


  1. Have students write  their understanding in their own words
  2. Make students show  how  their new learning fits in the pattern of what has already been learned—visually, orally or in writing
  3. Have regular review questioning/quizzing
  4. Use assessments that require the students to use the information and apply it in authentic situations—to solve cases or problems.
  5. Make each exam cumulative
  6. Make students teach / present/perform the information as a way of evaluating their  complete knowledge
  7. Let students write the exam—this requires them to be reflective, analyze the information and evaluate what is most important to know.





Sousa, David, How the Brain Learns, 2nd, Ed 2001Corwin Press, INC, Thousands Oaks, CA


Givens, Barbara, Teaching to the Brains Natural learning Systems, ASCD Publication, 2002


Sylwester, Robert, A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator’s Guide to the Human Brain. ASCD Publication, 1995


Ratey, John, A User’s Guide to the Brain. Pantheon Books, New York, 2001


Sprenger, Marilee, How to Teach so Students Remember. ASCD Publication, 2005


Bjork, R.A. (1994). Memory and metamemory considerations in the training of human beings. In J. Metcalfe and A. Shimamura (Eds.) Metacognition: Knowing about knowing. (pp.185-205). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


Angelo, T.A. & Cross, P.K. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass


Zull, James. (2002), The Art of Changing the Brain, Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.


National Training Institute, Alexandria, Virginia


  1. Great job. Any ideas on how to demonstrate teaching memory?

  2. great job, any idea on how to demonstrate memory

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