How to use assessment as a form of learning


ow did you design your last assessment?

Did you create it before you even began designing the main learning content, Dick and Carey style?

Or was it more of a “Here’s a handful of multiple choice questions for compliance purposes?”

Sadly, assessment rarely gets the same attention as the rest of a learning experience. It’s the dirty word of learning and development, the we-do-it-because-we-have-to. 

However, there are much more interesting ways to think about and use assessment than just knowledge checks or quick quizzes.

Why are we so addicted to assessments?

In corporate learning and development, assessments are most often used to “prove” that the learning “worked”.

When learning is being delivered to hundreds or even thousands of learners, there needs to be a clear and automated way to demonstrate that the desired outcomes have been achieved. Executives outside the L&D department (understandably) want to see a return on the time and money spent on the project, while compliance officers want to know that they can tick the necessary boxes.

Unfortunately, it’s far quicker and easier to point to 100% completion and pass rates for courses and assessments than it is to embed L&D members in departments before and after the training to measure behavior change.

However, poorly designed courses and assessments can easily obscure poor achievement of outcomes. Simple knowledge recall does not equal behavior change, and with enough intuition and opportunities to retake an assessment, any learner can eventually pass a multiple choice quiz.

So, how else can we use assessment?

A curly-haired young woman in a yellow turtleneck looks down at a sheet of paper she is holding.

Assessment as learning

Assessment does not have to be simply a measurement of learning.

Instead, assessment can be used as a learning experience in itself. Here’s how.

Structured, timely feedback

First, by including knowledge check questions throughout the learning experience instead of confining them to the end of the course, learners can discover if they have properly understood the most recent concepts. 

Passing these questions can give learners confidence and satisfaction as they progress throughout the course, while failing a question can indicate to the learner that they need to double check their understanding before the final test.

Gentle, informative feedback is critical to this process. Learners may not have the time or willingness to revisit a whole section of content if they answered incorrectly. Therefore, feedback should be provided immediately after the question is answered that explains why incorrect answers are wrong, and why the correct answer was right. 

Withholding these explanations turns your question into a guess-and-check exercise that will only frustrate and disengage the learner who has no chance to understand the “why” of the correct answer.

Gif showing two screens in the HowToo editor for different feedback provided on assessment pass and fail.
HowToo allows you to provide different feedback screens if the learner passes or fails an assessment or question.

Application of new knowledge

Another way to use assessment as learning is by asking learners to apply the knowledge they have just read, seen or heard. 

This might look like presenting a situation or scenario and asking the learner to identify what is going wrong, or to select an appropriate course of action based on the taught concepts.

With this technique, learners must pivot from basic understanding and remembering to engage with the information through the complex thought processes of application, analysis and evaluation. 

Not only is this interesting and enjoyable for learners, but it is an effective way to boost retention and improve adoption by indicating the relevance of the information and building connection to other knowledge schemas.

Self assessment through reflection

Lastly, assessment as learning can come in the form of reflection questions. This could look like a text entry block where learners are asked to share their thoughts about the information in their own words, answering questions such as:

  • What is something new or unexpected that you learned?
  • Has your point of view on this topic changed at all? If so, how?
  • How might you change your behavior going forward?
  • Why might someone choose not to follow the right procedure?

Reflection questions are a form of meta-learning, in which learners are guided to think about their own learning process. Learners who self-reflect are actively structuring and encoding their experience in an internal schema of knowledge, radically boosting future recall and adoption.

A young woman with dark hair in a blazer is shown from behind teaching a group of adults.

Assessment for learning

Assessment can also be used for learning. Also known as formative assessment, assessment for learning draws attention to how the learning creators can learn from the results of assessments.

What does that mean? It means that instructional designers use a range of methods to understand how the learners experienced the course, such as:

  • Assessment pass marks.
  • Average number of assessment attempts.
  • Qualitative feedback forms.
  • Conversations with participants and their managers.

They then use this understanding to inform their future projects or refine existing projects.

Think differently about assessment

Assessment can be a far more useful tool than just an end-of-experience knowledge check. When structured correctly, it can be a powerful method of extending and solidifying learning for the learner.

Now it’s your chance to reflect: How might you change your approach to assessment in your next project?

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Aug 24, 2022

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