As faculty, we spend countless hours deciding how to assess whether or not students achieve our learning outcomes for the course. The most common assessment approach is testing, and this can be a very effective and efficient way to assess the level of learning that took place. This approach of measuring ultimate achievement levels is considered summative assessment.

However, the value of testing goes above and beyond this traditional use. There has been a significant body of research that shows that testing is a MEMORY tool. For instance, Karpicke and Roediger (2006) conducted research that showed that students who practiced retrieving information (the activity that happens during a test) were able to better retain information. This powerful studying approach is unfortunately underutilized. Quizzes and tests can be used to help students LEARN the material and to provide incredibly valuable feedback to the professor about which concepts students are grasping and which ones are confusing or challenging. This feedback can then be used to guide our teaching practices. This approach to testing is called formative assessment.

Researchers such as Ari (2009) and Dobson (2008) have shown that students who complete quizzes perform much better on final exams (the “outcome” or summative assessment). In fact, giving students the opportunity to take quizzes over and over again until the point of mastery may assist students with mastering the content (Rawson & Dunlosky, 2012).

So why isn’t this effective tool being more utilized in colleges? Some faculty members are concerned about grade inflation and academic standards if we allow students to re-take quizzes. My response to this concern is that if the goal is learning, we need to use research-based strategies that increase learning. We can simply not count the quizzes as a significant portion of their final grade, making the formative assessment quizzes low stakes (minimal credit) assignments. Finding the “right” percentage is of course challenging because we need to balance grade inflation issues with motivational issues. If the portion of the grade is too minimal, the risk is that students will not complete the quizzes or get the maximum benefit from them. Another concern often relates to time. Quizzing can take up valuable class time. Here, on-line testing has come to the rescue! We can easily set up on-line quizzing in our course management systems (even if it is an in-person class!) or can use publisher websites such as Aplia or MindTap where quizzes are already built into the system. Publisher websites are particularly helpful when they direct students to the text for more studying in between quiz opportunities. As discussed by Rawson and Dunlosky (2012), a combination of testing and studying leads to the best academic results!

An additional benefit of frequent testing is that it provides valuable feedback to students about their progress in the course. Feedback motivates us and also can serve as a tool to help us self-regulate our learning based on objective vs. subjective feedback about our performance.

In summary, use online quizzing as a learning tool. Not only will the quizzing itself increase student learning, you can also use statistics on student performance to shape your lectures and lessons, which will further enhance learning. Combining multiple retrieval practices with effective studying practices can lead to amazing results!


Ari, A. (2009). The effect of quizzing on learning as a tool of assessment. Electronic Journal of Social Sciences, 8(27), 202-210.

Dobson, J. L. (2008). The use of formative online quizzes to enhance class preparation and scores on summative exams. Advances in Physiology Education, 32297-302. doi:10.1152/advan.90162.2008

Rawson, K., & Dunlosky, J. (2012). When is practice testing most effective for improving the durability and efficiency of student learning?. Educational Psychology Review, 24(3), 419-435. doi:10.1007/s10648-012-9203-1

Roediger III H, Karpicke J. The power of testing memory basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science (Wiley-Blackwell) [serial online]. September 2006;1(3):181-210. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 27, 2013.

Dr. Christine Harrington is a Professor of Psychology and Student Success and Director of the Center for the Enrichment of Learning and Teaching at Middlesex County College in NJ. She is also the author of a new research-based freshman seminar textbook, Student Success in College: Doing What Works! Prior to teaching full time, she worked in the Counseling and Career Services Department, providing disability services and career, academic, and personal counseling. You can also visit Dr. Christine Harrington’s website.


Have you used online quizzes in a similar manner? Share your experiences in the comments section below, or submit them to [email protected].