Assessments may influence students’ learning approaches but not always in expected ways

iStock_000020536048XSmallAn important challenge for educators is fostering students’ use of deep learning strategies such as making inferences, thinking critically and analyzing and synthesizing ideas and information. Research suggests that assessments that demand use of higher-order thinking skills can help stimulate deep approaches to learning and help discourage a “surface” approach to learning. This study explores what happens to a group of students who are exposed to formative assessments that demand use of deep-learning skills.

Study: “Students’ assessment preferences and approaches to learning: Can formative assessment make a difference?” by David Gijbels and Filip Duchy, Educational Studies, December 200,6 Volume 32, Number 4, pp. 399-409. 

Conclusion: Students who have direct experiences with formative assessments encouraging deeper approaches to learning, actually showed higher preferences for more surface-learning and assessment approaches, concludes recent research in Educational Studies. These students also changed their learning approaches in favor of more surface approaches. These findings are in line with other research findings, the authors report, suggesting that inducing a deep approach to learning with assessments is problematic. Other factors in the learning environment could account for these results.

Main research question: What is the relationship between students’ assessment preferences and their approach to learning? Do students’ assessment preferences change when they have experienced a formative mode of assessment? Do students adopt a deeper approach to learning when they have experienced a formative mode of assessment?

Participants: 108 first-year university students in a criminology course (a total of 298 students participated in pre-test and 221 students in post-test)

Method: To characterize their approach to learning (deep vs. surface approach), students took the Revised two-factor study process questionnaire. Surface learning approaches refer to student intentions to learn by memorizing and reproducing the factual content of study materials. Deep learning approaches refer to student intentions to understand and construct the meaning of the content to be learned. Students completed group assignments that were used as a formative mode of assessment. The four group assignments were as follows: 1) Define a scientific, researchable topic; 2) develop a step-by-plan for searching for resources; 3) search for relevant resources according to the plan; and 4) formulate a research question based on the resources.


• Unless difficulties in the learning environment are resolved, formative assessments promoting higher order thinking skills are unlikely to influence students’ learning approaches.

• Assessment of students’ achievement is seen as an important factor in encouraging students to adopt these kind of learning strategies.

• Students generally shift between surface and deep approaches to learning to suit the assessment demands of their courses.

• It may be difficult to “induce” a deep approach to learning if it is not already there.

Findings: In general, students with learning preferences for deeper approaches to learning preferred assessments that demanded use of higher order thinking skills. Students with a surface approach to learning were less likely to prefer assessments that featured higher-order thinking tasks.

This study found that formative assessments encouraging higher-order thinking skills had the opposite effect on many students’ learning and assessment preferences after they had an experience with such assessments.

Other factors in the learning environment could help account for these results, the researchers say. Previous research by Nijhuis et al. (2005) indicates that three elements of the learning environment influence students’ learning strategies: clarity of goals, appropriateness of the workload and usefulness of the literature. Other research has shown that the quality of the learning environment and the educational setting influence students’ learning approaches. Heavy course workload and other features of the learning environment such as structure or feedback can deter students from pursuing deeper approaches to learning.

From Assessment for Learning: 12 recent studies on formative assessment and aligning assessments with learning goals, published by Educational Research Newsletter August 2007.


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