Foto Nils Kohn
Foto Nils Kohn

How do you make a formative assignment succeed? Nils Kohn shares his 'Good Practice'

In the 'Good Practice' section, teachers discuss a new technique or innovation they have tried out in their teaching. This is deliberately different from a 'Best Practice' as innovations are for learning from. This time, Nils Kohn explains how he applied formative practice by letting students make up their own exam questions.

"Students wanted more interaction and more opportunity to test their knowledge during the course." Tells Nils. "For this, we developed a formative exercise where students formulate one exam question after each lecture and review three questions from other students. We used the SmashMedicine platform for this."  

Research shows that thinking about possible exam questions helps students better understand and remember lecture material (Lakhtakia et al., 2022; Walsh et al., 2016). "With four lectures and a hundred students, it additionally provides students with four hundred questions to practise with. Teachers can then have some of the questions reflected in the exam, which creates a win-win situation!" says Nils.  

Allowing students to think about possible exam questions helps them to better understand and remember the material.

The time investment was difficult to estimate in advance, so a student assistant was brought in for support. "This allowed us to try it out without the risk of an excessive workload. The student assistant managed the platform and gave feedback on all submitted questions." This was possible through the small-scale teaching innovation grant 

A Desired Difficulty

Students found the assignment difficult, according to Nils. "The students had to come up with not only one question but also four multiple-choice answers, which it required quite an advanced understanding of the material. Students found coming up with three 'wrong' answers particularly difficult and 'pointless'. We often see this with formative assignments: in the short term, it feels ineffective, but in the long term, you learn more. We call this a 'desired difficulty' in the professional field." 

Unfortunately, this meant that the bulk of the questions were insufficient to use in the mid-term mini-exam. As a result, participation dropped dramatically afterwards. "Students saw that the questions they were practising with were not representative of the exam and no longer saw the point." In addition, they found out that the formative assignment was not compulsory. "We had left that uncertain on purpose," Nils confesses, laughing. Participation dropped from around 60% to 10% by the end of the course.  

Making Formative Practice Work

If Nils would give colleagues one tip, it is to really integrate formative assignments into the course: "You can substantiate something theoretically all you want, but formative action only works if it fits well into the course. If students don't see the added value, they don't do it. After all, the workload for students is high." Nils stresses. "If you add something extra to your course, take something else away. Even if it is a lot of fun or educational." 

If you add something extra to your course, take something else away.

Next year, Nils will build on the experience he has gained. "In any case, we will leave out the SmashMedicine tool, which cost the student assistant far too much time." He would like to continue the formative assignment but in a modified form. "I want to replace the multiple-choice question with having them formulate an open-ended question. In addition, I am investigating whether we can give students who complete the assignment a bonus point on the exam. Hopefully that will help." 

Contact information

Nils Kohn

Organizational unit
Faculty of Social Sciences