Why do students not engage with formative assessments, and how can we change that?

Research has shown that formative feedback, when done well:

  • Is a low-risk way of learning from the feedback received (Sadler, 1989).
  • Allows for fine-tuning of student understanding of goals (Boud, 2000; Nicol & Macfarlane-Dick, 2006).
  • Aids lecturers with adapting the teaching to meet the needs of the students (Hattie, 2009).
  • Encourages and helps distribute student effort (Gibbs & Simpson, 2005).

Despite these positive effects formative assessment has on student learning, a common teacher complaint is that students don’t always complete formative assessments. That is, students may not engage with online discussion boards, won’t provide answers in class, struggle to complete and submit practice tests, etc.

Without generating this input information, the teacher is unable to give meaningful, well-considered formative feedback regarding student progress and is unable to diagnose potential misunderstandings. So why do students not engage with formative assessments, and how can that we change that?


While there are a multitude of reasons why students may not engage with formative assessments, recent research by Jessop (2019) identified the following as some of the most commonly cited reasons:

  • Students are not aware of what their teachers are trying to achieve through assessment
  • Feels optional
  • Too many competing priorities, bunching of assessments
  • No need – they have the mark and they’ve passed!

Furthermore, this same research continued by asking students (n=32) to self-report what factors are important for them when choosing to participate in formative assessment. The responses were as follows:

  • “give quick and useful feedback” (n=22)
  • “make it meaningful” (n=19)
  • “do it in class” (n=15)
  • “link it to the summative” (n=11)
  • “make it collaborative” (n=10)
  • “require it” (n=9)
  • “reduce summative load” (n=6)
  • “give it a grade” (n=2)
  • “make it a public activity” (n=0)

Five Top Tips

To design more engaging formative assessments, reflect on the five questions below:

  1. How explicit are you being about the purpose(s) and educational value of these assessments?

  2. Do students understand the benefits of completing these formative assessments?

  3. Do the students feel a sense of ownership of the work being produced?

  4. Are there other competing/conflicting demands on the student at this time and if so, how can this be minimised?

  5. At what point in the learning/semester are we doing the assessment?

Reflection on these questions will help you to look at formative assessment through a student-centered lens, reinforce and communicate the value of these formative tasks to your students.


Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 151–167. https://doi.org/10.1080/713695728

Gibbs, G., & Simpson, C. (2005). Conditions Under Which Assessment Supports Students’ Learning. Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, 1, 3–31.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. SAGE Publications.

Jessop, T. (2019). Changing the assessment narrative [Education]. https://www.slideshare.net/Tansy1962/changing-the-assessment-narrative

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199–218. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075070600572090