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BMC Med Educ. 2014 Jan 9;14:8. doi: 10.1186/1472-6920-14-8.

The assessment of a structured online formative assessment program: a randomised controlled trial.

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School of Education, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia.



Online formative assessment continues to be an important area of research and methods which actively engage the learner and provide useful learning outcomes are of particular interest. This study reports on the outcomes of a two year study of medical students using formative assessment tools.


The study was conducted over two consecutive years using two different strategies for engaging students. The Year 1 strategy involved voluntary use of the formative assessment tool by 129 students. In Year 2, a second cohort of 130 students was encouraged to complete the formative assessment by incorporating summative assessment elements into it. Outcomes from pre and post testing students around the formative assessment intervention were used as measures of learning. To compare improvement scores between the two years a two-way Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) model was fitted to the data.


The ANOVA model showed that there was a significant difference in improvement scores between students in the two years (mean improvement percentage 19% vs. 38.5%, p < 0.0001). Students were more likely to complete formative assessment items if they had a summative component. In Year 2, the time spent using the formative assessment tool had no impact on student improvement, nor did the number of assessment items completed.


The online medium is a valuable learning resource, capable of providing timely formative feedback and stimulating student-centered learning. However the production of quality content is a time-consuming task and careful consideration must be given to the strategies employed to ensure its efficacy. Course designers should consider the potential positive impact summative components to formative assessment may have on student engagement and outcomes.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]
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