Learning science researchers have a wealth of knowledge about how to teach effectively online. Yet faculty and instructional designers typically do not have access to this research, which tends to be hidden in specialized research journals. Even if practitioners seek out research, it’s often shrouded in jargon and lacking in practical application. Let’s take a look at a simple example of how to apply research to practice in online courses.

The ultimate goal of any course is for students to gain new knowledge and apply it later when asked to solve problems. We often use tests and quizzes to assess learner progress; however, research tells us that we can also use them as powerful learning experiences. Asking students to retrieve information during a quiz or test increases the likelihood it will be recalled and applied in the future. Researchers call this the “testing effect.”

If you’re looking for ways to improve learning in your online courses, consider the creative use of embedded mini‑assessments. Here are five actionable tips on how to take advantage of the testing effect to improve learning outcomes:

1. Embed questions into course material: As students move through the content, prompt them with active response questions. These could be close‑ended multiple choice questions or mini‑learning activities framed as knowledge checks.

2. Give immediate feedback on incorrect answers: It’s not enough to include questions that simply tell the learners if they answered correctly or not. Make sure the answers provide corrective feedback, which studies have shown improves retention. Many software applications allow you to easily add informative feedback to online quiz questions.

3. Encourage the review of critical material: Taking the testing‑effect principle a step further, recent research has shown the promise of “test potentiated learning,” which is when a learner answers a question incorrectly and is immediately prompted to restudy the relevant material. As a result, students tend to have better retention and deeper understanding of the restudied material.

4. Provide creative discussion forums: Use tools built into learning management systems to incorporate multiple low‑stakes questions that students can use to self‑assess and reflect. You can even ask them to provide personal examples of the content covered.

5. Include a variety of question styles and formats to encourage learning: Be creative and add fun elements to quiz‑based learning activities. Explore gamification strategies to turn multiple‑choice questions into fun challenges. Include characters, story elements and formats from popular games.


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