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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Limitations of student-driven formative assessment in a clinical clerkship. A randomised controlled trial

Edward J Palmer12* and Peter G Devitt2

Author Affiliations

1 Centre for Learning and Professional Development, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

2 Discipline of Surgery, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, Australia

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BMC Medical Education 2008, 8:29  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-8-29

Published: 11 May 2008



Teachers strive to motivate their students to be self-directed learners. One of the methods used is to provide online formative assessment material. The concept of formative assessment and use of these processes is heavily promoted, despite limited evidence as to their efficacy.


Fourth year medical students, in their first year of clinical work were divided into four groups. In addition to the usual clinical material, three of the groups were provided with some form of supplementary learning material. For two groups, this was provided as online formative assessment. The amount of time students spent on the supplementary material was measured, their opinion on learning methods was surveyed, and their performance in summative exams at the end of their surgical attachments was measured.


The performance of students was independent of any educational intervention imposed by this study. Despite its ready availability and promotion, student use of the online formative tools was poor.


Formative learning is an ideal not necessarily embraced by students. If formative assessment is to work students need to be encouraged to participate, probably by implementing some form of summative assessment.