What is the difference between an exercise and an assessment?

Even a formative assessment is basically looking backwards, to what has already been learnt or achieved. In my book, exercises are ways of setting an agenda, of raising issues which can then be explored in more detail, of looking forwards. Of course, this is not incompatible with assessment, and the terms don't matter much anyway.

The page links below will take you to descriptions of a few exercises which meet my definition, with a few remarks about how to make them work most effectively, born of bitter experience! The list is not of course exhaustive, but each one represents a "family" of exercises which can be elaborated for your own purposes, related in this case to a revised version of Bloom's taxonomy.


Musical Mnemonics




Skeletal cases

Role Play



Evaluate What if...? So what...?

If you can't create your own, how do you presume to teach at this level?! 

...and more generally


Exercises within lectures

The Basic Rules

  1. Make sure that the instructions are clear. If students can possibly misunderstand, they will. Time spent trying to explain the procedure, again and yet again, is time wasted. Written instructions on a handout or OHT indicate that the exercise has been planned in advance and engender confidence. (Of course, there is also scope for spontaneous ones, too.)      
  2. Make sure that the outcomes of the exercise will be relevant to the learning even if it does not "go well". Exercises are usually open-ended, so you have to work with whatever they produce. 
  3. Always give value to students' efforts. This may take the form of comments and using the ideas in a plenary session, or marking any work produced, but it is a strange feature of the culture of courses that even sophisticated students are likely to feel that their effort has not been worthwhile unless it has received the legitimation of the teacher's recognition.

There are of course thousands of exercises out there on the net. Use Google below to search for them in your own subject. But remember that the effectiveness of any exercise is contextual. You can't just pick it off the shelf and expect it to work well; you need to adopt and then adapt it to your own context and your own practice. Otherwise you will just be going through the motions rather than using it with conviction.

(Revised 23 October 2015)

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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