A Practical Guide to
Digital Formative Assessment with OneNote
in Higher Education

Project team: Monika Bader (project leader), Sarah Hoem Iversen, Zoltan Varga, Tony Burner

Project partners: Prof. Simon Borg and Center for New Media at Western Norway University of Applied Sciences.

Participating institutions: Western Norway University of Applied Sciences, University of South-Eastern Norway.

Project funder: https://norgesuniversitetet.no/prosjekt/implementing-formative-assessment

Project blog: https://blogg.hvl.no/formative-assessment/


Aims of the Guide

The recommendations in this Guide are based on the experiences we have gathered from a two-year project that focused on implementing digital formative assessment in higher education courses at two teacher education institutions in Norway. The project was funded by the Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation and Quality Enhancement in Higher Education, and the participating institutions. Our aim in the project was to explore ways in which formative assessment can be enhanced in the courses we were teaching, and at the same time exploit the possibilities that the use of digital technology makes available. The digital tool we used was OneNote Class Notebook.  It is important to stress that using this digital tool was a way of supporting formative assessment, rather than a goal in itself.

Our purpose in writing this Guide is to share the lessons we have learned throughout this process and thereby assist higher education professionals in implementing digital formative assessment in their courses. We believe that the experiences we have gained might be valuable for a broad range of higher education courses, though the recommendations are most suitable for courses that have fewer than 50 students. We invite higher education instructors to reflect on aspects that might be useful in their own educational context, and modify and incorporate these in their own teaching.

How to use the guide?

The Guide is divided into three major parts. Part I gives the relevant background, including a brief overview of the theoretical underpinnings and key concepts, as well as some information about the courses in which this project was implemented. Part II and Part III are more practical in nature, offering concrete examples of how we integrated digital formative assessment in our teaching and the lessons we’ve learned. Part II focuses on formative assessment specifically, while Part III addresses the use of digital tools. We aimed at making the different parts self-contained and we invite readers to jump to the parts they’re  interested in. We’ve included hyperlinks to assist the reader in navigating to the relevant points.

Our context

The recommendations in this Guide draw on our experiences from courses taught at two teacher education institutions in Norway. These were courses for pre-service teachers specializing in teaching English as a foreign language. At one of the participating institutions the relevant English specialization course is a 30-credit course for students in their 4th year of studies. At the other institution, the relevant English specialization is offered as two 15-credit courses that are running in the 1st year of studies. All the courses include a number of obligatory assignments that the students need to successfully complete in the course of the term to be eligible for the exam. The courses make use of different exam forms:

  1. 30-credit course: portfolio and an oral exam
  2. The first 15-credit course:  portfolio
  3. The second 15-credit course: written school exam

Most of the concrete examples and illustrations used in this Guide are based on the implementation of the relevant changes in the first 15-credit course. The reason for this is that this particular course runs both in the autumn and the spring term of the same year. This enabled us to trial the same changes repeatedly and with different students, and make adjustments accordingly, gaining thereby a deeper understanding of the issues involved. However, when making general recommendations, we draw on our experiences from all the courses mentioned.

As the focus in this project was on formative, rather than summative assessment, it was important for us that the strategies we employed were relevant for all the courses despite the different summative assessment practices (portfolio exam, written school exam). We hope that readers will find these suggestions useful regardless of the exam forms employed in their courses. This is not to suggest that there is no relationship between formative and summative assessment. Rather, what we wish to highlight is simply that small steps which can significantly contribute to enhancing formative assessment can be undertaken without necessarily making changes in existing summative assessment practices.

Part I - Background

What is Formative assessment?

Formative assessment has been high on the educational agenda, especially since the work of the Assessment Reform Group in the United Kingdom from 1989 to 2002. Their definition of formative assessment is “the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers, to identify where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there” (Assessment Reform Group 2002).

Following the framework outlined in Wiliam and Thompson 2007 (see also Wiliam 2011), formative assessment can be conceptualized as consisting of five key strategies:

  1. Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success
  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward
  4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another
  5. Activating learners as the owners of their own learning.

Underpinning the framework is one “big idea” that assessment is formative to the extent that the evidence it provides is used to adapt teaching and learning to better meet learner needs.

It is evident from the range of these strategies involved that formative assessment involves more than just a shift in evaluation practices. It requires a reconsideration of traditional roles of the teacher and learner and a more active involvement of students in the learning process.

Why do formative assessment?

(a) Because it can have a substantial impact on student learning

There is considerable research evidence that formative assessment practices, when integrated in a proper manner in a day-to-day classroom activities, have a substantial impact on student learning (see Wiliam 2011 for an overview of research literature). John Hattie conducted a large meta-analysis to establish the relative effect of various instructional interventions on student achievement and found that 'providing formative evaluation' was one of the top five strategies teachers could use (see Hattie 2012).

(b) Because it might increase student satisfaction

Student dissatisfaction with assessment practices, and particularly with the quantity and the quality of the feedback, is well documented through student surveys in Norway (Bakken et.al. 2018), as well as internationally (see for instance Soilemetzidis, et. al 2014 for results of a large scale survey in the UK). In light of these considerations, it can be argued that an improvement in formative assessment practices would enhance the educational experience of higher education students.

Why engage in pedagogical innovation?

(a) Because it offers an opportunity for professional development

If you are considering making changes in your teaching practices, such as taking steps to enhance the focus on formative assessment and/or digital tools, there may be benefits to such a process that go beyond promoting student learning and satisfaction. Such a process requires course instructors to reflect on their practice, engage with the relevant literature, and implement and evaluate changes, all of which contribute to their professional development as higher education instructors.

(b) Because it offers an opportunity for combining teaching and research

Through a careful design and planning, a focus on pedagogical innovation can also offer a rich source of data to be used for research purposes. In such a way, the two main responsibilities of higher education instructors, namely teaching and research, can be successfully combined.

Formative assessment - extra work?

Concerns that formative assessment requires too much classroom time and limits the amount of the curriculum instructors are able to cover have been documented in the literature (Morgan and Watson, 2002; Carless 2005). In our experience, some of these concerns can be dispelled by making formative assessment an integral part of the course, tightly linked to different course activities. It is also advisable to take small steps when introducing formative assessment, rather than making a big overhaul of the course. Such an approach is more likely to feel manageable and sustainable over time. Maybe you are already implementing a number of strategies without considering them as forms of formative assessment? We’ve used Wiliam and Thompson’s (2007) framework of formative assessment to identify aspects of our courses where the focus on formative assessment could be enhanced. We’ve realized that many of the mentioned strategies were in fact already present in our courses but needed some adjustments to make them serve the purpose of formative assessment more efficiently.

Part II - Implementing Formative Assessment

A number of conceptual frameworks over the past few decades have outlined the key elements of formative assessment. One example of such a framework is the one outlined in Wiliam and Thompson (2007) (see also Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006). In this part of the Guide, we approach such models from the instructor’s perspective and based on the experiences we’ve gathered when introducing different aspects of such models in our teaching, we highlight considerations that we found particularly significant for successful implementation and sustainability of formative assessment practices. We will address the following considerations:

  1. Shared understanding
  2. Planning
  3. Teacher Feedback
  4. Collecting evidence to inform instruction
  5. Involving students
  6. Managing time

Shared understanding

Students and instructors need a shared understanding of the role and value of formative assessment and feedback.

An important part of working with formative assessment is raising awareness of the role and value of formative assessment and feedback. Instructors should get a sense of what preconceptions students have when it comes to feedback and assessment, and share their own understanding of formative assessment and feedback with their students. Co-instructors should discuss what makes formative assessment effective and constructive and agree on shared strategies for providing formative feedback. (See: Teacher feedback)

Students and instructors need a shared understanding of learning intentions and assessment criteria.

Instructors should make task assessment criteria available to the students and set aside time for students to discuss the criteria and suggest revisions and areas that need clarification. (See: Managing collaborative work - Collaborating with students)

Making the assessment criteria available also allows the students to use them when writing and revising their assignments. Knowing the learning intentions and what is expected of a task or assignment allows students to take charge of the learning process. Transparent assessment criteria also make the feedback process easier for the instructors. (See: Teacher feedback)


It is crucial to consider how and when formative assessment practices can be integrated when planning a course.

Higher education instructors are typically under a lot of pressure to ensure that a broad range of curriculum aims are covered within a relatively short period of time. In addition, there are usually many formal requirements related to summative assessment in higher education courses. Within this context, integrating formative assessment practices may seem challenging, even for instructors who appreciate the value of such practices. Careful planning is therefore essential in order to ensure the successful integration of formative assessment.

Below is a model we developed for one of our courses as a way of addressing this challenge. The curriculum aims, the number of obligatory assignments the students had to complete, and the exam form were set in the course plan. Within those frames we explored the possibilities of integrating formative assessment and decided to focus our attention on obligatory assignments that the students had to complete in the course of the term. Students always receive feedback on their obligatory assignments, so providing feedback on these assignments did not increase our workload compared to the past courses. However, what we did think about more carefully this time was how to make the most out of these feedback opportunities. We considered when the feedback would be provided and by whom (teachers and/or peers) (see: Give students opportunities to provide peer feedback), the quality of the feedback we provided (see: Teacher feedback), and how we could encourage the students to make use of the feedback (see: It is important to create opportunities for students to use feedback) . We also considered how we, as course instructors, could gather evidence of student learning (see: Gaining insight into individual students’ work: Student Notebooks) and use the evidence gathered to adapt our teaching during the course. At this planning stage, this was done by leaving some flexibility in the semester plan to ensure that we could return to problematic issues and address them in class. (See: Sharing content)

A course model.
Course model

Teacher Feedback

Feedback is the key ingredient of formative assessment. Feedback should aim to reduce the gap between the student’s current level of performance and the desired learning goal. It is important to realize that simply providing feedback does not guarantee learning improvement. There are numerous examples in the literature where feedback has failed to yield the desired effect and a lot has been written about conditions that should be met to make the provision of feedback effective (see for instance, López-Pastor and Sicilia-Camacho 2017, Nicol and Debra Macfarlane‐Dick 2006). The following considerations have emerged as important during our implementation.

It is important to clarify expectations related to feedback.

What counts as ‘feedback’, when the feedback will be provided and by whom, and how the students are expected to make use of the feedback, are all important issues to address. Such discussions will contribute to developing a shared understanding of the role and value of feedback in the learning process. (See: Shared understanding)

The significance of these considerations became gradually apparent to us. While reading student reflection notes during the course, we quickly realized that although they considered written commentary they received on their assignments as feedback, many other occasions where feedback was provided passed unnoticed. These included oral feedback provided by the instructor to the whole class, groups, or individuals (even when this type of feedback was related to the assignments), written feedback on low-stakes assignments such as home tasks (see: Gaining insight into individual students’ work: Student Notebooks), oral feedback students provided each other during group activities and collaborative tasks, as well as during organized oral feedback sessions. Consequently, the students’ perceptions regarding the amount and nature of the feedback provided ended up being significantly different from ours.

It is important to continuously reflect on the quality of the feedback provided.

There is a considerable body of literature on what characterizes high-quality feedback (see Hattie and Timperley 2007, Lizzio and Wilson 2008, Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick 2006), which can serve as a guide when developing appropriate feedback strategies (the guidelines we followed are given below). We got many ideas about how our feedback could be improved by reading our students’ reflections on the feedback that they’ve received (see Bader et al 2019). Discussions with co-instructors have also been extremely helpful for improving our feedback practices.

On the basis of the current literature and our professional experiences, we set up and followed a set of guidelines when providing feedback to the students. We also considered how digital tools can support our feedback practices (see: Feedback). Student reflections revealed that students were overall very satisfied with the quality of the feedback they received. When providing feedback, we tried to ensure that:

a) The feedback we provide is selective.

Making too many corrections and trying to address all issues may be overwhelming for students and make it difficult for them to decide which issues to prioritize. We therefore provided feedback on a few issues we considered crucial, and disregarded others. We drew on the shared success criteria in deciding which issues to concentrate on. Focusing on a few selected issues enabled us to go into more detail, and thus provide clearer and more helpful comments, for instance not only highlighting the problematic issue, but explaining how it fails to meet the set standards and how the student might work towards improving it.

We informed the students that they wouldn’t be receiving comprehensive feedback and that they needed to assume responsibility for identifying other aspects potentially in need of improvement. We encouraged them to make use of other resources available to them, such as reference materials and course readings, library resources, as well as their fellow students. In their reflections, many students noted that they found discussions with fellow students extremely helpful. Many also stressed the significance of the knowledge gained during their teaching practice in schools and advice of their practice teachers.

b) The feedback is specific and informative

We aimed at providing comments that were specific and informative, rather than general and vague. To achieve this, we often referred to specific examples in the student text. With digitally produced texts, this can be easily accomplished by selecting and numbering, underlining, color-coding or copy-pasting the relevant part of the text. Frequently, we also offered guidance on how to improve, without providing the solution. At the same time, we tried to keep our comments concise. Given that we only focused on a couple of selected issues our commentary was not longer than in the past, when we gave more comprehensive feedback.

c) The feedback is given in a respectful and encouraging tone, without sounding overly critical d) The feedback highlights positive aspects in the student’s performance

We commented on aspects in the student’s performance that we found positive. We aimed at making the positive comments as specific as possible. For instance, instead of saying that the introduction of their essay was good, we were explicit about what was good about it. Student reflection notes revealed that such positive comments were greatly appreciated and played a role not only in boosting their confidence and making the task seem manageable, but also in reaffirming for them which aspects of their task responses satisfied the set standards. Students may be unsure about what they’ve produced, and may need confirmation that they’re on the right track.

It is important to create opportunities for students to use feedback.

It may seem like stating the obvious, but feedback that is never used cannot be effective. While students bear much of the responsibility for using the feedback, there are a number of strategies (see: Involving the students - Encourage students to make use of the feedback they receive) that instructors can employ to encourage the students to use the feedback.

When planning the courses, we carefully considered how we might encourage the students to make use of the feedback. In courses that had portfolio assessment, the possibility to revise and resubmit the assignments after receiving feedback was an important motivating factor. In all the courses, we set aside classroom time to work on the feedback. During that time students could ask for clarification, start revising their assignments, and/or write down their thoughts/reflections on the feedback.

Collecting evidence to inform instruction

Instructors should actively seek evidence of student learning and use that information to adapt their teaching.

The definition of formative assessment (see: What is formative assessment) makes it clear that this is a process which yields information to be used not only by students to improve their learning, but also by instructors to improve their teaching. Assessment techniques implemented during the course provide immediate feedback to the instructors on what works and what doesn’t, thus enabling them to adapt their teaching to suit the students’ needs.

We implemented this aspect of formative assessment by continuously seeking opportunities for collecting evidence of learning and considering the implications the collected evidence had for the way we teach. Some concrete examples are provided below.

  1. Students’ performance on obligatory assignments provided valuable insight into their learning. The fact that these were submitted in the course of the term gave us an opportunity to address the issues that proved problematic. We also reflected on the implications that these observations might have for the way we prepare students for these assignments in the future.
  2. Students were also given the opportunity to share their responses to low-stakes tasks, such as home preparation tasks or activities completed during the class (see: Gaining insight into individual students’ work: Student Notebooks). Though not all students made use of this opportunity on a regular basis, many did. Skimming through these responses gave us valuable information about where the students were in their learning and what kind of support they needed.
  3. Digital tools proved extremely useful in arranging and tracking group work, both in class and out of class (see: Managing collaborative work). During class group work, we could track the progress of each group and offer support to the groups that needed it the most.
  4. Student reflection notes proved to be a valuable source of information for understanding not only where the students were in their learning but also why they were there and how best to help them move forward. Students’ perceptions and reflections gave us useful insight into our own teaching and feedback practices.

Involving the students

Students need to be actively involved for formative assessment to be effective.

Formative assessment is a two-way street, in the sense that both instructors and students need to be actively involved in the process. Students have to be active in submitting and revising their work, collaborating with peers, seeking help and clarification, and using and providing feedback. However, it is not a given that students will always be active or engaged in all the different stages of this process. Below are some of our suggestions for promoting student engagement, based on our experiences.

Design your courses with student engagement in mind.
  • The process nature of our course, with repeated cycles of assignment submission, revision and resubmission (see: Course model) was designed to involve students in the process of feedback and revision.
  • When planning the course, we designed success criteria for obligatory assignments and assessment criteria for the exams, but we also asked for student involvement in commenting on and suggesting revisions of these criteria, and budgeted class time for this purpose.
  • When planning the course, we considered when and how peer feedback would be provided and how to prepare students for giving feedback.
Encourage students to make use of the feedback they receive.

Feedback that is not used is never formative. We tried out various strategies in order to encourage students to make use of the feedback they received. These included:

  • Setting aside class time for students to work on the feedback and ask the instructors for clarification and elaboration, as not understanding feedback can prevent students from using it.
  • Giving students the opportunity to resubmit their work, making the feedback more meaningful.
  • Asking students to reflect (in writing) on the feedback they received, the revisions they had made or were planning on making, and on the resubmitted assignments.
Give students opportunities to provide peer feedback.

Professional literature highlights peer feedback as a way of involving students in assessment practices. Being asked to provide peer feedback also gives students a different perspective on the role, value, and quality of feedback, and a better understanding of assessment criteria. However, reaping the benefits of peer feedback requires careful consideration of how peer feedback is implemented, how much preparation the students need, and the students’ attitudes towards peer assessment.

We included peer feedback in connection with two of the obligatory assignments in our course design. For one of the assignments, peer feedback was the only individualized feedback the students received (though we provided oral feedback in class addressing the issues that were common to many). For the other assignment, the students received both teacher and peer feedback, with teachers focusing on content and structure and peers focusing on language.

To prepare students for giving peer feedback, the importance and role of peer assessment was discussed in class, and students were given guidelines on how peer feedback should be provided. Students also practiced analyzing texts for issues in language and using different feedback strategies. The use of digital tools made it much easier to manage peer feedback. (See: Managing collaborative work - Peer feedback)

The inclusion of peer feedback yielded mixed responses from students. The quality of the feedback varied greatly, which affected the students’ satisfaction with the feedback. This was particularly the case for the assignment where this was the only individualized feedback that they had received. By contrast, students were overall more positive towards the setup where both teacher and peer feedback was provided, with clearly defined areas of responsibility. Students were particularly dissatisfied with peer feedback that was overly positive, not outlining areas in need of improvement.

Managing time

In order to make formative assessment sustainable, instructors need to manage the time spent on formative assessment practices. (See: Formative assessment - extra work?.) One of the most frequent concerns instructors have relate to the amount of time spent on providing feedback. Spending time on formative feedback might seem like a tall order for higher education instructors during an already busy semester. Below are our suggestions for making feedback practices more sustainable.

Revise your current feedback practices to make them less time-consuming.

According to Dylan Wiliam (2011), feedback should be more work for the students than for the teachers. Higher education instructors can benefit from reflecting on their current assessment practices and considering how time-consuming they are. For example, are your feedback strategies comprehensive or selective? Are you giving both in-text and out-of-text comments on student assignments? Could the use of digital tools facilitate the feedback process?

In the context of our courses, focusing on every issue in students’ assignments would be too time-consuming. We used the assignment success criteria as a guide when providing feedback, which made the feedback more selective, and the feedback process quicker, easier, and more streamlined. We also decided to concentrate primarily on writing end commentaries to the students, and wrote few (if any) in-text comments. These end comments were written directly into the student’s Individual Notebooks in OneNote, next to the student’s assignment. (See: How OneNote was used…, Feedback)

Consider how extensive the tasks or assignments given to students are.

Giving assignments to groups, rather than individuals also makes the feedback process less time-consuming. If your goal is to provide formative feedback, consider giving tasks that can be more easily reviewed, or that are not too extensive. To give an example from our context, students working on an academic essay were first asked only to submit the introduction and were provided with formative feedback on this.

Limit time spent giving feedback on non-compulsory assignments.

Non-compulsory assignments and low-stakes tasks can give valuable insight into student learning, but that doesn’t mean that an instructor needs to give feedback on each of these tasks.

The Student Notebooks gave us insight into students’ work, including class preparation tasks and other non-compulsory tasks (see: Gaining insight into individual students’ work). We informed the students that they would occasionally (but not always) receive feedback on this work. Sometimes, we used the insights from these tasks to give oral feedback to the whole group, or to adjust our teaching in order to address problem areas.

Make sure your feedback matters.

Students won’t be motivated to use feedback if there is no obvious advantage to doing so. If an instructor is going to spend considerable time on feedback in a course, it’s best to make sure that this feedback matters. When feedback is an integral part of a course, the task of providing and using feedback becomes more meaningful for both the instructor and the students.

In our courses, feedback was linked to cycles of assignment submission and resubmission, with time set aside to reflect on the feedback and work on using it to revise obligatory assignments.

Part III - Using Digital Tools

Technology has the potential to enhance formative assessment practices. In this part of the Guide, we will illustrate how we have used technology to support the implementation of formative assessment, as well as the challenges we have encountered along the way. We focused on exploring the possibilities of Microsoft’s OneNote Class Notebook (https://onenoteforteachers.com/) for supporting formative assessment practices. However, the recommendations in Part II of this guide are not intrinsically linked to OneNote and could also be explored using other digital tools. Some of the issues we raise in Part III regarding the use of OneNote may also be relevant no matter which digital tool is used.

Basic requirements

To ensure successful use of OneNote, the following needs to be considered:

Both students and teachers need to have access to the chosen software.

OneNote Class Notebook is available to users who have an Office 365 subscription for education that includes OneDrive for Business. The selection of this particular tool should therefore involve an evaluation of the cost if software licenses need to be purchased.

Both students and teachers need to have access to computers at home and in class.
A reliable and relatively fast internet connection is essential for effective use of OneNote.

Important considerations before you start

The effective use of digital tools requires a certain level of digital competence among the teaching staff.

The lower the level of digital competence among the teaching staff, the more demanding the task of integrating the use of digital tools will be. Being part of the Office package, an advantage of OneNote for Office users is that its interface is similar to other Office programs, such as Word. However, it has many additional features that teachers would need to familiarize themselves with. It is also important to consider the level of institutional support available to teaching staff when it comes to the use of digital technologies.

Students need to be given time and support when learning how to use new digital tools.

It is easy to assume that students, who have grown up with computers and the Internet (“digital natives”), would welcome the increased use of digital technologies in the classroom and effortlessly adopt such technologies. However, this is often not the case (see for instance Waycott et al. 2010). In the first trial, we referred the students to online instruction videos developed by Microsoft. However, most students did not avail themselves of this opportunity to learn more about OneNote. As a result, this led to quite an ineffective use of OneNote and contributed to the negative attitudes towards this digital tool that some students expressed in their reflection notes. Navigating the online resources in search of the relevant features can also be challenging and time-consuming. Therefore, for trial 2 we made a step-by-step tutorial for the students and embedded these in Teams and OneNote. The tutorials focus on aspects of the digital tools that were used in the course.

Teachers need to share with the students the reasons for choosing particular digital tools and discuss their role and purpose in the course.

The advantages of a particular digital tool and the reasons for choosing it may be obvious to the teachers, but they won’t necessarily be obvious to the students. Our choice of OneNote as a tool was based on a careful consideration of its potential for enhancing formative assessment practices. Students’ reflection notes often revealed that they were puzzled why this particular tool was needed in addition to the learning platform that they were already required to use, and they failed to recognize the potential that was obvious to us. This at times led to negative attitudes towards the chosen technology and consequently low level of engagement.

OneNote Class Notebook - A quick overview

OneNote Class Notebook provides a platform for teachers to prepare and share instructional material and collaborate with students. It is divided into three separate sub-notebooks:

  1. Content Library - for teachers to share instructional material with the students. For students, the notebook is read-only.
  2. Collaboration Space - a notebook for all students and teachers in the class to share, edit and collaborate in.
  3. Student Notebooks - private notebooks for individual students. Teachers can access all student notebooks at any time, but students cannot see other students’ notebooks.
A screenshot from OneNote.

Once a Class Notebook is created, teachers and students can access it from any device using the OneNote app. It is also important to bear in mind that there are differences between different versions of the OneNote Class Notebook (OneNote for Windows vs OneNote for Mac, OneNote Online vs OneNote desktop application), and not all features may be available in all the versions. (See: Challenges and possible workarounds)

How OneNote was used to support formative assessment

Managing collaborative work (Collaboration Space)

The Collaboration Space in OneNote Class Notebook proved to be a very useful and practical tool for managing collaborative work.

Student collaborative projects

We used the Collaboration Space to manage students’ collaborative projects. Students were divided into groups and assigned separate pages within the Collaboration Space. Students had insight into their own work and the work of other students. In their reflection notes, many students observed that they found this aspect of OneNote particularly useful. Students also appreciated the possibility of having the authors displayed in OneNote, making it easy to spot each other’s contributions when working collaboratively. If distracting, this feature can be switched off in the View tab.

An image of a collaboration space with author initials displayed
An image of a collaboration space with author initials displayed
Group work in class

The Collaboration Space worked well for monitoring students’ work-in-progress during class and allowed us to adjust our teaching and support accordingly.

Students were divided into groups and asked to write directly into their assigned space in the Collaboration Space. The relevant pages were projected on the screen in class and as the students provided their responses these would automatically appear on the screen. The instructor could also monitor the relevant pages on their own laptop or on the classroom computer, or use their mobile devices with the OneNote app installed. This provided an immediate overview of how the different groups were progressing during the class, without the instructor having to circle the classroom looking over the students’ shoulders or asking if anyone needed help. For example, if a group was struggling to complete or even begin the task, or if a group had obviously misunderstood something, the teacher was able to quickly spot this, approach the relevant group, and offer guidance where and when it was most needed. This way of monitoring student progress also means that the less vocal students are more visible. After all, it is not a given that students who need help will always have the confidence to ask for it.

How to do this more efficiently: Co-writing in real time in the Collaboration Space presented some challenges, as OneNote Online does not sync instantly. Even a time-lag of a few seconds might mean that the text becomes jumbled together as several people try to write in the same space at the same time. See OneNote and syncing below for a workaround to this problem.

Peer feedback

The Collaboration Space in OneNote made it easier to manage peer feedback. By sharing their assignments in the Collaboration Space, peers were able to provide feedback to each other directly into OneNote. This also meant that the teachers had access to both the assignments and the peer feedback on the assignment and could evaluate the quality and quantity of the peer feedback provided. In their reflection notes, several students mentioned that this was a practical way of giving and receiving feedback from peers.

A screenshot displaying Student assignment, Peer feedback and Teacher feedback

How to do this more efficiently: Some students might initially feel shy about sharing their work and their feedback on other students’ work. Using the Collaborative Area often, both in and outside of class, goes some way towards normalizing the process of sharing your work and work-in-progress with peers. It is also important that students practiced providing peer feedback and have guidelines to follow. (See: Involving the students - give students opportunities to provide peer feedback)

Collaborating with students

The Collaboration Space can also be used for teachers’ collaboration with students. For example, we shared assessment criteria in the Collaboration Space and invited the students to revise and comment on these in class.

Gaining insight into individual students’ work (Student Notebooks)

The individual Student Notebooks in OneNote are a space for students’ individual work, in which everything that students do can be kept in one place. This includes students’ obligatory assignments alongside the peer- and teacher feedback they receive on these. However, the Student Notebook is also a space where students can keep their study notes and respond to low-stakes tasks, such as class preparation tasks. The Notebook format invites note-taking and drafting, rather than simply formal responses to tasks and assignments.

Before we started this development project, high-stakes tasks (i.e obligatory assignments and exams) were more or less the only real insight we had into individual students’ work and progress. Although we would assign low-stakes tasks, such as class preparation tasks, we had no real way of following up each students’ response to these tasks, other than addressing the whole group in class. By contrast, the Student Notebooks in OneNote opened up possibilities for increased insight into student learning by giving us access to students’ responses to low-stakes tasks. This enabled us to track students’ individual progress and adapt our teaching to meet all our students’ needs.

How to do this more efficiently: More insight equals more opportunities for feedback, but it is up to us as teachers to decide what to do with this increased insight. We informed the students on our courses up front that we would not consistently provide feedback on homework, but that we would look through their work and comment occasionally. This sporadic feedback could be very brief. Most often, a single sentence or a question next to the students’ work was enough to acknowledge their effort and push their learning forward. We used coloured font so that the feedback would be clearly visible to the student.

An image of an assignment in student notebook with teacher feedback
An image of an assignment in student notebook with teacher feedback

While the individual Student Notebooks in OneNote open up the possibility for teachers to gain insight into the low-stakes tasks and preparation work students do, this insight is only possible if students actively participate in making their learning process available to the teachers. Involving the students is therefore crucial.


OneNote is a good tool for providing feedback. Instructors can provide individualized support by typing directly in each student’s individual notebook, or can easily provide feedback on collaborative work to the groups of students or the whole class in the Collaboration Space. Peer feedback can also be easily managed by making use of the Collaboration Space where students can freely share and edit the content.

Many students in our project appreciated having their assignment and the feedback on the same page in OneNote. This saves both the students and the instructors the trouble of downloading and uploading multiple files, navigating through these or saving them locally. It also opens up for a more dialogic nature of the feedback, with instructors posing questions related to the students’ work which they can then answer on the same page.

An image of a student assignment with teacher feedback on the same OneNote page
An image of a student assignment with teacher feedback on the same OneNote page

There are different options available when giving feedback in OneNote. We have made use of the following:

  1. Typing comments next to the student’s work (see figure above)
  2. Using audio and commenting verbally as one annotates the text. There is a built-in functionality in OneNote for recording audio and video comments. We found the audio commenting most practical to use when giving shorter comments and/or when not focusing on too many issues.
    Using audio commenting
  3. Using the drawing function and writing and/or highlighting as one would do on a paper. We often used highlighting or writing in combination with typed comments. To really make the most out of this feature, one should have a touch-capable device which allows using a finger or stylus to draw and sketch on the page. Unfortunately, we did not have such devices. As drawing with the mouse can be challenging, we didn’t fully exploit the potential of this feature.
    Using the drawing function

It might be important to highlight that there is no “make comment”-tool in OneNote, similar to the one in Microsoft Word. As we generally use this feature quite frequently in Word, we found this to be quite an unfortunate oversight.

How to do this more efficiently - a couple of tips:
Consider the different options for sharing the files.

To make the provision of feedback more efficient, instructors should consider how they would like the students to share their work. There are a number of options in OneNote for sharing student work. It is important that the instructors are aware of different possibilities and can choose the option that best suits their needs. The students should also be given guidelines on how to share their assignments. When not given specific guidelines, our students have used the following options:

  1. Using a “file attachment”-option to upload and a attach a file (such as a Microsoft Word document) to the OneNote page. The file then appears as an icon that one can double-click to open and edit.
    An image of an assignment submitted as a file attachment
    An image of an assignment submitted as a file attachment
  2. Using a “file printout”-option. Inserting the file as a printout places a picture of its content on a page in OneNote.
  3. Students can write their assignments directly into the relevant OneNote page.

Out of these, the third option (writing directly into the OneNote page) is in many ways the most convenient one. When students write directly into the OneNote page, their work is automatically saved and shared - there is no need for uploading documents. It is also the preferred option if student projects include more than just the text, since basically any kind of content can be inserted into a OneNote page. Choosing this option also makes it easy to edit the submission and provide feedback on the same page. However, it is important to note that whatever students write into the OneNote page is immediately available to the teachers. Students may be unaccustomed to or feel uneasy about sharing their unfinished work with their teachers. If this is the case, students can be encouraged to copy-paste the finished text from a Word document onto a OneNote page (rather than inserting the Word document file).

Using a “file printout” option inserts a printout of the document and attaches a copy of the file at the same time (note that on the desktop version of OneNote for Mac only printouts of pdf files can be inserted). If for some reason writing directly into OneNote page is not an option and files needed to be inserted, we encouraged the students to use this option for inserting files. We were then able to read their work directly in OneNote without opening another document and to provide feedback on the same page. However, it is useful to bear in mind that inserted printouts work just like pictures. The text in these images can’t be edited, but it is possible to add annotations in the text of these images (for instance, by using the Draw function to highlight, underline or circle a part of the text). We have at times experienced that our annotations have been misplaced when the relevant OneNote page is opened on a different device or in a different version of OneNote, which created a lot of confusion and frustration. To avoid this, one should right-click on the image and select the option “Set picture as background”, before annotating the image.

The last option, inserting the file attachment, is in our opinion the least optimal for this purpose. When inserted in this way, the file needs to be downloaded and opened before it can be viewed. If changes or comments are made in the downloaded file, then this edited file needs to be uploaded again. The end result can end up being quite messy, with many icons of attached files scattered over the OneNote page, as shown below.

An image of a page in OneNote with several files inserted as file attachments
An image of a page in OneNote with several files inserted as file attachments

However, this may be a useful option for keeping the supporting material (if any) clearly separate from the main document, but still on the same OneNote page. The image below illustrates a page in OneNote with instructions for an obligatory assignment typed directly into the OneNote page and supporting material, in this case samples of texts students were supposed to be working on, inserted as file attachments to the same page for easy access.

File attachments to an assignment
Consider where the assignments will be shared and how the relevant OneNote page should be named.

If students are submitting individual projects, these can be submitted in their Individual Notebooks. For that purpose, we have created an “Assignments” section for each student. This is done easily for all the students in class when creating the Class Notebook (though the section can also be added at a later point). For collaborative projects, we have created a section in Collaboration Space and asked the students to submit their projects there.

It is useful to give guidelines to students on how they should name the relevant OneNote pages and submitted files. This makes searching, reviewing and navigating through the various documents much easier. For the individual assignments, we would create a submission page in OneNote and name it in a particular way, for instance “OA1 hand-in page” (OA1 here stands for ‘obligatory assignment 1’). We would then distribute this page to all the student notebooks and instruct the students to submit their work on this page. Instructors can then easily navigate through the relevant submissions by clicking on the “Review student work”-tab under “Class Notebook” and selecting the appropriate section and page.

Review student work

In the past, when we used Learning Management Systems for submission of student assignments, we typically had easy access to assignments, which were usually all uploaded in the same area. However, it was more difficult to quickly access to all of the assignments submitted by one student. By contrast, if we wanted to review different assignments by the same student in OneNote, we would navigate to the “Assignments” section in their Individual Notebooks to gain quick access to all their assignments submitted during the course. This set-up shifted the focus from the assignments to the individual students, which in our opinion facilitated formative assessment.

Sharing content

The experience of using OneNote is similar to that of taking notes in a paper notebook, with the added advantages of the electronic format. It is possible to write anywhere on a OneNote page without ever running out of space. In addition to text, content can be hand-written, and images, video and audio material, tables and all kinds of files can be added to the same page. There are many additional nifty features that allow for easy sharing of content. Below are a couple of features that we found particularly useful.

  1. Given the ease with which content can be edited and shared in OneNote, we found it particularly convenient for storing and sharing information that is continuously updated, such as the semester plan. We typically start the term with a rough semester plan, which is then continuously negotiated, and updated to better meet the needs of the particular student group. Posting a semester plan on a OneNote page gave us the opportunity to easily edit the information, which is then automatically saved and instantly made available to all the students.
    Semester plan
  2. It is possible to create links to notebooks, sections, pages and even specific paragraphs in OneNote
    We used such links in our semester plan (see above) to guide the students directly from the semester plan to the target pages. We also used this type of cross-linking when providing feedback, to direct the students to the relevant lecture notes or other material in the Content Area or the Collaboration Space.
  3. The use of OneNote has also made it easier for us to store and share classroom work which is not created electronically. For instance, for one of the classroom projects students were required to create and present posters in class. To keep a record of these posters, the following steps were followed. The course instructor used her mobile device with the OneNote app installed to open the relevant Class Notebook and navigate to the desired page. She then used the camera option to take a photo of the posters. The photos of the posters were thus inserted and stored directly into the relevant page in OneNote. Since OneNote Notebooks synchronize across different devices, the photos of class posters were immediately available to everyone in the class. In addition, all the posters were on the same page and the students could easily scroll up and down to review all the presentations. Course instructors could then give feedback on the same pages, and in this way encourage the group to continue reflecting on their presentation.
    Non electronically content
    Some students also used this possibility to share handwritten notes with us.
    Handwritten notes

Challenges and possible workarounds

Different versions of OneNote

Class Notebooks can be opened in OneNote Online (in a browser) or in the OneNote desktop application. However, it is important to be aware of the fact that some of the features work differently in the two environments, or are not available in both. For an overview, see Differences between using a notebook in the browser and in OneNote

In addition, there are also differences between various versions of desktop applications, as well as between Windows and Mac applications (see What's the difference between OneNote and OneNote 2016?)

At times, these differences can be quite confusing, and a cause of frustration both for the students and the instructors.

OneNote in the Windows 10 Start Menu

To ensure that everyone has access to the same features, it might be best to use OneNote Online. However, be aware that a stable network connection becomes essential in that case. At times both we and our students have experienced network issues and in such cases having a desktop version can come in handy. Changes made in the desktop version will then be synchronized once network issues have been resolved. If you are installing the desktop version of OneNote, check which version(s) of OneNote is available at your institution (preferably, the latest one), and make sure you have the same version as your students. If you are searching for help in the extensive Microsoft help database, double-check that your search targets the version of OneNote you have (for instance, by typing “tags in OneNote Online”, instead of simply “tags in OneNote”). Remember that if you cannot find a particular feature, it may be missing in the version you are using. Keep checking for updates as improvements are constantly being made.

OneNote Online and syncing

During collaborative work in class, we encouraged students to use the online version of OneNote to ensure that everyone had access to the same version of OneNote with the same features.

However, we experienced that OneNote Online had a synchronization lag. As a result, when many students used the same page in the Collaboration Space during class, the results could be chaotic, with students writing over each other’s texts and in random places on the page.


If you want your students to work on collaborative writing in real time, make sure the Collaboration Space is organized. For example, the teacher can create a structure ahead of class, e.g. a table with different areas for each student group to work in.

Organized Collaboration Space

It should be noted that the (to date) latest version of OneNote (OneNote for Windows 10) reportedly has improved sync times, and that this may not be an issue in the future. Nevertheless, presenting students with a pre-created structure such as the one above may have pedagogical advantages and may help students stay on task.

Giving information (announcements, notifications, messages)

It’s important to bear in mind that OneNote is not a learning management system (LMS). Rather, it is a notebook application intended to be used in conjunction with an LMS. This may not be immediately apparent as it shares some of the functionality of a learning management system, such as the possibility to store course content or submit and share student work. As such, OneNote is not designed for handling more formal aspects of course management, such as grading, posting announcements for students, or managing one-to-one correspondence between students and teachers. As one student remarked in a reflection note, the LMS is good for announcements and notifications, but terrible when it comes to collaborative work. OneNote, on the other hand, is great for collaborative work, but is ill equipped for dealing with communication between students and teachers.

  1. OneNote Class Notebook can be embedded into the Learning Management System already used by your institution. Learning management platforms are typically teacher-controlled, with instructors distributing content and posting messages, and students on the receiving end, expect when it comes to uploading assignments. By contrast, the strength of OneNote, as we see it, lies in its informality and flexibility. This is what makes it a great tool for formative assessment. As such, learning management platforms and OneNote work well together, providing teachers and students the best of both worlds.
  2. Alternatively, Microsoft Teams can be used in conjunction with OneNote in lieu of another LMS. During the first implementation of our course, students commented that they had no way of knowing when new content was added to OneNote, as they could not receive update notifications. Before the second implementation of the course we tried to address this by introducing Microsoft Teams as our learning management platform. Teams is a digital platform designed for collaborative work. Like OneNote, Teams is available in an online version, desktop version, and as an app. With an intuitive interface reminiscent of social media platforms such as Facebook, Teams can be used, among other things, for discussions (group chats), one-to-one messaging, file-sharing, meetings, calls, and assignment submissions. Teams can easily embed other applications (such as OneNote). For our purposes, the two main advantages of using Teams were 1) the possibility to send and receive messages and 2) the opportunity to receive update notifications directly to one’s mobile device via the Teams app.

Getting students onboard

To make effective use of digital tools for formative assessment, the students’ attitudes and perspectives need to be considered.

Discuss with the students what the role of OneNote is and how it will be used in the course.

We realized from student reflection notes that many of them were unsure about the role of OneNote in the course, and why OneNote is needed in addition to an LMS. It was not surprising then that many of them were using OneNote as they would use an LMS, and were disappointed or frustrated when OneNote failed to display the same functionality as an LMS would. Frustrations such as these can be handled by taking up the issue in class and being explicit about the role particular digital tools would play in the course. This can also give rise to more positive attitudes towards digital tools and their more effective use in the course.

Consider how the information in OneNote will be structured for easy access and navigation.

If you are sharing a lot of material in the Content Library or you are asking the students to do a lot of group work in the Collaborative Area, consider how the information in these notebooks can be structured so that it can be easily located. Spending a lot of time trying to find the relevant material can cause a lot of frustration for students. It is also worth keeping in mind that OneNote does not send out notifications when updates or changes are made. The reason for this is that anyone (i.e. both instructors and students) can edit a page in OneNote, so receiving notifications on all the changes could quickly become a nuisance. To circumvent this issue, we always sent a notification via the LMS about any material that had been added. It might also be a good idea to advise the students to use the search function in OneNote to look for the relevant files or even keywords.

Consider your students’ working habits and the impact of these on the effective use of the digital tool.

OneNote offers a window into students’ work progression (through Individual Student Notebooks), promotes a culture of sharing and collaboration (through the Collaboration Space), and is a great tool for diverting the focus from products to processes. These aspects are important for promoting formative assessment. However, for students (and teachers) in higher education courses these may not necessarily be aspects that one immediately associates with higher education courses. If students are unaccustomed to sharing their work, if they are reluctant to upload drafts, if they see no value in completing low-stakes assignments that are not graded, then much of the potential that lies in OneNote as a tool for supporting formative assessment would be lost. Teachers should thus consider how they can direct the students’ attention to the value of the process in the courses where mostly the products are graded.

Where to learn more




Appendix: Tutorials

The following are examples of tutorials that we have shared with our students. They introduce the students to the key features of OneNote and Teams that we have used in the course. The first tutorial was distributed to the students in paper format, the second one was uploaded as a Word file to Teams, while the third one was written directly into a OneNote page.




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