An important course in the computer science discipline is ‘Data Structures and Algorithms’ (DSA). The coursework lays emphasis on experiential learning for building students’ programming and algorithmic reasoning abilities. Teachers set up a repertoire of formative programming exercises to engage students with different programmatic scenarios to build their know-what, know-how and know-why competencies. Automated assessment tools can assist teachers in inspecting, marking, and grading of programming exercises and also support them in providing students with formative feedback in real-time. This article describes the design of a bespoke automarker that was integrated into the DSA coursework and therefore served as an instructional tool. Activity theory has provided the pedagogical lens to examine how the automarker-mediated instructional strategy enabled self-reflection and assisted students in their formative learning journey. Learner experiences gathered from 39 students enrolled in DSA course shows that the automarker facilitated practice-based learning to advance students know-what, know-why and know-how skills. This study contributes to both curricula and pedagogic practice by showcasing the integration of an automated assessment strategy with programming-related coursework to inform future teaching and assessment practice.