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Reclaiming assessment for learning today

Let's challenges the nature of assessment and how it should be approached in schools today.

Time to reflect on different types of assessment and their uses.

A major function of the A level and GCSE examination system is to provide some sort of indication of the academic ability of the individual. A huge amount of soul-searching, discussion and research has already taken place, and been well documented, surrounding this and it is not my intention to go into great detail, as the different camps have already presented their cases with varying degrees of eloquence. However, this form of summative assessment is only one side of the coin and I would like to look at how we can use assessment to help our students further themselves before they get to this stage.

Formative assessment is already a commonly used implement in the teacher’s toolbox, but how exactly is it employed? There is always a danger of it being used to see where an individual or a class is at any one point so that we know if they are ready to progress to the next step or if further explanation or support is needed. To a certain extent this is not substantively different to the summative assessment talked about earlier - we are looking at the students’ performances rather than ours as the teacher. In his book “Visible Learning for Teachers”, John Hattie’s primary message to the reader is “know thy impact”. If you want to know what really works in the classroom, then you need to measure the effects of different interventions. “Inside the black box” by Paul Black and Dylan William discusses the same sort of idea, the danger of the classroom being viewed as some sort of black box with certain inputs, (teachers, students, resources etc) followed by outputs, (competent students, better results, more satisfied teachers), but no one is really looking at what is happening inside the box itself.

How can anyone be sure that a particular set of new inputs will produce better outputs if we don’t at least study what happens inside?
Black and Wiliam, 1998

The main idea behind both publications is that the very best teachers are not dogmatically wedded to one specific teaching strategy; rather they evaluate the effects of an approach on students and then adjust their methods accordingly. Surely this is a better example of formative assessment; the teacher evaluates not only the performance of the students, but also of themselves. Anyone who has spent any time with teenagers knows that it is far easier to adjust your approach than it is to expect them to change theirs. Change management is one of the most difficult processes to master so why add that to the list of challenges that you face in the classroom?

So how do we go about achieving this? There has to be a balance between working with a strategy for long enough to let it have an impact and sticking with something despite all the evidence against it. As any teacher will tell you, every class is different and one of the most important skills we have is the ability to get to know what makes the students in a class ‘tick’. We are unconsciously assessing them from the moment they enter the classroom and then adjusting our approach to that lesson accordingly. For example, a year 6 class on a windy day straight after lunch break will be a very different animal to the same class last thing on Friday on a hot day in June. If we recognise this, then maybe it is time to consider a more global approach to the class, not just adjusting our style of teaching but also the strategies we employ. For this to be effective we need to assess the impact of that strategy on learning and we need to do this continuously. Regular, ongoing, low level assessment allows us to monitor progress and responses to different strategies which in turn means that we can channel our efforts more effectively. This is different to the end of module test, or exams held at the end of the year because we are looking at the interaction between the teacher and the class; it is not just about what progress the student has made, but tries to measure the impact of teaching on the individual. Learning is a collaborative venture and if it is to be successful then both sides of the equation need to be considered.

What are the potential outcomes to such an approach? To start with, teachers will be able to respond to the needs of their classes more effectively, so teaching and learning can work in conjunction with each other. There has been a huge amount of research into the factors that can affect a student’s learning - background, motivation, learning styles, support from home, but as teachers we can only have a limited impact on any one of these. However, once in the classroom we are in control, and it is therefore incumbent upon us to adopt the best possible strategies to help our students achieve success. The only way to ensure that this happens is to measure what impact we are having and then react accordingly. Remember, it is far easier to adjust your teaching than it is to get an entire class and all of the other factors affecting it to change so be pragmatic; work on what you can change and don’t struggle with forces that you cannot.

This in turn should have a positive impact on your students. If the teaching is engaging and helping them to progress, they are more likely to actively learn in the class. I use this term ‘actively’, because learning is not something that happens magically by osmosis; learning is a process that has to be pursued by the individual. Progress is most likely to be made when students are actively learning at the same time that teachers are actively teaching.

The journey doesn’t stop there however. Once we as teachers have begun to find out what has a positive impact on learning, then it is important to share this understanding with our colleagues. Sharing best practice is a vital part of professional development and of course, the more people that are assessing a strategy, the more accurate its measurement will be. In this scenario it is not just the students who are learning, the teachers are as well.

Assessment is a term that can be so emotive, tied up as it is with grades, league tables and exams. However, as teachers, we need to reclaim the idea:

To assess" derives from the Latin verb "assidere", to sit by (originally, as an assistant-judge in the context of taxes). Hence, in "assessment of learning" we "sit with the learner", and that implies that it is something that we do with and for our students rather than to them.
University of Southern California

Teaching and learning is a partnership and if it is to be successful then both parties need to monitor the part that they are playing. As John Hattie says, “know thy impact”.

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