12 May 2018/ By Zineb DJOUB
Testing, correcting students’ work, giving grades and reporting results are among teachers’ practices to assess their students’ learning. Before reading and conducting research about assessment, I tended to view it as a bolt-on activity which I am bound to. I was sceptical about the fact that assessment indicates how students are learning and what they have learned (process and product).
Sometimes, I considered it ‘detrimental to learning’ when my students, who were often initiating and participating in class, did not perform well in exams and got demotivated to learn and improve after getting their grades. I was questioning the meaning and objective of assessment and how it relates to students’ learning. Digging into the world of research, I realized that assessment is so valuable to the educational process and can be a great source of students’ learning.
What is assessment?
Assessment refers to the process of collecting information and making judgments on a student’s understanding of specific content and his ability to use it. Thus, it seeks to determine the degree of knowledge and skills developed by students and how they have gone through achieving them.
The information collected through assessment is likely to be meaningful since this process needs to be systematically conducted and its procedures are subject to revision, evaluation and change in case this is required. Besides, assessment content needs to target the intended learning outcomes, thus assessing what needs to be assessed in a given course.
How does assessment relate to students’ learning?
Assessment is an integral part of the teaching-learning process which serves a variety of purposes like diagnostic, achievement, progress, etc. Yet, the primary purpose of assessment remains to support learning. Indeed, research has shown that there is a strong connection between assessment practice and students’ success:
- Assessment is the engine that drives learning (Cowan,1998).
- Assessment intends to improve learning since “assessors have a responsibility to take account of the broad range of abilities, knowledge, skills and competencies which are required of graduates; and to balance the requirements of the discipline with students’ needs to be prepared for the future (Brew, 1999, p.169).
- Assessment “frames learning, creates learning activity and orients all aspects of learning behaviors” (Gibbs, 2006, p.23).
- Assessment can help teachers keep track of their students’ progress and get feedback regarding the way in which their teaching might be adjusted (Sercu, 2010).
- Assessment is the source of decisions regarding programmes, learning materials and activities, instructional objectives, placement into a course study, prediction of future performance, etc. (Bachman, 2004)
But, assessment has also the potential to break educational learning opportunities. It can engender frustration, inhibition and lack of self-esteem which may last beyond school days (Hedge, 2000). Being an emotional business, assessment is likely to be remembered by students. So, teachers need to make assessment for learning part of their classroom assessment culture.
What is Assessment for Learning (AFL)?
The term assessment for learning has been used for formative assessment which focuses on students’ ongoing development or learning process to indicate the gap between the assessed work level and the required standard and how students need to improve. This assessment approach occurs at all stages of the learning process. Unlike assessment of learning or summative assessment which focuses on measuring learning achievement at the end of a unit or a study period of a particular course, in order to check the quality and compare results from schools and institutions at a national or regional level to set standards.
Assessment for learning originates in the research of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998) who found that students who learn in a formative way, in school education in the UK, learn and perform better than other students. In their book The Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, they showed the potential of AFL for enhancing the teaching-learning process.
- Assessment for learning is integrated within the learning process and aligned with instruction.
- It focuses on the construction and application of knowledge which means assessing the extent to which a student has increased skills, abilities and capabilities along her/his learning process.
- It fosters students’ active involvement in the assessment process (through discussing criteria, assessing themselves and their peers, etc.)
- It is authentic, that is assessment tasks are relevant to students’ needs, thus supporting them develop the knowledge, skills and attitudes they require in their future career.
- It provides a variety of assessment tools that can be used for multiple purposes.
- It gives students constructive feedback on how their learning is progressing and what they need to do and how to work out the learning gap.
How to support an Assessment for Learning Culture?
Teachers can integrate assessment for learning into their practices through the following six strategies.
Assessment for Learning Strategies
1. Understanding AFL objective and nature:
Prior to integrating any assessment for learning approach (formative approach), teachers need to understand the objective and nature of this process. Assessment for learning is not only about assessing continuously students, but it also involves engaging them actively in assessing themselves and others and working out their teachers and peers’ feedback.
For instance, when teachers select a self-assessment tool (portfolios, reflective journals, etc.), it is important to consider it not simply a self-grading process where students assess their performance against a set of criteria, but a powerful tool to boost their involvement in making judgments on how their learning needs to improve. So students’ learning must be their target to amplify this assessment culture.
2. Planning for the assessment process:
This is through:
- Selecting the assessment approach (es): If teachers have to make such a choice they need to understand the defining characteristics of each assessment tool, think about its purpose and how it fits the objective of the course, students’ needs and the teaching and learning conditions (time and materials available). For instance, portfolios, journals or diaries can be used in teaching writing since they allow students to reflect, assess their work and monitor their progress in relation to this skill.
- Defining the assessment’s purpose: The purpose of the assessment tool determines the content as well as the process by which it is created. For instance, teachers can opt for students’ presentations in class when the purpose of assessment is to develop their communication and higher-level thinking skills (problem-solving, evaluating, etc.).
- Deciding the content or the evidence which needs to be collected: After determining the purpose of the assessment tool, teachers should think about its content. There is also a need to negotiate such content with their students in order to meet educational goals, standards, students’ interest and learning styles,
- Setting assessment criteria: The criteria need to emphasize students’ effort, responsibility, involvement, the ability to communicate meanings and reflect on their learning, reflecting thus both their progress over time and the quality of the learning outcome. Rubrics, checklists and rating scales can help in clarifying the intended goals.
- Making other decisions about the process: These include the physical size of the assessment tool (ex. Reflective journals), whether to train students into its use and how, the deadline to submit it, how to evaluate the process (through observations, interaction with students and questionnaires, etc.), where to keep it, and what other choices to leave to students.
3. Communicating high expectations:
Teachers need to explain clearly the learning goals of a given activity so that students can understand what is expected from them to make use of the assessment criteria and feedback and engage in formative assessment tools. This is through discussing the assessment criteria to be used, clarifying the intended performance through sharing exemplars with their students, besides giving formative feedback along the development stages.
4. Encouraging reflective learning:
Students’ reflection is the cornerstone of assessment for learning culture. Teachers have to encourage reflective practices among students. This can be achieved through:
- explaining the benefit of reflection over their learning and future career;
- clarifying what aspects of learning they need to reflect on (it needs to cover both the learning process and outcome) and what constitutes effective reflections;
- supporting them make their reflections systematic and organized (you can provide reflective worksheets which include date and time of accomplishment) while demonstrating how and when these are to be completed);
- encouraging them to identify their learning needs, set their learning goals and monitor their progress;
- offering opportunities for making choices: negotiating plans, criteria and making decisions towards achievement.
5. Promoting interaction and constructive feedback:
Within FLA, teachers’ interaction with students is required to provide the necessary feedback. The latter does not only concern the task but also the processing of the task. So, this feedback needs to:
- clarify the defined standards and show clearly the process of completing them;
- give students information regarding how they monitor and control their learning (self-regulation);
- be both directive, telling the student what needs to be fixed or revised as well as facilitative, providing comments and suggestions to help guide them in their own revision and conceptualization;
- involve students in dialogue with their teacher about that feedback so that they can get an immediate response about their difficulties, develop their understanding and expectations to standards and so decide what to do to close the learning gap.
6. Evaluating the process:
To integrate effectively assessment for learning into the teaching-learning process, teachers need to evaluate continuously both its process and outcome. Such evaluation can cover:
- Their choice of the assessment tools;
- Its content;
- the way it is integrated into the course;
- the criteria used in students’ assessment;
- the materials and learning sources used;
- time devoted to assessing students;
- students’ involvement in the process;
- the kind of feedback provided and the way it is communicated to students;
- students’ performance;
Understanding assessment for learning principles is so crucial to know the defining characteristics of this approach and its intended objectives. The process also requires practical tools to make it a worthwhile practice in the classroom. The strategies suggested above provide you with these tools to integrate it effectively within your assessment practices. You can make from assessment an unforgettable learning experience for your students.
Bachman, L. (2004). Statistical analyses for language assessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2006). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Granada Learning.
Brew, A. (1999). Towards autonomous assessment: Using self-assessment and peer- assessment. In S. Brown & A. Glasner, Assessment matters in higher education. (pp.159-171). UK: SRHE (The Society for Research into Higher Education) and Open University Press.
Cowan, J. (1998). On becoming an innovative university teacher. Buckingham: RHE and Open University Press.
Gibbs, G. (2006). How assessment frames student learning. In C. Bryan & K. Clegg (Eds.), Innovative assessment in higher education (pp.23-36). New York: Routledge.
Hedge,T. (2000).Teaching and learning in the language classroom: A guide to current ideas about the theory and practice of English language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Sercu, L. (2010). Assessing intercultural competence: More questions than answers. In A. Paran & L. Sercu (Eds.), Testing the untestable in language education (pp.17-34). UK: Short Run Press Ltd.