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Assessment for Learning - It's just going back to basics

By Becks Wilkinson, Lead Practitioner - Science, The Polesworth School

Currently, in my 13th year as a qualified teacher, I remember assessment for learning (AfL) being the real buzz phrase when I did my teacher training back in 2009 and I was lucky enough to attend a lecture by Dylan Wiliam where he discussed his book which he co-wrote with Paul Black ‘Inside the Black Box’. This was the first real case for assessment for learning taking place in the classroom and still stands as an important read for trainee teachers today. Specifically, a key piece of research which Wiliam was involved in, concluded that formative assessment can be grouped into five key strategies (Leahy, Thompson, Wiliam, 2005):

1. Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and success criteria

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.

In the lecture I attended he specifically discussed the evidence which showed that assessment for learning raised standards. He also explained why it should be happening in every single classroom in terms of informing the teacher of their next steps with individuals, small groups, or the whole class.

I think a lot of teachers still to this day hear the word assessment and immediately think about a test, for example, an end of topic or unit test, or mocks, or end of year exams. However, assessment for learning is completely different and provides us with so much more information, in real time. In addition, it often helps us adapt our teaching and guides us as responsive teachers as to whether we can move on or if we need to spend more time going over a concept.

Assessment for learning is often more closely linked to formative assessment as it provides feedback which can ‘form’ student learning. Examples of formative assessment such as questioning, peer assessment and self-assessment can all be directly associated with assessment for learning. However, if used well, summative assessment should be used as assessment for learning, for instance when an end of topic test is used to identify gaps in understanding and then when follow up action is taken to rectify this.

An important aspect of assessment for learning is that it should involve every single learner in the classroom so that as the teacher you get a true picture as to who understands what but across the whole class. One needs to be careful not to increase teacher workload through doing this and therefore use strategies which then don’t require onerous marking. Ideally, strategies need to be used which create feedback for teachers and students which can then be used to improve students’ performance. One way of thinking about assessment for learning is that it aims to ‘close the gap’ between a learner’s current situation and where they want to be in their learning and achievement. This can then mean that students start to be more active in their learning thinking about where they are now, where they are going and how they will get there, and this should form a loop within the lesson and then across a series of lessons.

Five ways of implementing some of the assessment for learning strategies that I use with my classes on a daily basis include:

1. Mini whiteboards – I absolutely love using mini whiteboards and have sets ready on the end of each of the rows in my classroom so that students can just grab them when needed. Students are used to the routine of getting them out and putting them away and know to wait until I say ‘1, 2, 3, show me’ before holding them up. They are so versatile they can be used for all sorts of activities, whether it is a multiple-choice quiz, true or false or shorter closed answer questions which can all be used to check for understanding and whether they have learnt the core knowledge. (Strategy 2)

2. Red, amber, green/traffic light/RAG rating, thumbs up/middle/down

No matter what you call it, it is a method to quickly find out how confident a student feels about their new learning. If doing this at a point in the lesson, I just ask all students to do a thumbs up, middle or down for certain learning statements, not requiring any extra

resources and informing my next move. I then cold call one or two students to check their understanding and accuracy of their RAG rating. At the end of a topic, to guide my planning of a revision lesson, I ask students to RAG rate themselves by filling in a Microsoft Form which I have developed, see example of results from one of my Y10 classes. I then use the results from this like to plan a revision lesson with the class before they complete an end of topic summative assessment. Students use their RAG rating answers to plan their revision before the test. This strategy does come with drawbacks, specifically as to whether students are expert enough to judge their own level of competence however this could be modelled by the teacher. In addition, competence and confidence can often be confused by students. I tend to find this strategy works well with older students and helps them with the how to get there in the loop I mentioned previously. (Strategy 1 and 5)

3. Peer assessment – Good peer assessment requires training your students and having clear success criteria. When done well, students excel at this, more able learners reinforce their learning by explaining ideas to less able learners and all students become less passive and more independent. (Strategy 1, 3 and 4)

4. Hinge questions - Multiple choice questions (MCQ) with misconception checks – Whether these are done on whiteboards, as homework or even as a Kahoot, cleverly written diagnostic MCQ reveal preconceptions, challenge common misconceptions, and encourage conceptual development. A great starting point for these for all subjects is 2)

5. Feedback – Feedback is an important part of assessment for learning as it provides the ‘what next’ stage. Again, as mentioned previously, teacher workload is already high,

so any kind of feedback needs to have high impact on the class with minimal time spent by the teacher.

I have started using whole-class feedback sheets following an assessed piece of work, here is an example which I used with a Y9 class. As I look through their work, I identify common misunderstandings and misconceptions and make the whole class feedback sheet. The next lesson we then work through this as a whole class. A few lessons in the future students answer some similar questions as more retrieval practice which has been spaced out to improve retention. In addition, when completing the whole class feedback sheet, students reflect on their own learning which allows for a collaborative process. (Strategy 3)

To summarise, assessment for learning involves the students in the learning process, it allows them to gain confidence in what they are expected to learn; they become active learners specifically thinking about where they are now and where they can go and how they can get there. Research shows that assessment for learning is effective and that also it improves summative assessment results. As one of my fellow colleagues puts it teaching without assessment for learning is like teaching a kid to swim without watching!

Like all teaching strategies, discussions of methods, techniques, successes and failures with colleagues will only strengthen our practice.

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