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Primary Education News
News Assessment for learning: are you using it effectively in your classroom?
Assessment for learning is particularly useful for supporting low-attaining pupils, but many schools find it difficult to implement. Chris Harrison looks at what's going wrong
Engagement and effort are essential characteristics of good learners. Research indicates that children who start school socially and academically ahead of their peers tend to be more successful in school. This results in an achievement gap, which widens as children move through the school system if it persists.
One of the factors that can influence this is the way assessment is perceived by youngsters who start at a disadvantage; it can either strengthen or break their belief in their capabilities.
Schools in England have become data driven; teachers are heavily influenced by the need to produce summative performance data to assess school effectiveness, set targets and monitor standards. Most schools have amalgamated this into their regular monitoring systems with teachers being asked to report on achievement every few months. This approach to assessment amplifies the negative messages that low-attainers perceive about their lack of success compared to others in their class. This can lead to increased feelings of helplessness and further decreased motivation.
Assessment need not have this effect on learners if teachers focus their efforts on formative assessment, which supports learning rather than judging achievement. This is known as Assessment for Learning (AfL). Through AfL, teachers find out what students know, what they partly know and what they do not know so that the follow-on activities can advance learning. They encourage students to talk about their learning and can then gauge what's needed more accurately.
At the same time, students can question their own learning as they try to make sense of their own ideas. Through the process and routine of feedback, learners can sort out small problems and misunderstandings, and form better links between ideas. This develops the learner and prevents them losing sight of their long-term goal.
The goal of AfL is not just to motivate students to work hard on challenging problems, but also to develop their identities as capable learners. For low-attaining students, AfL refocuses their attitude towards assessment as something that can help them learn rather than a process that highlights their incompetencies. For high attainers, it offers a more challenging curriculum that focuses on their progress rather than simply meeting targets.
Putting AfL into practice is not easy. It requires schools to prioritise this approach to assessment and ensure that other initiatives do not clash with its implementation. Schools should stop relying on summative assessments that tell students how they are performing in relation to national curriculum sub-levels, something which demotivates many learners. Pupils don't need to be told every few weeks that they are level 4a, and so on. Instead they need to know whether they are making progress and where they need to improve.
Putting AfL into practice also requires teachers to change the way they work with their students. It is not simply a matter of adding on to existing practice – it requires a reconsideration of practice to enhance the necessary feedback loops involved and help pupils become more active and collaborative in their learning and assessment.
There are many reasons why teachers have found it difficult to incorporate AfL, but perhaps the most fundamental one is that they cannot conceptualise AfL fully before they begin to develop it in their classrooms; they are unable to perceive the types of changes they need to make in their day-to-day practice.
This makes implementing a new pedagogic approach very difficult. Teachers' beliefs about lesson planning, assessment and evaluation influence their actions and decisions in the classroom. While context and experience strongly influence practice, it's difficult to bring about change in practice; often new pedagogic ideas are confined into the realms of previous ideas.
Schools need to reflect on how their multiple uses of assessment affect the motivation and the self-esteem of their learners. The emphasis needs to be placed on helping all pupils develop and sustain a capacity to learn that not only lasts through the years of compulsory schooling but benefits them throughout their lives.
Chris Harrison is a senior lecturer in science education at King's College London. The full version of Chris Harrison's chapter 'Testing Times: reforming classroom teaching through assessment' can be downloaded for free from IPPR.