Moving toward Assessment for Learning

I was recently contacted by an educator in Hong Kong wanting some advice around how he could make his tests more AfL appropriate. This is a great question (and a million more questions popped into my head – why a test? What is it measuring? etc.) and I promised myself to answer him fully.

Here is my response: 

There are heaps of ways to make tests more AfL appropriate for students. 

Ideally, working with the students to identify what the key learning needs to be and what is the best way to test this would be a start. 

If this isn’t possible (I.e. there is a set, common test for all students), try thinking about the lead up to the test. Are the students familiar with the success criteria? Have they had enough exposure to examples of what a quality response in the test may look like? Are they able to talk confidently about the learning and what is expected of them? Are they able to look at previous questions / test papers and go through how they may apply their learning to these?

After they’ve sat the test, don’t mark it and hand it back straight away. AfL is primarily about empowering the students as learners. I would give them a blank copy of the same test and ask them to identity questions that were easy, hard, or manageable (I use different coloured highlighters / pens for this). Then talk through in pairs where they have similar responses. This gives you really good info as a teacher where gaps may be occurring for your students. 

Then I would get them to peer mark the test. As a teacher, you could guide this process, provide model answers, act as a third pair of eyes for a student marker etc. Giving ownership to students of the learning and making them active participants in the classroom is key. I would probably get the person who the student had discussed where the student had struggled or found things easy to mark the test.

After this, I would suggest working towards some peer assessment. This is different from marking as the students need to evaluate the test information (which concepts or skills the students were able to deal with, where there are gaps etc.,) and then provide some feedback to each other. I would recommend using Hattie and Timperley’s questions: where am I going (how closely did I meet the learning goal), how am I going (feedback on strategies used, concepts or skills which are working) and where to next (new direction for learning, where the gaps need to be closed). 

Providing quality feedback to peers can be challenging for learners so some teachers guidance is key at this point. Using some sentence starters for peer feedback can be useful at this point.

Get the students to look at their peer marked and assessed work and reflect on their test. Was there correlation between things they found easy and what was correct? Or not? What does this tell them (and you) about how they are feeling about their competency at the moment?

Record the data from this test in your teacher markbook. I wouldn’t just record the final grade / percentage though. Find a way to record the student perception of their competence (at that point in time), the individual grades, groups of students who have gaps in the same areas, students who seem to be covering the key learning and finding it all easy. All of this information gives you some indication of where to go next as a teacher.

This is a suggested approach and makes some assumptions. I’ve assumed that the test is paper based, not online. If it is an online, computer-marked test another approach may be needed. The principles of AfL remain the same though, getting students actively involved in their learning so they can become self-regulated learners.

I hope that this helps in some way, please let me know how you are going with AfL.

I tried to touch on the principles of AfL and still keep things grounded at a practical level. And this is really important to me, knowing a theory and knowing what it may look like in practice are often different things. I have a clear theory for improvement coming through in my suggestion – share the locus of control with students, give them a chance to evaluate their own or someone else’s understandings of the concepts or mastery of the skills, and in doing so, students are more likely to be engaged as learners (which should lead to better outcomes for them). 

  
When I first moved toward an AfL pedagogy I felt a little hamstrung by the rigour of high-stakes assessment in senior secondary. By focusing on the principles of AfL, I found ways (and continue to find ways) to empower learners even when I couldn’t set the the assessment task myself (such as in NCEA exams). Assessment for Learning requires a shift of thinking for both students and teachers.

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