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Assessing as a Support for Learning

“…the primary purpose of assessment is not to measure but to further learning.” Sarah M. Bonner, SAGE Handbook of Research on Classroom Assessment, 2013, p. 97

The idea of “furthering” learning rather than measuring it via assessing may be a paradigm shift for some. For others, it makes lots of sense. Lorna Earl (2003) introduced us to the idea of assessment as learning. What if we changed our language? What if we stopped talking about assessment and started talking about assessing? What if we embraced the concept that assessing is a support for learning? That mindset empowers learners and educators for the actions of assessing, generating, or providing feedback, reflecting, and most importantly adapting. It’s about assessing for the continuous and adaptive process of learning.

Leslie Lambert (2007) says, “…anyone observing the class should not be able to tell where instruction ends and assessment begins.” How exciting is this idea? How often do we see it?

Assessing as Support for Learning

1. Formative Practice

Teachers and students becoming “partners in learning” is what makes this culture of learning click. It means that classrooms become learner-centered. Providing structures, processes and tools for students to learn what it takes to “own” their success is a component of this culture. Ron Berger’s ideas about student-engaged assessment highlight that students are empowered by the process, identifying what they need to know, determining where they are in their learning, and making plans to move forward. This leads us to the use of effective feedback that shifts a student’s learning forward. Providing students the opportunity to use that feedback builds their self-efficacy and meta-cognition. When coupled with clear learning targets, student achievement can increase significantly. This philosophy and pedagogy naturally lead to formative instructional practices (formative assessment) being embedded in the culture of learning.

Within the framework of assessment as learning, teachers can quickly identify important evidence of student learning and separate it from distracting information and implement a broad range of formative strategies automatically and flexibly as part of their routine. Learners can determine what they know and don’t know, reflect on where they are in comparison to their goal, make plans to learn more, work their plan, self-assess, reflect, and adapt the plan. The empowering part of feedback in the assessment as learning model is that comes from multiple directions. Every member of the classroom learning team has multiple opportunities to provide feedback – teacher to learner, teacher to peers, peer to learner, learner to peer, learner to teacher, peers to teachers, learner to self, teacher to self. Which of these is a strength in your class? Which might be an opportunity for growth?

In this assessing learning culture, teachers build their instructional agility, developing the skills to adapt the learning in the moment based on the feedback they are receiving about what is being learned. And guess what? If we adequately provision learners, they can demonstrate learning agility by digging into their toolbox of strategies, processes, and tools to find another approach to the learning that worked for them in the past.

2. Assessment Reflection

Because learning is happening, assessments are adapting, incorporating the new learning or modifying to revisit where necessary. One strategy often missed in the hurry of the school year is assessment reflection. While not practical after every assessment, pausing after a few assessment experiences throughout the year to allow learners to reflect on both process and content has value. Consider questions like these:

  • What did you feel most confident about?
  • What was confusing?
  • What was the most difficult part of the test?
  • What would you do differently the next time?
  • What do you know that you didn’t get to show?

3. Changing Mindsets

One interesting aspect of formative assessment practices is how these practices level the field for all learners. The use of these practices and strategies supports culturally and linguistically diverse learners. These practices empower learners who have suffered trauma by giving them control over the learning in their life. Because there are so many different strategies to use, every learner, even those who have been historically marginalized, can find strategies that work for them and use them to learn more and own more. Formative practices build a culture for learning and make assessing an integral part of the daily activities in a classroom.

Kathie Morgan was a third-grade teacher when she introduced assessment as learning to her students. By October that year, things had changed, and Nancy, the fourth-grade teacher across the hall, noticed. She asked Kathie why her students were so excited on days when “test” or “assessment” were written on the board. Kathie suggested she ask the students, so she did. The responses from different students were similar and boiled down to this, “I get to show what I know, figure out what I don’t know, and make a plan to do something about it.” Guess what? It is that simple, particularly when assessment is seen as a support for learning, an ongoing and adaptive process.

The OECD (2008) reported benefits from the use of formative instructional practices which included raising student achievement, promoting equity, building students’ skills to learn, all of which lead to meeting goals for life-long learning. Having rapidly moved to digital learning in 2020, some of these benefits may have suffered. Many teachers worldwide were provided with professional learning focused on adapting to remote or hybrid teaching. Some of this professional learning focused on tools to support continuous and adaptive assessment. You may want to consider digital tools to support your practice whether teaching remotely or in person. While the options are many, here are some possibilities.

  1. Explain Everything is a screen-casting tool that allows students to show what they know and let teachers listen in.
  2. GrokSpot offers an engaging way to get students to choose prompts or emojis to reflect on their learning. This tool is useful for collaborative discussion.
  3. Kialo Edu is a collaborative discussion tool that creates a visual of the discussion to help students see the questions and discussion so they can better evaluate all the ideas shared.

Consider how often each day you receive or give yourself feedback. It is usually the result of a self-assessment or someone else’s assessment. Both the acts of assessing and getting or giving feedback are continuous and ongoing, giving us the time to adapt and change. How can we make assessing for our learners part of that natural, daily process? How can we teach our learners to do daily academically what they do personally – self-assess, give feedback, reflect, and adapt? What are some of the strategies you are having success with? We’d love to know.


This article was written by Kathy S Dyer.

Kathy Dyer is an innovative educator who has served as a teacher, principal, district assessment coordinator, and adjunct professor. She has a passion for learner-centered learning—opportunities for learners of all ages to learn with, from, and for one another. Believing that all learners can learn more and grow more, Kathy is passionate about helping schools and educators get better at what they do.

Kathy combines a deep understanding of adult learning with a passion for collaborative problem solving to help school systems improve student outcomes. Her work has been featured on eSchool News, Education Dive, Ed Circuit, Teach. Learn. Grow. blog, and Getting Smart.

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