We traditionally think of learning activities or lessons as distinct from assessments. For example we may teach three lessons then stop for a test, following a similar pattern throughout the school term. It is because we attribute a very limited role to assessment that this pattern is so typical. It overlooks the potential of assessments to provide feedback to students and to teachers—to be valuable learning activities in themselves. Authentic Active Learning activities integrate assessments as part of the learning stream.
It is helpful to think of assessment in three different ways.
Assessment of Learning
This form of assessment is often referred to as summative assessment. It is the kind of assessment done for the purpose of assigning a mark or grade. One of the challenges faced by Active Learning teachers is the selection of assessments that are suitable. Active Learning activities can span a greater intellectual range than more traditional strategies such as lecturing. Students can move beyond mere recall and simple understanding of concepts to the application, analysis, evaluation, and creation of new knowledge and artifacts. It therefore does not make sense to employ assessments such as multiple choice tests, for example, to measure the kinds of knowledge students may have acquired from their Active Learning activities. What does make sense is to design assessments which resemble the learning activities themselves.
Grades and marks are the currency of education. For this reason they are particularly important to many students. Summative assessments need to be fair to learners. This means that they provide an equal opportunity to succeed for all students in a cohort, in all their required courses. This requires a student’s various teachers to collaborate on the setting of comparable assessment standards. In addition, assessments must be aligned with the course objectives and learning activities.
Assessment for Learning
Assessment for learning is often referred to as formative assessment. In a seminal article by Black and William the authors define formative assessment in this way:
“…the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.”
After reviewing a large sample of studies these researchers conclude that strengthening the role of formative assessment leads to important learning gains. These gains span age ranges, school subjects, and countries. There is also evidence that lower achievers benefit most from good formative assessment opportunities.
Black and William also emphasize that the benefits attributed to formative assessment assume that students are actively involved in their learning, that they are active learners. In addition, the assessment results must be used to adjust teaching and learning in order to be effective.
The authors cite evidence from several countries suggesting that the formative value of assessment is often overlooked. This results in a lost opportunity for effective learning. In addition, assessment results often serve only to compare students and to foster an atmosphere of competition rather than personal improvement. Students who do less well learn that they lack ability and become de-motivated, believing that they are not able to learn.
Feedback to Students
The culture in which students learn affects the impact of assessment results. When feedback focuses on successes and failures instead of constructive advice, students tend to focus on the best ways to earn marks rather than on their learning needs. They spend their time looking for ‘right’ answers and avoiding difficult tasks. On the other hand, when a culture of success prevails, under a belief that everyone can achieve, students can accept and utilize the feedback to improve their learning.
Self-and peer-assessment by students
When students have a clear picture of the goals of their instruction they can generate valuable self-assessments which are an essential component of formative assessment. To do this students need to know the desired goal of the instruction, evidence about their present position, and some knowledge about how to close the gap.
Black and William conclude that “instruction and formative assessment are indivisible”. Both provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding and this initiates the interaction in which formative assessment aids learning.
The researchers offer some specific suggestions:
- a test can be a learning opportunity
- it is better to have frequent short tests than infrequent and longer ones
- new learning should be tested within about a week of the instruction; more frequent testing is not helpful
- testing must not occur too late to enable students to work with the results
They also note that students may initially resist the change to their learning expectations.
Underlying the success of formative assessment is a belief in the untapped potential of students to learn once the cognitive difficulties and any loss of self-confidence have been recognized and dealt with.
Assessment as Learning
Assessment as learning is about how learning happens and involves students reflecting on their own learning and making adjustments so that they achieve deeper understanding. It is a process of metacognition.
In a recent white paper the Manitoba Ministry of Education describes two dimensions of metacognition, Knowledge of Cognition and Regulation of Cognition. The first includes:
- knowledge about ourselves as learners and what influences our performance
- knowledge about learning strategies
- knowledge about when and why to use a strategy
The second includes:
- planning: setting goals and activating relevant background knowledge
- regulation: monitoring and self-testing
- evaluation: appraising the products and regulatory processes of learning
The process of acquiring metacognitive skills leads to increasing independence on the part of the student. However, teachers have an important role in starting the process. They do this by offering and modelling structured opportunities for students to assess themselves. In addition, teachers design activities and assessments that permit students to reflect on, and monitor, their own learning.
In order to improve students must be able to monitor the quality of their work during actual production. This requires that students
- understand what high-quality work is
- know how to use the appropriate standards in order to compare their work to the standard
- must have a repertoire of strategies for modifying their own work
It is important to keep in mind that students need to see examples of excellent work. We often tend to assume that students can produce good results without ever having seen what these results look like. Students also need to practice self-assessment. This means that teachers must build the opportunities into learning activities and assessments on an ongoing basis.
In confronting the evidence students must accept their failures. But knowing that understanding failures leads to future achievements students can experience ongoing self-assessment as continuous and genuine success.
Students should keep systematic records of their learning which document reflections and insights as they occur. They need feedback from their teacher as they assess their work and that of others. They are crating a log of their learning progress which shows important milestones and successes worthy of celebration.
Sharing their self-assessment with others increases their understanding of their own learning strengths and areas where improvement is needed.
It is important to remember, however, that students may take some time to assume full responsibility for their own learning and to confront the challenges involved. Assessment as learning shifts the focus from getting the right answer or the one wanted by the teacher. The new focus is on the student’s responsibility and role in becoming a better learner.