We all want our students to become more independent and responsible for their learning, but this won’t happen without the right support. Enter assessment for learning! As opposed to assessment of learning (think end of term exams, categorisation of students, awarding a number), assessment for learning sees learning as a journey: what does my student know, where are they going, what do they need to get there? Let’s look at three simple ways that good teachers employ assessment for learning.
- Share learning intentions and refer back to them
Picture the scene: a little boy gets home from school and his mum asks him “What did you learn today?” The response (after a shrug of the shoulders): “I dunno, stuff.” We need to make learning explicit.
A lesson (or a unit of work) should have a goal: what is it the students will be able to do at the end that they couldn’t do at the start? And it makes sense to share these learning objectives with students: why? Well, the students see there’s a point to the lesson, for one thing. It provides them with a focus and something for them to work towards: all these little practice activities are not being done for the sake of it! We often talk about wanting students to ‘take responsibility for their own learning’ and a way to do this is to make learning explicit to them. So we outline the learning objectives at the beginning of the lesson. As our students show evidence of learning during the lesson we would refer back to the objectives, signposting their learning – “That’s great, you’ve shown me you can talk about past experiences, well done” – which has a positive effect on student motivation. Finally students would consider at the end of the lesson to what extent they’d achieved their objectives (which might include peer and self assessment). What are the next steps for the student and, of course, for the teacher?
- Use comments that help learners move forward
At the bottom of a student essay, the teacher writes: ‘6 / 10, try harder next time!’ There are a few problems here. Firstly, the grade (6/10) appears first and in my experience many students will look for the grade, perhaps compare themselves with their peers and then cast the work aside meaning that all the error correction and helpful comments have been in vain. This experience is backed up by studies, which show that students are less likely to read comments if there is a grade than if there is none. A solution? Why not reveal the overall grade once students have looked at their mistakes and taken steps to correct them. Students can even give themselves a grade first: does it coincide with the teacher’s?
The second obvious problem is the comment, because it doesn’t provide the student with information on what they need to do to improve. Maybe the student does indeed need to ‘try harder.’ Writing ‘Use a much wider range of vocabulary: for ‘very good’, what about ‘absolutely wonderful’ or fantastic?’ gives more specific feedback and suggestions to improve, so is far more worthwhile.
- Include rubrics
While on the topic of grading our students and sharing learning intentions, let’s stop to consider rubrics, which are a way of A) showing our students what success looks like and B) giving more focused feedback.
Imagine we are setting an essay for homework: what is the difference between an essay that scores a 2 and one that scores a 9? We need to be clear on this of course but so do our students. Perhaps we are grading on content, organisation, range of grammar and vocabulary and accuracy and we want a rubric: each of these fields can occupy a column in a chart, with the rows below ranging from 1 to 5, ready to be circled by the teacher, depending on the student’s score for each area. Even better, these rows can contain comments which explain what each of these numbers refers to (“I got a ‘3’ for content: what does it say next to ´5´ which is what I want?”). Even better still, the teacher can provide examples of work which received different grades explaining (or eliciting from the students) why they scored as they did.
Do these ideas sound like hard work? Perhaps at the start, but using them in class really will ‘empower’ students and ‘make them responsible for their learning’: these are not just abstract buzzwords, they mean something and they are achievable!
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