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Assessment for Learning: the practical implications. A contribution from Ruth Sutton March 2008. My task and intent. My task : to offer you ideas to stimulate reflection and conversation, and then respond to your questions

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assessment for learning the practical implications

Assessment for Learning:the practical implications

A contribution from Ruth Sutton

March 2008

my task and intent
My task and intent
  • My task: to offer you ideas to stimulate reflection and conversation, and then respond to your questions
  • I will: review the key points of what we know from 20 years of research about Assessment for Learning, and explore the practical implications for teaching
  • The conversations that follow will be guided to:
    • encourage you to see how many of the AFL strategies you are already using, and
    • how you might adopt more
my intent what s the point
My intent: what’s the point?

My intent is to keep things simple and practical, while recognising that making assessment for learning work and last in our schools is not easy or quick.

AFL challenges some of our assumptions and our habits around teaching and learning, and hard-wired habits are hard to break

My criteria for a successful session today are:
  • You are clear what Assessment for Learning is really about, and why it’s worth pursuing
  • You have reflected on your own current teaching and found some connections between what you already do, or have at least thought about, and the strategies I’m suggesting
  • You’ve decided to ‘change one thing’ for yourself, or preferably with some of your colleagues, and understand that it may take a while before you feel fully confident about a different way of planning, or questioning, or marking and providing feedback. Whichever area you choose to focus on, it will mean involving your students, intentionally and thoughtfully.
ok then

OK then!

Let’s get going…

back to basics

assessment 2 key purposes
Assessment of learning

Checks learning to date

Audience beyond the classroom


Uses numbers, scores and grades

Criterion/standards referenced

No need to involve the learner

Assessment for learning

Suggests next learning

Audience is teachers and learners

Continual – conversation and marking

Specific feedback, using words

Self-referenced, ‘ipsative’

Must involve the learner – the person most able to improve learning

Assessment: 2 Key Purposes
why bother making this distinction
Why bother making this distinction?
  • The word ‘assessment’ has been used in our language to mean ‘judgement’, and we need to re-capture its original meaning which was much more about feedback than about ‘measurement’
  • Many of us, and most children, parents and community members still react to ‘assessment’ with anxiety
  • So we need to be clear what kind of ‘assessment’ we’re talking about, and how the two purposes differ from each other
the importance of purpose
The importance of ‘purpose’
  • Many teachers spend many hours each week marking students’ work
  • What’s the ‘purpose’ of marking? Is it for ‘grading’ (the left hand column) or for ‘improvement’ (on the right)?
  • If it’s for improvement, we may need to think again about why and how we ‘mark’, to make sure that we don’t waste our own time
  • We also need to think again about how much and how often we ‘grade’ for reporting. The purpose of reporting should be improvement: if not, why do we do so much of it?
actually maybe we should avoid the word assessment altogether

Actually… maybe we should avoid the word ‘assessment’ altogether

What else could we call ‘Assessment for Learning’ to clarify its real purpose?

The Winnipeg Inner City project was entitled ‘Feedback for Learning’

the research base
The research base
  • We need a sound research base before we embark on something so important, and think about changing some of the fundamentals of teaching
  • AFL research spans 25 years, from the 1970s to now, and right across the planet
  • The basic principles are widely understood, but they are not so widely acted upon
  • Let’s look at a good summary of the principles
the afl big 5 principles uk assessment reform group 1999
The AFL ‘Big 5’ Principles(UK Assessment Reform Group, 1999)
  • “The provision of effective feedback to students
  • The active involvement of students in their own learning
  • Adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment
  • Recognition of the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of students, both of which are crucial influences on learning
  • The need for students to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve”
the provision of effective feedback
‘The provision of effective feedback’
  • To understand what ‘effective’ means, we have to remember that the purpose of AFL is improvement, not measurement, so effective feedback must be aimed at that
  • Take a minute: think and talk about the kind of feedback you’ve had over the years that most helped you make your work or performance better
here s what the experts say effective feedback should be
Here’s what the experts say effective feedback should be…
  • Specific
  • Connected to clear criteria
  • Timely: received and acted upon as soon as possible
  • Indicative of next steps
  • Followed through
  • ‘Descriptive’ rather than ‘evaluative’
what s the difference between descriptive and evaluative

Facts, not judgements

Explicitly related to clear shared criteria

Usually in words

Includes specific next steps


Judgements, without specific detail

General and overall, rather than relating to specific criteria

Usually numbers (scores, grades) but can be words too, eg. ‘Good job’

Provides general goals, eg ‘Pay attention to punctuation’ but not specific advice

What’s the difference between ‘descriptive’, and ‘evaluative’?
sounds easy but
Sounds easy, but……
  • Most of the feedback we received as school learners ourselves was ‘evaluative’, so that’s what we’re used to
  • Much of the feedback we provide to our students is ‘evaluative’, so that’s what we’re used to
  • Much of the feedback our students receive is ‘evaluative’ so that’s what they’re used to
  • Much of what is expected of us by school, district and provincial systems is ‘evaluative’ information
  • Providing ‘descriptive’ feedback takes more thought, and probably more time, so why should we change?
why should we change to descriptive feedback
Why should we change to ‘descriptive’ feedback?
  • Because it enables more students to improve their work faster, and achieve more
  • Because it makes more students think more about their learning, and take greater responsibility for improvement
  • Because, after the initial struggle to change our habits, we can do a better job by working differently, not working harder
afl principle 2 the active involvement of students in their own learning
AFL Principle #2‘The active involvement of students in their own learning’
  • These words were chosen with care: it could have said, ‘The active involvement of students in their own assessment’, but it didn’t
  • The message is, AFL works best where the students are encouraged to be involved in the learning process, from the start
  • This starts with the teacher checking what students already know, what they don’t know, and their ‘misconceptions’, and then adjusting their teaching accordingly
  • It has huge implications for teachers’ planning; we need to plan for learning, not for ‘coverage’!
afl principle 3 adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment
AFL Principle #3‘Adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment’

Another implication for planning….now we want teachers to check, as they go along, for students’ understanding, and be flexible enough to adapt their teaching to meet the learners’ needs, not just plough on regardless, driven by coverage of the programme

how do we check as we go along
How do we check as we go along?

Many teachers already use simple techniques to check what’s happening in students’ heads:

* ‘Thumbs up/down/sideways’ to indicate

levels of grasp

* Asking a key question and using students’

answers as a guide

* ‘traffic lights’ shown by students to

communicate easily how they’re feeling

about the learning

What matters is that the students are expected to reflect and respond honestly, and the teacher is able to act upon their responses

planning for learning or planning for coverage

Planning for Learning or Planning for Coverage?

It’s a big issue, and one to discuss when we break for conversation


AFL Principle #4‘Recognition of the profound effect assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of students, both of which are powerful influences on learning’

What does it look like and feel like in a classroom where students’ motivation and their self-respect as learners are treated as ‘powerful influences on learning’?

How about this…..

the well motivated classroom
The well-motivated classroom
  • Students’ prior knowledge and experience are identified and respected in designing what we teach
  • Students’ varied learning styles are incorporated into deciding how we teach
  • Students are encouraged to understand the criteria that will be used to judge their work
  • Students are offered an opportunity to improve their work after feedback, just once or as much as the teacher believes is manageable and useful
  • Students support their peers, and expect to be supported by them
  • Teachers have high expectations of their students
where does intrinsic motivation come from
Where does ‘intrinsic motivation’ come from?

Self efficacy

Believing in yourself as a learner

Effective Feedback

and the chance to act

upon it

‘Locus of control’

Having some control over factors

that influence your success




we are all learners

We are all learners!

What we know about intrinsic motivation applies to us as well….

AFL Principle #5‘The need for students to be able to assess themselves and to understand how to improve’

Here again, the wording is deliberate…our job is to make sure that students are ‘able’ – and willing – to assess themselves

If we’ve paid attention to the previous four principles, this one should take care of itself…

practical implications of afl principle 5
Practical implications of AFL Principle #5
  • Teachers need to ‘coach’ students to become effective in critique and correction of their own and each others’ work
  • Students may have trouble separating feedback from friendship: first they need to learn the skills of applying criteria to work, before looking at the work of people they know
  • It’s essential that students understand the criteria they’re using
  • ‘Co-construction’ of criteria is a great place to start: the teacher uses her subject expertise to guide students towards the criteria that need to be applied, but the wording of the criteria is provided by the students
  • Exemplars of work are more useful to students than words on their own to illuminate and illustrate the criteria they are expected to use
feedback for learning in winnipeg 2000 03 some key lessons
‘Feedback for Learning’ in Winnipeg2000-03: some key lessons
  • Teachers’ skills, confidence, thoughtfulness and willingness to work together are the keys to classroom change
  • Many fine teachers are reluctant to see themselves as leaders
  • Teachers have to believe that changing hard-wired habits will have a pay-off for them as well as their students: ‘what’s in it for me’ is a legitimate question
  • School leaders are the main change-agents in their own schools: what they understand about AFL, and what they do and say about it, matters
  • Schools need courage, confidence, good feedback and perseverance
  • Sustainable whole-school change takes years, not months, to achieve
winnipeg s ten steps to heaven
Winnipeg’s ‘Ten Steps to Heaven’
  • Teacher is clear about purpose and task
  • Teacher knows how to ‘state, share and show’ learning expectations
  • Teacher designs and explains ‘enabling tasks’ – that enable students to learn what we want them to learn, not just keep them busy
  • Teacher and students ‘co-construct’ criteria, together
  • Students check their work, while the task is in progress
ten steps to heaven cont
‘Ten Steps to Heaven’ Cont.
  • Students say what’s OK and what’s not
  • Students identify a next step
  • Students continue, and correct work so far
  • Students reflect periodically, with guidance from the teacher where necessary, on what they’ve learned, and how they learned it

10. Students present their learning and achievement to an audience

ten steps actions help us to remember
Ten steps: actions help us to remember

1. Task (clenched fist)

2. Purpose (hand on heart)

3. Share (spread your hands)

4. Small steps (down the arm)

5. Get working (turn around)

6. Look and check (binoculars)

7. Idea for improvement (finger in air)

8. Take a step towards (step forward)

9. Look back to reflect (look over shoulder)

10. Present learning (raise your arms)

questions for discussion
Questions for discussion

In the early years of schooling:

1. How can children be encouraged to reflect on their learning, in the simplest terms and the most basic activities?

2. How does Assessment for Learning connect with other important goals of early learning?

3. What are the roadblocks we need to watch out for at this stage?

questions for discussion33
Questions for discussion

In elementary classrooms:

  • What are the most effective and manageable ways of increasing students’ involvement in their own learning?
  • How can/do we incorporate AFL strategies into our teaching plans?
  • How can/do we involve students in self and peer assessment? What successes and difficulties have we experienced?
questions for discussion34
Questions for discussion

In secondary classrooms:

  • How can/do we resolve the dilemma around planning for learning vs. planning for coverage? What’s the best first step towards this?
  • How do/could we involve students in self and peer assessment? What successes and problems have we encountered in implementing self and peer assessment?
questions for discussion35
Questions for discussion

For school leaders:

  • What do we need to do, say and ‘model’, systematically and regularly, to sustain teachers’ implementation of AFL?

2. What ‘evidence’ of AFL implementation will we look for across the school? (You’ll need to be quite specific about this)

off line discussion and responses
Off-line discussion and responses

We will leave you with your facilitators for 25 minutes:

  • Discuss any or all of the suggested questions
  • Decide the questions and suggestions you wish to email back to me.
planning for learning not for coverage
Planning for learning……not for ‘coverage’

“But the dog’s not whistling”

“I taught the dog to whistle!”

teaching isn t the same as learning
Teaching isn’t the same as learning!

“I said I taught him, I didn’t say he learned it!”

planning for coverage
Planning for coverage
  • We start by looking at the ‘requirements’ and plan to fit them all in
  • This usually means teaching too much, too fast
  • We know even before we start that some of the students won’t be able to keep up
  • We’re frustrated by being set up to fail
Planning for coverage

Content is fixed

Timing is tight


Students’ questions only matter if they’re within the required framework

Looks neat and tidy

All the space is filled

Predictable and safe

Planning for learning

Content is decided after checking with the students

Timing is looser

More flexible

Students’ questions provide opportunities for teaching and leaning

Looks messy

Some spaces are left blank: ‘it depends what crops up’

Less predictable and feels riskier

how do we plan for learning without taking too many risks
How do we plan for learning without taking too many risks?

Find out about prior learning

  • We may find that we don’t need to teach some stuff
  • We may discover misconceptions that will need to be corrected before students can learn what we plan to teach them
  • Students will feel that the teaching is more tailored to their needs, and are more likely to engage with it
be selective and prioritise
Be selective, and prioritise
  • Decide which bits of what you want to teach are essential: they support future learning and can’t be omitted or rushed

Discuss these choices with others: we need to be sure, and we need to share ways of getting these bits across to our students

Highlight these aspects so you can see how they are spaced out across the programme

Discuss and decide which bits are ‘important’: this means you believe they support current and future learning

You are confident in these areas and know that you do a good job with them

Your students usually enjoy this work and benefit from it

Mark these bits in a different colour

Look at what’s left

You now have to decide which bits are ‘expendable’, which means that you will not plan to teach them to all your students.

You may have resources to help students learn these bits, which can be offered to those students who want, need, or could benefit from them, but not be part of your class teaching programme

minimising the risk
Minimising the risk
  • Don’t go beyond 10% of the given curriculum as expendable. This may mean going back and tweaking your plans to include some bits that should not be left out
  • Make these decisions collectively wherever possible, pooling your expertise about the subject area to share the responsibility and ideas
  • Decide how you are going to deal with the expendable bits
the expendable bits
The expendable bits
  • Don’t throw these bits away, just park them at the edge of your plans, accessible if you have the time and need to include them
  • Develop resources to enable some students to learn these bits without direct whole-class instruction
  • If the pace of learning speeds up (which it might) – then you can cover the ‘expendable bits’ with more of the students
  • Keep your focus on learning rather than teaching: the quality of students’ learning, motivation and confidence is more likely to increase their performance than the quantity of your teaching
co construction of success criteria
Co-construction of success criteria
  • Students can engage successfully in self- and peer-assessment only if they properly understand the criteria that will determine the success of their work
  • For this understanding to be achieved, the following pre-conditions are important….
pre conditions for successful self and peer assessment
Pre-conditions for successful self and peer assessment
  • Teachers need to consider the distinction and connection between what they want students to DO, and what they want them to LEARN
  • Both activities and the learning expectations will have to be explained to the students. This is not easy as much of it will be ‘abstract’, and teachers will need to think about, plan and share their strategies for these explanations, taking account of students’ different starting points and learning styles
co constructing the success criteria
Co-constructing the success criteria
  • Students find it useful, where possible, to see exemplars of the expected work, rather than descriptions of the expectations in words
  • From a range of exemplars, provided the teacher, the students are encouraged to identify the characteristics of successful work, and the range of quality for each, or some, of these characteristics
  • The teacher will guide the students as much as he/she feels necessary, trying to ensure that the final wording of the success criteria is arrived at by the students themselves
  • The teacher and students together then test out the criteria by applying them to some work, and amend where necessary
separating feedback from relationship
Separating feedback from relationship
  • Many students find it difficult initially to provide objective and accurate feedback to their peers, because of their over-riding concern for relationship. They will need practice with ‘neutral’ work to develop the skill of critique, before tackling peer assessment
  • Teachers may also coach their students in providing effective feedback
  • Once the students are clear about the criteria, and have practised the skills of both critique and feedback, they are ready for self and peer assessment
investing in the quality of self critique and self correction
Investing in the quality of self-critique and self-correction
  • Children do not usually emerge from the womb able and willing to critique and correct their own learning. This is school taught and learned as an essential part of their education. This skill will serve learners well throughout their learning lives, within and beyond school.
  • Once this skill is well-developed, it will enhance student learning and allow the teacher to involve students in the continual process of classroom assessment that would otherwise fall to the teachers alone. It’s a win-win investment for both partners in the process.
how do we change the hard wired habits of teaching
How do we change the hard-wired habits of teaching?
  • Assessment for Learning is not about adding something on to our existing teaching habits: it’s about changing some of those habits for good
  • The most fundamental habits of teaching are about teachers’ planning, questioning, marking and feedback, and the roles and behaviours we expect from our students
limbic learning
‘Limbic learning’
  • Research on habit change begins from an understanding that habits are learned through the limbic brain – the emotional centre of our brains - rather than the neo-cortex which we use for intellectual activities
  • The connection between the limbic brain and our habits has some important consequences: it will influence the actions we take to achieve a change of habit, and it may affect how comfortable – or uncomfortable – we feel as we try to break old habits and develop new ones
  • We might be able to learn from other habit-change models, like ‘Weightwatchers’
the weightwatchers model
The Weightwatchers’ Model
  • The Weightwatchers model for changing teaching habits involves:

- Big, important, agreed goals

- Small steps and continual feedback

- Perseverance

- Collegial support and accountability

- Recognition of success

professional development to develop different teaching habits
Professional Development to develop different teaching habits
  • If what we know about ‘limbic learning’ applies to changing our teaching, traditional forms of professional development may help us to know what we need to do, but not to actually do it
  • The best model for changing teaching is the ‘action research’ model:

- teachers work together

- decide an area for change

- identify strategies that might help

- try them out in their rooms

- come back together to share what they did and what happened, try again, check the evidence of the impact of the new habits on learners, and on themselves, and refine their activities still further

  • Changing habits is an experiential rather than an intellectual activity
early years 2 nd discussion
Early years: 2nd discussion
  • What next steps in early years’ teaching practice would be the most helpful in implementing Assessment for Learning at this stage?
  • What roadblocks can we anticipate, and how might these be avoided, or tackled?
elementary years 2 nd discussion
Elementary years: 2nd discussion
  • How do we create a classroom climate which allows all our students to take risks in their learning, and to support each other in doing so?
  • How will we explain the purposes, practices and value of Assessment for Learning to parents and others in the community who may see it as an abdication of teachers’ professional responsibility?
secondary years 2 nd discussion
Secondary years: 2nd discussion
  • How do we help our students to understand why it is essential for them to be involved in their own learning and accept increasing responsibility for it?
  • How do engage our more reluctant teaching colleagues, to ensure that the students experience of AFL is more consistent across the school?
school leaders 2 nd discussion
School leaders: 2nd discussion
  • Which school ‘systems’, including planned professional development, will need review if AFL is to be woven into them?
  • We are learners too: how does AFL apply to us as well as to our teachers and our students?
  • How will we explain the purposes, practices and value of Assessment for Learning to parents and others in the community who may see it as an abdication of teachers’ professional responsibility?
assessment for learning why bother
Assessment for Learning: Why bother?
  • Teachers and schools are reeling under a continuing stream of expectations and accountability. Why does Assessment for Learning deserve our attention and commitment?
  • Here are three key reasons:
the rationale
The rationale
  • Our students deserve opportunities to be as successful as possible in school: decades of global research clearly indicate the gains to be made from:
  • clarifying expectations
  • providing high-quality feedback, and
  • involving the learners themselves
The students currently in Grade 1 graduate in 2020: learning in the 21st century should be a life-long process, driven by the learners’ own ability, confidence and willingness to continuously challenge themselves and identify the next learning steps.

Learning these skills and approaches to learning is not accidental or trivial. It has to be an intentional part of schooling and is the educators’ greatest gift to their students.

last but not least
Last, but not least…..
  • AFL can transform the way teachers do business, every day and in the long term. If it is to be sustained, there has to be something in it for the teachers themselves, beyond mere compliance with external requirements.

When students are clearer about what’s expected of them, more engaged and more focussed on their own learning, the teacher’s day is demonstrably more enjoyable and rewarding.

from theory to practice
From theory to practice
  • AFL strategies are not new: they have been in the minds and sometimes in the practice of many teachers for a long time
  • What we now aspire to is AFL as an intentional and valued part of every teacher’s practice – the normal way we do business
  • There is much to gain for students AND teachers
  • Have we completed the task?
  • Have I achieved my intent?
  • Do you have some practical ways forward?
  • Thanks for being with us!

March 2008