Assessment – where are we? Where are we going?

Assessment has become something of a theme in the things I’ve been involved in over the past few months, so this is the first of a series of posts on the topic.
I’ve just completed the ‘Assessment for Learning in STEM Teaching‘ MOOC on Futurelearn by the University of Leeds. It was a little outside my normal area in that it was focused more towards learning in schools, but I was looking for general principles and any crossover with higher education. Lately, I’ve found myself subscribing to more blogs that are specifically to do with the schools sector. Partly this is due to my interest in politics and the impact of the recent (May 2015) general election in the UK on the education system as a whole, and partly because of a personal project I’m developing (

Keep calm and assess formatively

Keep calm and assess formatively

The key starting point for the MOOC was a review of an influential paper ‘Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment‘ by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. The paper looked at the evidence for the effect of formative assessment within the classroom on student achievement. According to Google scholar this paper has been cited over 4500 times, and Dylan was one of the educators on the course.

Formative assessment is important – it makes a significant difference to student outcomes, but it’s the bit that’s often missed, the bit students don’t really see the point of. For many students, formative equals optional, and optional means not required. But if you were to suggest that someone was to learn to drive by skipping the lessons and just taking the test again and again, they’d think you were mad, but that’s precisely what happens when formative assessment isn’t done by students or made available by staff. The term ‘formative assessment’ itself can mean different things to different people, so let’s narrow down what we’re talking about in the context of the course.

Here we’re talking about formative assessment ‘within the classroom’. This isn’t formative assessment as practice preceding a summative assignment, or to (primarily) tell the students how they are doing. Instead, what assessment for learning means is that part-way through a session the teacher takes some action to gauge what the current understanding of the students is, where the misconceptions are, and crucially, what action needs to be taken next. It’s the educational equivalent of orienteering – find where you are, look at your next destination, plan the route and move.
The course talked about intentional dialogue – the planned process of exploring understanding – and differentiated between facilitated discussions and hinge-point questions. These hinge-point questions are carefully crafted multiple choice questions where the answers map to common misunderstandings. Follow-up questions to particular students about why they answered the way they did meant the teacher could confirm they got the right answer for the right reason or explore the reasoning behind the wrong answer. Videos of teachers in action in the classroom bridged the gap between theory and practice, as well as giving us the chance to analyse and critique the technique. Intentional dialogue reminded me a lot of Laurillard’s conversational framework, although in this case the conversations are face-to-face and not mediated by technology.

Assessment for learning is a significant factor in raising achievement. If we want students to engage with formative assessment (in all its forms) then we need to design our courses so that formative assessment is what is emphasized and rewarded. As Jen Ebbeler says “by incentivizing practice, we are actually incentivizing the type of behaviour that leads to learning”. What should happen is that teachers have authority over their professional practice and decide how and when to use it. I have heard anecdotally that in some areas it has become an additional accountability measure i.e. teachers now not only have to use it, but need to be able to prove that they’ve used it. Perhaps if we want educational results to rival those of the Scandinavian countries it might be better if we took on board some of their methods, (see the taught by Finland blog for a comparison) such as giving teachers the trust and autonomy to simply do their jobs.

So what does assessment for learning look like in higher education? I’d argue it’s much less common outside the seminar room simply because of the scale, particularly with my department’s first year cohort now substantially into three figures. We might also assume where it is present it bears little resemblance to assessment for learning in schools, but does it? In school, students might hold up a coloured card with a big letter A. At university we might use polling tools such as Turningpoint, and if we want to go low-tech, then Keele communicubes have been around for a while now, courtesy of Dr Stephen Bostock. Are we really doing anything fundamentally different, apart from succumbing to ‘shiny toys’ syndrome and congratulating ourselves on how innovative we are?

Returning to the MOOC, did I find it useful? Yes. Would I recommend it to others? Yes, because I found it beneficial to look at learning from the perspective of school teaching. My only negative point is that I would have preferred to have had a class that I could have practised the technique with.

3 thoughts on “Assessment – where are we? Where are we going?

  1. Pingback: Assessment: it’s a variable not a constant | Toasting Snowflakes

  2. Pingback: Striving for a personal best – who judges? | Toasting Snowflakes

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