Assessment for learning (AfL)
Assessment for learning has been defined as the process of interpreting evidence to decide where learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there. When assessment for learning is well established in a classroom, students are actively involved in their learning; able to judge the success of their work and to take responsibility for their own progress
The notion of ‘assessment’ is often bound up with ideas regarding examinations, accreditation, perhaps even accountability. However, for some time there has been a growing discussion regarding ‘Assessment for Learning’ (AfL), or formative assessment. This form of assessment stands in contrast to summative assessment, which is understood to be the form of assessment most often conducted at the end of the unit, which is supposed to represent the understanding of that unit’s content at that point in time. Assessment for Learning, in contrast, is targeted at assessing understanding throughout teaching, helping students to understand what stage they are at, and how they might improve. AfL thus involves assessment to provide feedback for improving learning.
Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn’t Always Equal and Differentiation, explains the difference between the two and how formative assessment helps you offer better feedback to your students.
Assessment for learning has been defined as:
- The teacher’s feedback to students is timely and based on high quality questions. The feedback helps guide students to a deeper understanding of the material and allows them to use that understanding to develop alternate solutions.
The following key characteristics identify assessment for learning in practice.
Assessment for learning
- is embedded in a view of teaching and learning of which it is an essential part. Assessment for learning is not something extra or ‘bolted on’ that a teacher has to do. Student learning is the principal aim of schools and assessment for learning aims to provide students with the skills and strategies for taking the next steps in their learning;
- involves sharing learning goals with students. If students understand the main purposes of their learning and what they are aiming for, they are more likely to grasp what they need to do to achieve it;
- aims to help students to know and recognize the standards that they are aiming for. Learners need to be clear about exactly what they have to achieve in order to progress. They should have access to the criteria that will be used to judge this, and be shown examples or models where other learners have been successful. Students need to understand what counts as ‘good work’;
- involves students in peer and self-assessment. Ultimately, learners must be responsible for their own learning; the teacher cannot do that for them. So students must be actively involved in the process and need to be encouraged to see for themselves how they have progressed in their learning and what it is they need to do to improve. Teachers need to encourage students to review their work critically and constructively;
- provides feedback, which leads to students recognizing their next steps and how to take them. Feedback should be about the qualities of the work with specific advice on what needs to be done in order to improve. Students need to be given the time to act on advice and make decisions about their work, rather than being the passive recipients of teachers’ judgements;
- involves both teacher and student in reviewing and reflecting on assessment data (information). Students need to have opportunities to communicate their evolving understanding and to act on the feedback they are given. The interaction between teacher and student is an important element of developing understanding and promoting learning;
- is underpinned by confidence that every student can improve. Poor feedback can lead to students believing that they lack ‘ability’ and are not able to learn. Students will only invest effort in a task if they believe they can achieve something. The expectation in the classroom needs to be that every student can make progress in his or her learning.
How might we use Assessment for Learning?
- Share learning objectives at the beginning of the lesson and, where appropriate, during the lesson, in language that students can understand
- Use these objectives as the basis for questioning and feedback during class discussions.
- Evaluate this feedback in relation to the achievement of the learning objectives to inform the next stages of planning.
- Show students work that has met the criteria with explanations of why
- Give students clear success criteria and then relate them to the learning objectives
- Model what it should look like, for example, exemplify good writing on the board
- Ensure that there are clear, shared expectations about the presentation of work
- Provide displays of students’ work which show work in progress as well as finished products
- Give students clear opportunities to talk about what they have learned and what they have found difficult, using the learning objectives as a focus
- Encourage students to work/discuss together, focusing on how to improve
- Ask students to explain their thinking: ‘How did you get that answer?’
- Give time for students to reflect upon their learning
- Identify with students the next steps in learning
- Value oral as well as written feedback
- Ensure feedback is constructive as well as positive, identifying what the student has done well, what needs to be done to improve and how to do it
- Identify the next steps for groups and individuals as appropriate
- Identify small steps to enable students to see their progress, thus building confidence and self-esteem
- Encourage students to explain their thinking and reasoning within a secure classroom ethos
- Reflect with students on their work, for example through a storyboard of steps taken during an investigation
- Choose appropriate tasks to provide quality information (with emphasis on process, not just the correct answer)
- Provide time for students to reflect on what they have learned and understood, and to identify where they still have difficulties
- Adjust planning, evaluate effectiveness of task, resources, etc. as a result of assessment
Summary of the research
- providing effective feedback to students;
- actively involving students in their own learning;
- adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment;
- recognizing the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self- esteem of students, both of which are crucial to learning;
- considering the need for students to be able to assess themselves and to understand how to improve.
- valuing quantity and presentation rather than the quality of learning;
- lowering the self-esteem of students by over-concentrating on judgements rather than advice for improvement;
- demoralizing students by comparing them negatively and repeatedly with more successful learners;
- giving feedback, which serves social and managerial purposes rather than helping students to learn more effectively;
- working with an insufficient picture of students’ learning needs.
- More effort has to be spent in framing questions that are worth asking.
- Wait time has to be increased to several seconds to give students time to think, and everyone should be expected to contribute to the discussion.
- Follow-up activities have to provide opportunities to ensure that meaningful interventions that extend students’ understanding take place.
- The only point of asking questions is to raise issues about which the teacher needs information, or about which the students need to think.
Feedback through marking (grading and comments)
- Written tasks, alongside oral questioning, should encourage students to develop and show understanding of the key features of the subject they have studied.
- Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement, and give guidance on how to make that improvement.
- Opportunities for students to follow up comments should be planned as part of the overall learning process.
- To be effective, feedback should cause thinking to take place.
Peer and self-assessment
- The criteria for evaluating any learning achievements must be transparent to students to enable them to have a clear overview, both of the aims of their work and of what it means to complete it successfully.
- Students should be taught the habits and skills of collaboration in peer assessment.
- Students should be encouraged to keep in mind the aims of their work and to assess their own progress to meet these aims as they proceed.
- Peer and self-assessment make unique contributions to the development of students’ learning – they secure aims that cannot be achieved in any other way.
The formative use of summative tests
- Students should be engaged in a reflective review of the work they have done to enable them to plan their revision effectively.
- Students should be encouraged to set questions and mark answers to help them, both to understand the assessment process and to focus further efforts for improvement.
- Students should be encouraged through peer and self-assessment to apply criteria to help them understand how their work might be improved.
- Summative tests should be, and should be seen to be, a positive part of the learning process.
The underlying issues are identified:
- learning theory (teachers need to know in advance what sort of feedback will be useful; they need to understand how their students learn);
- subject differences (teachers need to have an understanding of the fundamental principles of the subject, an understanding of the kinds of difficulty that students might have, and the creativity to think up questions which can stimulate productive thinking – such pedagogical content knowledge is essential in interpreting response);
- motivation and self-esteem (learning is not just a cognitive exercise: it involves the whole person – learning for learning rather than for rewards or grades);
- a learning environment – principles and plans (teachers need to have forethought of how to teach in a way which establishes a supportive climate);
- a learning environment – roles and responsibilities (teachers need to help students become active learners who can take increasing responsibility for their progress)
Resources on Assessment for Learning (aka Formative Assessment)