Using assessment as opportunity for learning can bring dramatic changes

iStock_000019142594XSmallResearchers at King’s College, London, England, have been studying classroom assessment methods. They published preliminary finds in 1998 indicating that assessment methods used by teachers are generally not effective in promoting good learning, that grading practices tend to emphasize competition, and that assessment feedback often has a negative impact, particularly on low-achieving students. Since then, Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam have been studying ways to improve classroom assessment that lead to higher achievement.

Black et al. define “assessment for learning” as any assessment for which the first priority is promoting students’ learning. It differs from assessment that is used to certify competence for the purposes of accountability or ranking. It is any assessment activity that provides information to help students and teachers adapt teaching and learning to increase students’ knowledge or improve their understanding.

In this project, Black et al. worked with several school districts interested in improving classroom assessment. Each secondary school selected two science and two math teachers who were willing to work in the project. This initial group of 24 teachers was involved in a three-year study. Later, the project was expanded to English teachers and to primary schools, and a group at Stanford University began a similar research study in California. The British study recently presented findings on three years of data. Black et al. are convinced that assessment for learning produces gains in student achievement, even when measured by state-mandated tests.

Each teacher in the study selected his or her own standardized measure for his or her class. Depending on the grade, they used national graduation exams or other nationally standardized tests. This approach meant that the size of the improvement was measured differently for each class. However, these researchers were able to compare results by using effect sizes (computed by taking the difference between scores of the experimental and control groups and then dividing this number by the standard deviation). For the 19 teachers on whom there was complete data, the average effect size was .30. This is a modest but educationally significant improvement. If this gain was seen throughout an entire school, such improvement would be large enough to raise a school in the lower quartile to above average.

This research reveals four areas of assessment that can be adapted to improve learning: questioning, feedback without grading, peer- and self-assessment, and what these researchers refer to as the formative use of tests.


Previous research has demonstrated that many teachers do not plan and conduct classroom dialogue in ways that help students to learn. In this study, teachers found that good questioning practices developed when they:

  • Worked with colleagues to develop questions that explore issues critical to student understanding
  • Increased the wait time after asking a question so that all students have time to think
  • Encouraged all students to view their answers, whether right or wrong, as helpful in developing understanding.

These researchers conclude that the only reason for asking a question is to raise issues about which the teacher needs information, or about which the students need to think.

Feedback Without Grading

Black et al. state that the use of grades or numerical scores on students’ work has a negative effect, especially for low-achieving students. And for most students, once they see a grade, they are much less likely to read any written comments. In this study, when teachers experimented with abandoning grades on classwork, students engaged more productively in improving their work. One teacher wrote,

“On several occasions [ I saw] how little time pupils spent reading my comments if there were grades given as well. My routine now, is not to give grades, only comments; to give comments that highlight what has been done well and what needs further work, and to give minimum follow-up work that’s expected to be completed next time I mark the books.”

These researchers believe that the effort devoted to grades by many teachers may be misdirected. A numerical score does not tell a student how to improve her work, so an opportunity to enhance her learning is lost. Providing informative comments requires more work initially, but collaboration between teachers who share examples of effective comments has proved very helpful in the study. Written comments on students’ work also help parents focus on the learning issues.

Teachers in the study found many ways of accommodating the new emphasis on comments. Some teachers entered grades in their record books, but not on the paper; others gave a score or grade only after a student had responded to the comments. As teachers worked to create useful comments, they often realized that they needed to reevaluate some of the work they asked students to do. Some tasks are more useful than others in revealing students’ understandings and misconceptions. Overall, improving feedback means that any written work should encourage students to develop and show their understanding of key features of what they have learned, while comments should identify work that is good and work that needs improvement. Opportunities for students to respond to comments should be planned as part of the learning process.

Peer Assessment and Self-Assessment

Because students can achieve a learning goal only if they understand the goal and assess what they need to do to reach it, self-assessment is essential to learning. In practice, peer assessment turns out to be equally important because the interchange is in language that students naturally use and understand. Also, students learn by taking the role of teacher. As one teacher in the study wrote:

“The students know that homework will be checked either by themselves or another student at the start of the next lesson. This has led to a well-established routine and only rarely do students fail to complete their homework. They take pride in work that one of their peers may be asked to mark. Any disagreement about an answer is thoroughly and openly discussed until agreement is reached.”

Self-assessment, however, happens only if teachers spend the time with their students, particularly low achievers, to develop the skill. Teachers in this study developed methods to help students evaluate their work. One popular method is using the idea of a traffic light — labeling work green, yellow or red according to whether they think they have good, partial or little understanding. Then greens and yellows can be paired to help one another, while the reds meet with the teacher as a group. Through this practice students become comfortable evaluating what they know and don’t know.

The Formative Use of Tests

Test preparation can be helpful in teaching students to evaluate their knowledge, learning where they have weakness and using that information to increase their learning. Some teachers have students code a list of key words or topics to be covered by the test using the traffic – light method. In this way, they become aware of what they know and what they need to study. Groups of students can use the same method to identify questions at the end of chapters that they need to study. After tests, students have opportunities for learning as well. Teachers can discuss questions that many students found difficult, and peer tutoring can tackle those problems encountered by only a few students.

Researchers found that students who were trained to prepare and then answer their own questions performed better on tests than other students. Preparing test questions helps students develop an overview of the topic.

“Students have had to think about what makes a good question for a test and in doing so need to have a clear understanding of the subject material.the best questions have been used for class tests. In this way, the pupils see that their work is valued.”

The overall message is that tests should become a positive part of the learning process because they can help students improve their learning.

Concluding Thoughts

When teachers begin using assessment as an opportunity for learning, the climate of the classroom can change rather dramatically. The roles of students and teachers are altered and expectations are different. As teachers give sustained attention to and reflect on ways in which assessment can support learning, students feel empowered to become active learners, taking more responsibility for their own learning.

“Working Inside the Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom”, Phi Delta Kappan, Volume 86, Number 1, September 2004, pp. 9-21.

Published in ERN October 2004 Volume 17 Number 7

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