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7 Questions you Must ask about Assessment for Learning

Could it be time to refresh your formative assessment practice, asks Claire Gadsby...

  • 7 Questions you Must ask about Assessment for Learning

Formative assessment is not new. Believe it or not, Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black’s seminal book Inside the Black Box was published way back in 1990, and it is rare to encounter a school that hasn’t engaged with formative assessment, at least on some level, over the last two decades.

During this time, many schools have developed assessment ‘habits’ and routines. Whilst some of these are productive, others are simply not helpful and tend to be founded on assumptions about what Ofsted, senior leaders or other stakeholders may be expecting.

Assessment for Learning is defined as “part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning.”

How close is this to reality in your school? Which elements are embedded effectively, and which may need revisiting? Teachers typically comment on the fact that a lot of time is devoted to the ‘seeking’ of assessment data but less to the crucial ‘reflecting and responding’ to that information.

It is clear that a responsive classroom lies at the very heart of successful formative assessment, and is characterised by what Dylan Wiliam describes as a pedagogy of ‘engagement and contingency’.

There is always much to say about formative assessment but here are a few questions you might like to consider with regards to practice in your own school:

1 | How varied is the diet?

It is important to consider formative assessment within the wider context of assessment generally. What is the overall assessment ‘diet’ like in your classroom and within your school? Has the culture of book scrutinies limited the range of assessment tasks because staff are overly focused on what makes for good ‘evidence’ of pupil progress?

Why not try…?

...providing more opportunities for carefully orchestrated choice and challenge by expanding the range of assessment tasks. Beyond formal tasks and tests, are there enough creative and diverse opportunities for all your learners to demonstrate what they are capable of?

If we restrict learners to a diet of standard exam style questions and ‘neat notes in best books’ this is very limiting, not to mention boring. What about a transformation of learning – by asking students to present their learning in a new way we can begin to see shades of understanding.

For example, ask them for a metaphor: “If this topic/ idea were an object it would be a …… because….”. Pupils can also represent their learning in the form of models, word clouds, infographics, mindmaps, poems etc.

Rich tasks of this type lend themselves to extended homework projects and tend to generate fantastic resources for classroom displays as well as opportunities for presentations by the learners.


2 | Do you anticipate misconceptions?

As teachers, we know what the knottiest, most difficult aspects of the subject are. By planning with these at the forefront of our minds, we can be much more strategic and ready to offer appropriate support.

Why not try…?

...using techniques such as the GAS (Go and Stand) question to tease out exactly where misconceptions lie? Pose a question and place four different answers, one in each corner of the classroom. Ensure that only one is correct, and that the other three are each wrong in a different way.

Invite learners to stand next to the answer that seems correct to them, with the expectation that you may ask them to explain their thinking. Where learners have opted for an incorrect answer, teachers can see exactly which misconception they have and tailor support accordingly.


3 | Can you be responsive?

The term ‘responsive teaching’ has been suggested as an alternative title for formative assessment. Consider how ‘responsive’ your classroom, department and school are currently. Is there capacity to regroup students easily? Can you work with smaller groups within your classroom?

Why not try…?

...introducing mechanisms that allow you, the teacher and lead pedagogue, to work more closely with the learners who need you the most. Try assembling a few spare seats around your desk and routinely invite learners to ‘come into a conference’ with you, thus allowing you to target your support more efficiently.


4 | Have you developed habits?

For instance, the habit of simply telling learners the learning objective at the start of the lesson or, worse still, asking them to copy this from the board, requires no active, metacognitive engagement from the learners.

Such practices kill any sense of anticipation and appear to be driven by the expectation that observers in the lesson would expect to see an objective displayed prominently at all times.

Why not try…?

...using the learning objective as a tool to explicitly challenge and intrigue your learners? Ensure that the objective is sufficiently challenging ( if in doubt, tweak the verb to focus on higher order skills).

Next, explore this with learners, perhaps using what I call a fascinator (picture/prop/stimuls) from which learners predict the objective. Or the ‘sneak delete’ strategy where you gradually delete the objective one word at a time, challenging learners to remember what was there previously.

These engaging strategies help to keep the objectives live and ‘simmering’ throughout the lesson, as well as providing a reference point for learners to reflect upon and discuss their progress at any given moment.


5 | Do learners engage with success criteria?

Pre-prepared, tick list success criteria are prevalent but problematic, again soliciting little from the learners in terms of engagement or cognition. As tempting as it may be for busy teachers to generate these kind of rubrics in advance, resist the urge.

Co-constructing success criteria with the learners strengthens their understanding and helps to activate them as owners of their own learning.

Why not try…?

...exploring the features of quality work by playing WAGOLL (What A Good One Looks Like) Bingo? Ask your learners to predict what a good example might look like and then to list up to six criteria in a grid.

As the WAGOLL is revealed, learners interrogate this exemplar whilst crossing off their correct guesses, thus strengthening their understanding of what is required in their own work.


6 | Is your questioning effective?

It is estimated that the average teacher asks between 300 and 400 questions every day of their working lives and we know that effective classroom discussion and questioning are essential components of formative assessment.

Troublingly, the wait time after questions is still thought generally to be less than three seconds. Effective questioning, with increased teacher wait time and a ‘no hands up’ culture, plays a crucial role in ascertaining the gaps in learners’ understanding.

Why not try…?

...Rally Robin (verbal tennis) or other Kagan collaborative learning strategies to re energise learners and to provide significant time for oral rehearsal prior to selecting a pupil to answer the question.


7 | Could you mark less?

Teachers are still investing massive amounts of time and energy into marking that has negligible impact. In an effort to tackle teacher workload, some schools are now making bold moves towards a culture of active feedback with no written comments. How engaged are your learners with the feedback you currently provide?

Why not try…?

...enticing learners to care more about feedback by turning it into a ‘code cracking’ exercise requiring teachers to use coloured dots instead of written comments. See a detailed description of how to do this on my blog at clairegadsby.com.


Claire Gadsby is a freelance education consultant, trainer and keynote speaker. For a wealth of practical and innovative ways to develop formative assessment further, see her book, Perfect Assessment for Learning (Independent Thinking Press).

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