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Thinking about assessment

‘Assessment is, indeed, the bridge between teaching and learning.’

Dylan William


The importance of assessment is obvious, it is a process that gives us an insight into what our students know, understand and can do as a result of our teaching. It informs us teachers about what has been learnt, consolidated, where the gaps are and what needs to be re-taught in order to close these gaps. 


There is a significant research evidence to suggest that if formative assessment is successfully implemented, it has clear benefits for teaching and learning. It is built on the pioneering work of Paul Black and Dylan William (1998). When interviewed by TES (2013), Dylan William reflected that a better description for formative assessment is to call it ‘responsive teaching’. It is linked to the idea that teaching is adaptive to the learner’s needs.(Teaching Walkthrus)

They reasoned that people often think about tests and exams, when the word ‘assessment’ is used. Formative assessment as well as retrieval practice does not include marks or grades. It does not compare students with one another. Black and William point out that it is a process which involves working with students, so that they know where they are in their learning, where they need to be and how they will get there.


However, a caution is needed when conducting summative assessments (assessing what students have learnt using various forms of measurement) – as how a student does in one assessment doesn’t tell us necessarily how he/she will perform on another assessment in a term or years to come as too much will/can change in meantime. There is also the problem with estimating GCSE grades because the criteria will be different to that used in the final exam – for example in year 10, I will be unlikely to assess the entire GCSE content or all skills and as we know the grade boundaries shift every year.

‘Learning is an invisible process, teachers often have misconceptions about what pupils have actually come away with after a lesson.’ (Graham Nuthall: Hidden Lives of Learners)


Assessment is designed to make the learning visible so that the teacher can respond to any gaps in knowledge and adapt the teaching for future lessons. It is important to think about: ‘ What is it that we want to assess?’ when designing assessments. 

It really is worth reviewing the summative assessments we use, often we use assessments provided by the course book we follow and there is nothing wrong with it, however they should be reviewed and possibly ‘personalised’ to fit the school context and approach. More and more schools are creating and designing their own assessments these days. We can’t assess everything that we have taught in our curriculum, so careful judgment about which parts/skills to assess and when is essential. The problem with summative assessment is also it’s validity (face validity, content validity, convergent validity and divergent validity) as Mark Enser raises in his book ‘Teach like nobody is watching’.


On this post, I would like to concentrate on how I use formative assessment to inform my teaching.

In his book ‘Embedded formative assessment’ Dylan William puts forward five strategies for teachers to embed formative assessment into their teaching successfully:

  1. Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and success criteria – discussing LO with students, modelling, SB/KO, worked examples, check lists, mark schemes/grids…

  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities and tasks that elicit evidence of learning – use of ‘cold call’, posing a question before saying student’s name, use ‘no-opt-out’, providing ‘wait time’, retrieval practice, summaries, reasoning, ‘interpretive listening’…

  3. Providing feedback that moves forward – research has shown that comments only and not grades lead to the most improvement and motivation, giving one or two improvement points, providing students with enough time to respond; it should explain ‘how’ to improve not just ‘what’ and should be based on the success criteria.

  4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another – collaborative learning – peer tutoring, group work, peer assessment, peer checklists (I will be starting to trial peer checklist from September), think, pair, share. I would also like to try ‘group revision’ – where students work in groups with each group member being given one question from a topic to answer to the rest of the group or it could be a Grammar point and students have to explain it to the rest of the group.

  5. Activating learners as the owners of their own learning – self-assessment, self-quizzing, metacognition, students being aware how they learnt and the strategies most useful for self-study (retrieval practice, spacing, interleaving, feedback, dual coding).

Assessment is a concept that has often frustrated me; with all of the different things that we are expected to do as effective practitioners, it has been one area which at times felt that no matter at how many different approaches I have explored, I just couldn’t seem to find one that would have a real impact on the progress of my students.

During the Lockdown period, like many of us, I had the time to reflect and review the assessment and marking policies that I have been exposed to and have been using in my 16 years of teaching.


At the start of my teaching career there wasn’t much guidance on marking. Marking often resembled a flicking and ticking exercise – ticking each page and writing comments such as – ‘Great work!’, ‘Please, underline the title!’, ‘Don’t waste the space!’, ‘Glue in your sheets!’, ‘Finish this work!’… Spending lot of time on marking and assessing with minimal, if any impact on students’ progress!

Then the new trend came in – ‘personalised marking’ – marking and assessing one piece of work, usually extended piece of writing at least twice a half term. I thought, surely this would reduce the amount of marking and have more impact on the progress of my students! Well, the reality was, I spent hours writing the same long/personalised feedback into different books, such as ‘use different tenses, use variety of connectives, extend you writing more’ and using rather vague level descriptors provided… However, this was adding no value to my students’ progress, was only complying with the school’s marking policy and has not reduced my work load what so ever!

I am not even going to start talking about the ‘triple marking’, all of us had to go through and the endless data drops ‘assessing’ what grade or level my students were!!! For how I use feedback now, see the post here.

I would like to make it clear, that this is not a criticism of my school leaders, but it results from an education culture in the U.K that over the years became (and in some schools still is) data and evidence of progress hungry. 


What does formative assessment look like in my classroom:

Influenced by the work of Dylan William, Michael Chiles, Daisy Christodoulou and Research Ed guide on assessment, I apply a variety of strategies. 


Strategy 1: Retrieval Practice – I use various forms of retrieval tasks which can be focused on knowledge (vocabulary, chunks, Grammar) recall or skill based such as speaking or writing. As Karpicke points out, retrieval does not just assess learning; it also enhances it: ‘learning is altered by the act of retrieval itself’ (2012). Testing strengthens both the LTM (storage strength) and retrieval (retrieval strength) and makes ‘forgetting’ less likely to occur. Learning so becomes more durable, particularly when it is effortful and regularly spaced over the course of study.

When students are retrieving, I circulate the classroom to check for the gaps in the knowledge. Is there anything I need to re-teach? I ask probing questions, especially when retrieving grammatical concepts to ensure understanding and deeper thinking. More on Retrieval, see my post here.


Strategy 2: Questioning – I ask a lot of questions – everybody is expected to respond – no-opt-out – using cold calling, MWB and other TLAC techniques. More on effective questioning, please see this post here.


Strategy 3: Multiple Choice Quizzes (MCQ) – Blake Howard’s work on this topic has been extremely useful. MCQs need to be carefully written and some of the points to consider when designing effective MCQs are:

  • Answers must be similar so that students engage with all of the material – this then prevents learners from guessing and makes the correct answer obvious for those who know it.

  • Answers must include the most common misconceptions (like the example below on past participles)

  • There should be always the “don’t know” option, as it avoids guessing or hiding students’ gaps in knowledge if they guess correctly.

  • For students to engage with all of the material don’t tell them how many options there are.

  • Answers should assess only one element to avoid confusion

  • They should also assess understanding


Strategy 4: Think-Pair-Share – I use this for formatively assessing speaking practice – I pre-determine the pairs and whilst students are talking, I circulate the class and listen. Are there any common misconceptions I need to address?


Strategy 5: Silent work – This strategy is used usually during the written production phase when students are asked to produce extended piece of writing or working on translation activity, still using formative assessment – I always model the task using my visualiser and provide appropriate scaffolding to those students who need it, so all of my learners can access the task. Whilst students are working I move around the classroom and try to read as much work as possible. This collection of ‘data’ provides me with the opportunity to give a personalised feedback or to stop the lesson if I notice common misconceptions and address them immediately.


Concluding words: In terms of reflection on assessment – what and why I am assessing, the biggest take-away for me is to remember who am I assessing for! The purpose of assessment should be to increase and support the progress of my students and they should be the centre of all we as educators do, its aim shouldn’t be just to inform the school’s reporting system – SLT, governors and parents.

2 Comments


Guest
Nov 28, 2023

An excellent blog. Not just for MFL but for all subjects

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Guest
Nov 28, 2023

I enjoyed this blog, as a German teacher, thanks. I've just written a Master's essay about assessment and used the bridge quote and came to exactly the conclusion as you at the end. So many teachers confuse assessment with accountability, but it can be so powerful in terms if learning if that is the priority. Several of the references were also similar (Christodolou, Wiliam etc). Have you also read the Bjork and Bjork work on desirable difficulties?

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