Assessment for learning
Assessment for learning
Teaching staff at Dover and East campuses had the pleasure of spending two days in training with Professor Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Education at the London Institute of Education. He is one of the world’s leading authorities on the ways that assessment can be used to improve student learning, has authored or co-authored over 300 articles, books and book chapters on education.
His special area of interest is ‘formative assessment’ or assessment for learning. This describes any form of ongoing assessment that is used by the teacher to change their instruction for the learner, as opposed to ‘summative assessment,’ which is concerned with the assignment of a grade at the end of a unit or a course of study. Assessing merely at the end of a unit (summative assessment), though important, is often too late. As one commentator memorably put it, “When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment; when a cook tastes it, that’s formative.”
In all teaching, there is a gap between what we teach the students and what they have actually learned. Different students in the same class understand things differently. If this were not true, there would be no need to assess them; in order to work out what the students have learned, we could simply write down a list of what we have taught that week and move on to the next topic without checking. Assessment for learning bridges this gap and helps the teacher to ensure that there are no misconceptions, no misunderstandings before moving on to build up the next layer. It is a very complex and difficult area—feedback that a teacher gives to one child can create intense motivation to improve; the exact same feedback given to another learner could cause them to give up. For a teacher, this is a very difficult balancing act. But it is worth putting energy, time and money into it because research is pretty clear on the impact of formative assessment in education: it stands out as the most beneficial and most achievable educational strategy for the improvement of learning.
It is important to note that feedback is not merely praise or criticism. “Well done!” or “Needs improvement” are not examples of feedback because they do not help a student to know how he or she can improve next time. Nor is a grade a substitute for feedback. If a student achieves an ‘A’ or a ‘7,’ they need to be told what it was that made them achieve that. True feedback gives students not only a sense of quality but also a step-by-step anatomy of quality. Feedback should always be forward looking and intended to show how a student can improve next time. As Douglas B. Reeves put it, formative assessment and feedback “should be a medical not a postmortem.” This is, for example, the major tenet of the Reading and Writing Workshop model that we employ in the Primary Schools on both campuses. The feedback the teacher gives comes more from an assessment of the writer than of the writing. It is about how to make the writer better next time and not to make the current piece better.
Assessment for learning is a key area of focus at the College. With one of our learning principles stating that learning is effective when learners use timely and goal directed feedback, we can expect that ongoing feedback helping teachers to adjust their approach to individual learners will continue to be a feature of our classrooms. In his recent visit, Wiliam provided many examples and strategies over two highly valuable days, attended by teachers from K1 to Grade 12. He will return in September 2013.