Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Assessment OF learning –v- Assessment FOR learning

I first heard the phrase “assessment for learning” when I attended a Project Zero Summer Institute while I was a teacher at the International School of Amsterdam. Although at the time I’d been teaching for nearly 20 years, this institute changed the way I thought about teaching and learning and I came back from it feeling like a new teacher ready to revise everything I’d ever done before.

My own experience of assessment when I was at school was that it was always assessment of learning. At the end of each year of school we had exams in every subject and ended up with 2 grades: the % we had scored on the exam and the ranking of where we were in the class for that subject. Having my exam scores compared with the other girls in my class probably wasn’t very helpful for me in knowing if I was actually making progress in my learning. In my class of 33 girls I was always somewhere in the top half of the class and the assessment never really bothered me. I think I would have had a different experience and opinion had I been somewhere in the bottom half and I would probably have become extremely demotivated - no matter how much progress those students were making the other girls were probably making equal progress and they still ended up at the bottom of the list!

This May my son, who is at university, did his end of year exams. One of the papers was made up entirely of multiple choice questions, which is something that, coming through the IB system, he was not used to. Throughout his schooling and in particular during the final 2 years of the IB diploma, he was working on developing higher order thinking skills, and here he was at university being asked to simply recall facts. Somehow this seemed wrong and he did not do particularly well on this paper (despite gaining top marks on other papers). He learned a lesson from this: next year he has looked into the various modules on offer and how they are assessed and he has chosen the ones that more closely fit his style of learning and demonstrating what he knows. One of the modules, apparently, is assessed orally, which he is really good at. Thankfully he is able to make this choice so that hopefully his final degree will more truly reflect his abilities and efforts.

At the International School of Amsterdam I was introduced to the idea of formative and summative assessment, but it was only after attending Project Zero that I began to realize that writing reports that included an average grade for the course or trimester, was not actually a useful way of showing what the students knew and could do.

Assessment of learning is a snapshot – it shows where a student is at a particular time and is often used with benchmarks or learning outcomes. Assessment for learning is different as it is used not only to look at student progress but also to motivate the students and promote further learning – the student is not given a final score or rank, but is part of the process of finding out where he or she is on the learning journey and how best to move forward. As such, assessment for learning focuses on how students learn, not just what they are learning and therefore student self-assessment is very important. Perhaps the biggest difference is that assessment for learning is constructive and encouraging and deals with the students’ individual progress and accomplishments as well as indicating what they need to do next in order to improve, whereas assessment of learning may end up being destructive – of confidence and motivation – and the student may end up not wanting to learn more.

All of this is very well, but the problem that many teachers may face is that they have to write reports at the end of a year or semester where the students are given a final grade. Like most teachers, I used to do this by averaging the scores, but after attending the Project Zero Summer Institute I came to realize that this was not very productive. Last year I taught IB Geography and since I knew the students would have to write essays in their final exams, we did a lot of work on how best to answer the questions using the rubrics provided by the IB. About 4 months before the students took their final exams, I had to write a report and come up with a predicted grade. At this point it would have been ridiculous for me to come up with a grade based on the average, as the students had all made progress throughout the final year of the course and the average would actually give them a lower score than they were currently achieving - it made more sense to look at what the students had already mastered and what they were still working on in order to determine the grade. This year I have faced the same issues with MYP Technology – some students only actually reached the criteria at the end of the year and an average would not have reflected what they actually could do by the end of the course. Perhaps some of them only actually managed to do some of these things days or weeks before school finished in the summer, nevertheless they could do them.

Last summer one of my friends ran a half marathon. Although she didn’t run it particularly quickly, and although she was overtaken by many runners on the way, the important thing for her was that she finished and that she didn’t stop or give up. In the same way, education should not be a race to see who can cross the line first, it is more about making sure that all the students reach the line eventually, at their own pace and then celebrating each one, regardless of how long it takes them to get there.

Photo Credit:  Gold Coast Marathon by Michael Dawes


  1. Nice post Maggie, but I don't agree with you entirely. As it happens, I run marathons too and, yes, my primary goal is to finish, but I like to try and beat the time I ran last time. For this reason, I don't believe assessment set FOR learning is incompatible with assessment that is graded. I sometimes give information on the average mark but, more importantly, I single out people who have done well, so that people can learn from the performance of peers.

  2. Hi - I would strongly advise you to read any of Shirley Clarke's books on this subject. Very helpful. There is one aimed at secondary/high schools

    Also Learning UnLimited do excellent training days and have very clear and helpful resources too. http://www.learningunlimited.co.uk/

    Assessment FOR Learning, OF learning and AS learning make up the assessment triangle and all have their role to play http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/assess/index.asp

  3. Alberta Assessment Consortium http://www.aac.ab.ca/ has excellent resources on this subject. Alberta Educators have been working through Assessment FOR, OF for many, many years and its still a work in progress.

  4. Thanks for the comments and links. I'm still thinking about different types of assessment and recently ran into the term assessment AS learning which focuses on students monitoring their own learning via blogs, audio files, video files etc.