Assessment for Learning: 5 Key Strategies for Higher Student Achievement

formative assessment cartoon

When students are given clear learning targets, frequent, meaningful feedback, and opportunities for self- and peer-assessment, achievement soars.

This is the premise of assessment for learning, or formative assessment, according to veteran educator, researcher and author, Dylan Wiliam.

Wiliam states that assessment for learning occurs when teachers use evidence of learning to adapt instruction according to student need. (Cambridge Assessment Network Keynote, 2006)

“It’s about making your teaching constantly contingent on the students’ responses,” states Wiliam. “It’s planning a carefully chosen, and possibly differentiated, route ahead of time – in essence, building the track – and taking readings along the way.”

Wiliam and other prominent education experts have been touting the positive effects of formative assessment on student achievement for years. Most recently Wiliam published the book, Embedded Formative Assessment, which focuses on formative assessment strategies that can be used to improve teacher practice and, in turn, student learning.

So how can educators practice assessment for learning, or formative assessment, to increase student achievement? Here, we share Wiliam’s five key strategies, along with some specific techniques that you can implement in your classroom:

1. Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning outcomes and success criteria

Students should clearly understand learning objectives and criteria upon which they will be evaluated.

Use rubrics: Create rubrics to clearly define success criteria and include examples of annotated student work to illustrate mastery. If you are using a learning platform, the rubric should be easily linked to the assignment and instantly shareable with students. Examples of model work can then be embedded within the assignment for easy access.

Allow students to create their own tests: Wiliam cites a 1994 study in which “different groups of students were preparing for exams in different ways. Some students revised the materials they’d been studying, some students practiced on 'mock' tests and one group of students was asked to make up test questions (with answers!) on what they’d been learning. This last group got the highest score on the test.”

Use the permissions option in your learning platform, or learning management system (LMS) to grant students or groups of students the ability to create their own tests or surveys for easy distribution and results tracking.

2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning

Teachers should find ways to frequently check for understanding so that teaching can be adapted accordingly.

The Big Question: Wiliam suggests that teachers use a pre-planned “big question” to help them understand what their students have learned, or what they already know. Depending on student responses, the teacher can then adapt teaching to suit student needs (move on, re-teach, or engage in peer discussion for further understanding).

Using your learning platform, you should be able to easily create surveys and polls as ways to gather instant evidence around The Big Question.

3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward

When providing feedback to students, comments should be specific, constructive and actionable.

Comment-only marking: Wiliam suggests that, rather than give a letter grade, teachers provide only feedback to students instead. “The idea is that the feedback gives something to the learner to do so that the immediate reaction of the learner is that they have to think,” states Wiliam.

Explore the different ways in which you and your students (for peer assessment) can use your learning platform to provide feedback, either written, or via audio or video. You should be able to provide written feedback for individual rubric criteria, and audio or written feedback for submitted assignments that may not use rubrics.

Blog comments or discussion boards are other great ways to provide teacher-student or peer-to-peer feedback.

4. Activating students as instructional resources for each other

Encourage collaborative learning opportunities such as project-based group work, and peer assessment that allow students to learn from each other.

Pre-flight Checklist: Wiliam suggests a peer assessment activity in which the teacher requires a student to have their work checked against a list of criteria by another student before the assignment can be submitted.

“The interesting thing about this technique is that it involves at least two strategies,” states Wiliam. “It involves activating students as instructional resources for one another, but the person who completes the pre-flight check also has to understand the success criteria, in order to complete the pre-flight check.”

If you are using an offline method of data collection such as paper checklists for students, you may be able to use your learning management system to set up the pre-flight checklist as an assignment, requiring students to check a completed box once they’ve handed you their paper. This way, you can easily keep track of who has completed the checklist.

5. Activating students as owners of their own learning

By giving students the opportunity for self-assessment, you are allowing them to take responsibility and ownership of their own learning, making it more meaningful and thus, increasing engagement.

Self-assessment: Wiliam cites one example in which students are given discs with red on one side and green on the other. All students start out with green. If they don’t understand something that is being taught, they flip the disk to the red side. Once the teacher sees that someone is falling behind, the teacher will then choose someone with a green disc to come to the front of the class and reteach the concept.

“The strategy is activating students as owners of their own learning, but it’s also allowing the teacher to be responsive to the students’ needs,” states Wiliam.

If you have a learning platform in place, you should be able to find multiple ways to incorporate self-assessment into your lessons. Blogs and ePortfolios are good ways to allow students to reflect on their learning and take ownership.

Tying It All Together

“The ‘big idea’ that ties these together is that we use evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning, or instruction, to meet student needs,” says Wiliam. ”If you’re not using the evidence to do something that you couldn’t have done without the evidence, you’re not doing formative assessment.”

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