Book review

Fast and Effective Assessment:

How to reduce your workload and improve student learning

Workload is a constant issue in teachers’ lives – and one that seems to be increasing with the profusion of new initiatives and requirements, IEUA NSW/ACT Organiser Keith Heggart writes.

A recent survey identified that teachers in NSW are, on average, working 54 hours per week. Even if one takes into account the lower hours associated with non term time (and most teachers will still work through some of that too), this is still far in excess of the 38 hour week that teachers are expected to work. One of the key issues related to this increasing workload is administrative duties; that is, it is less about teaching and more to do with the planning, preparation, assessment and other matters.

Part of this workload is related to assessment. The crucial factor here is the difference between assessment and feedback. A study by Ruth Butler in 1988 found students who received grades, or both grades and feedback, performed worse than students who only received constructive feedback. This means that in many schools providing students with a grade or a mark is no longer enough. This is supported by the work of John Hattie who has, for more than a decade, identified that one of the key drivers for student achievement is the quality of feedback received in class.

This has led schools to place great emphasis on how teachers provide that feedback. For example, some schools in the UK require teachers to mark in different coloured pens to indicate where verbal feedback was provided – and, in the past, red pen has been banned as being too aggressive. Other schools have adopted models like Two Stars and a Wish and Hamburger Feedback. The problem is that many of these strategies simply add to the already excessive workload.

This is where Glen Pearsall’s book Fast and Effective Assessment is so helpful. Pearsall is a former high school teacher who is now an author and educational consultant. He has a long history working with teachers and teacher unions, and it comes through clearly in the practical strategies encapsulated in this book. Unlike some other, equally excellent, education books that are on the market, Pearsall’s book is of immediate use to teachers – especially for teachers who are struggling with the assessment workload.

Pearsall draws on his experience to show how, by adapting what we normally do in the classroom, we are able to provide a range of different kinds of feedback, and in ways that lessen the workload.

Improved testing

The book is divided into six chapters, and it is best approached in that order, though more experienced teachers might want to dip in and out of certain chapters. Chapter 1 explores how teachers might refine their questioning technique, and so check students’ progress and provide immediate feedback.

In Chapter 2, Pearsall describes how he encourages students to understand what is expected of them, so that feedback is more effective. In Chapter 3, which is my favourite, Pearsall provides a range of techniques to identity how students are progressing. This is what Pearsall describes as “fast formative strategies”. In Chapter 4, Pearsall identifies ways to improve traditional testing strategies so that they are both quicker and more accurate. Chapter 5 explains how to mark these kinds of summative assessments more quickly. The final chapter explores how to make peer assessment more effective and meaningful.

This book is helpful to any teacher. As someone who taught for more than 15 years, I found the ideas applicable. I can see how it would be suitable for teachers working in primary, secondary and even post secondary fields. I think this should be recommended reading for teachers new to the profession, as it might save them from some of the despair we have all felt when faced with a giant pile of marking on a Friday night.

Butler, Ruth. 1988. “Enhancing and Undermining Intrinsic Motivation: The Effects of Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Evaluation on Interest and Performance.” British Journal of Educational Psychology 58: 1–14.