Smarter Assessment:

How to combat overload

It is an experience all of us have had, NSW ACT IEU Professional Officer Matt Esterman writes.

We’ve worked hard on an assignment, whether at school or university or even in the workplace. We put hours of time into it. We pour our creativity and intelligence into it. We draft and redraft and check what our teacher has put in the assessment notification or outline. Our hands shake slightly as we slide the final version into a box (or, today, submit to a dropbox or email account – hands still shaking) and then – joy of joys – the momentary relief of a completed project.

Then we receive the assignment feedback, or perhaps log on to a website to check our results, and we are faced with a big, silent, glaring letter or number: you are now a B; or you are now 73; or you are now ‘Satisfactory’. You have been assessed and branded by higher powers and slotted into your appropriate station in academic life.

Occasionally there may even be some written notes such as ‘needs more’ or ‘good’!

The unfortunate reality is that this type of assessment and feedback is all too common despite decades of research from Australia and overseas – much conducted with and by educators, not just academics – which clearly and overwhelmingly states that this does not help learning. If we want learners of any age to grow and improve to a point where they are the resilient, motivated and self reflective learners we expect, they need more than a letter or number on a page.

Many teachers strive to embed formative assessment strategies into their teaching and learning programs but summative assessment still dominates, particularly in senior years. This is fine if we only wish to have students remember the content and demonstrate the skills of curriculum areas for a limited time but not if we wish them to become intrinsically better learners.

Glen Pearsall, who runs the Smarter Assessment: Improving Feedback, Reducing Correction workshops for the IEU, has undertaken significant research into this area and now helps teachers understand the breadth of formative strategies that are available.

But what is formative assessment?

Formative assessment (also sometimes called ‘formative feedback’) is an approach to responding to student participation and submission of work in which the teacher responds more immediately – almost literally – to when students need guidance to change direction and improve their understanding during the learning process, rather than just at the end. John Hattie calls this “dollops of feedback”. For example, students might be working on a draft essay and instead of collecting the final product and correcting all the mistakes over the weekend, you might collect the introduction, discuss the key areas of strength and improvement with the student, then have the student continue another part of the essay. The final product is therefore richer and more sophisticated than it would otherwise have been, and the student is learning how to identify the areas of improvement themselves.

This allows students to digest and apply feedback in manageable chunks, instead of a torrent of criticisms and corrections that often accompany our grades.

Another way to look at this is to reflect on how teachers use results of assessment. Say you deploy a typical assessment task where students have to complete a test in a set time and the teacher marks the test. The results are individually distributed to the students (and there is a path of formative assessment to follow with this) but then where do those results go in relation to the teacher? For what purpose have we collected those results? If the test is to be of any real value, we shouldn’t just use the results as a list of numbers in a spreadsheet, but rather to identify areas of individual and collective strength and areas of improvement. This should then affect how the teacher approaches their very next lesson. As Black and Wiliam (1998) suggest, “for assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning.”

As soon as a student gets a grade, the learning stops. We may not like it, but this is a relatively stable feature of how human minds work.

How do I use formative assessment?

It may seem like an overwhelming prospect to ask ourselves to assess all students, all the time. However, if we change the nature of assessment from a huge load of marking at the end of a learning sequence to an ongoing, organic and inclusive approach of self evaluation and targeted feedback, the impact can be outstanding as Dylan Wiliam suggests below, with little or no actual increase in workload. Formative feedback strategies are a prime example of working smarter and not harder.

“When teachers do formative assessment effectively, students learn at roughly double the rate than they do without it.” Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment.

Formative assessment techniques can be used in very subtle ways and throughout lessons in order to gain a clear snapshot of student understanding and progress. There are questioning strategies, group discussion frameworks, thinking procedures and even technology tools available to help. Glen walks teachers through several of these approaches in his workshops, actively engaging teachers in the experience of being a learner which through a series of activities.

There are many readings online, including teacher blogs and articles that describe how they use formative assessment strategies and better feedback techniques in their classrooms. Some are listed below for you to begin your journey into using more formative assessment!

Remember that in Australia we only need to give grades twice a year. That’s two times. Once in Semester 1 and once in Semester 2. A to E per subject. Other than that, we can drive our practice towards what works for learners and learning.

Further reading

Griffin P 2014, Assessment for teaching, Cambridge University Press: New York, USA.
Hattie, J 2012, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning Routledge, Oxford UK.
Marzano & Pearsall G 2012, Classroom Dynamics: A Teacher’s Handbook, TLN Press: Melbourne, Australia.
Wiliam, D 2011, Embedded Formative Assessment Solution Tree, New York, USA.

Links on formative assessment

Please note that the links below are merely a to get you started in a general sense. It is up to individual teachers and teams to decide the applicability of the ideas present in the links below. We highly recommend attending one of Glen’s Pearsell’s workshops to delve further into the material.
Ten formative assessment tech tools to put to the test

Twelve Awesome Formative Assessment Examples

ASCD – Formative Assessment: Why, What and Whether,-What,-and-Whether.aspx

Assessment at High Tech High (Project Based Learning + Formative Assessment)

Edutopia - Five Fantastic, Fast, Formative Assessment Tools

Formative Assessment Resources: Try Them Today, Tomorrow, or Sometime Soon

Lecture by Prof Eric Mazur – Peer Instruction Continuous Formative Assessment to Promote Learning (focus on Higher Ed)