Assessing learning is something I constantly think of when I’m teaching my students. It can be a rather complex endeavor and we might not have the right instruments or the best timing to be able to assess it properly. However, if we truly want to assess learning, we need to assume two things:
- There are certain outcomes students must achieve in their learning experience.
- These outcomes can be measured/ascertained based on certain criteria.
Regardless of what you might feel about your students’ learning, you need to be able to check whether they were successful in getting from the place of “I don’t know this” to “I know this.” You need evidence and, in our current educational system, that usually means summative assessment, that is, high-stakes exams and grades. However, can these numbers (grades) really tell us if our learners were able to accomplish the learning outcomes of their course? How does this type of assessment impact our learners? To better answer this question, first we need to define assessment and examine its types.
Assessment of Learning, Assessment for Learning, Assessment as Learning
Most educational settings prioritize assessment of learning. What is that? Basically, assessment of learning means high-stakes tests filled with multiple-choice questions that take place at key moments throughout the school year. These tests look at students’ “learning” in retrospect to determine how much they have achieved in any given period (Black & Wiliam, 2010). There is a problem, though. I put the word learning in quotes earlier, because how do we know if our students truly learned or simply performed well? Is performance the same as learning? There is a difference between choosing the answer from a list and being able to remember the answer without any help.
In fact, the Bjorks (2011), Robert and Elizabeth, a couple who happen to share the same passion and expertise for cognitive psychology, tell us that performance has to do with what can be observed and measured at the time of taking a test. Learning, on the other hand, is what sticks with us. It changes our knowledge in a more permanent way, and it can’t always be captured by standard testing.
When we shift the focus to the process instead of the product, we don’t require a single event, a final test, on which a numerical grade will be given to students to identify how much they were able to remember that day. It becomes an ongoing process. This is known as formative assessment and it is concerned with how learners make progress toward the expected learning outcome—and possibly beyond (Black & Wiliam, 2010). This is the foundation of assessment for learning (Hargreaves, 2005). Rather than just measuring performance as an after thought, it helps teachers identify gaps and steer the learning process of their students as it is happening.
Assessment as learning goes beyond applying tests to measure achievement and/or collecting ongoing evidence to steer the learning process. It helps students become the assessors of their own learning and use a plethora of strategies to make their learning more autonomous and effective (Earl, 2012). It’s a journey of self-discovery for learners to understand how they can learn better and adjust their own learning practices in order to improve them.
What do these approaches look like in the classroom? The table below summarizes the main characteristics of each type and provides some examples.
Assessment of Learning
Focus on performance/ achievement. Usually happens a few times throughout the year at the end of an instructional period (Periodic).
The teacher assesses the students.
-Exams, essays, reports, presentations, project exhibitions.
-Numerical grades, high-stakes testing, multiple-choice exams
Assessment for Learning
Focus on progress / learning curve. It happens throughout the course and is based on different types of evidence, not just grades (Ongoing).
The teacher assesses the students; the students assess their peers (peer assessment); and the students assess themselves (self-assessment).
-Observations, quizzes, classwork, homework, self- and peer assessment
-Feedback as comments, low-stakes assignments, portfolios
Assessment as Learning
Focus on autonomy / agency. Learners reflect on how they can learn best and use feedback to improve their learning process (Ongoing).
The students assess themselves (self-assessment) based on the feedback the get from the teachers and their peers.
-Reflections, peer-review, discussions, questioning
-Self-assessment, self-monitoring, self-efficacy, metacognition
Assessment as Learning: Promoting Metacognition and Self-Efficacy
Shifting our focus to assessment as learning might help create an atmosphere where assessment is more formative, self-driven, and, thus, an ongoing and intrinsic part of learning. Here’s my take on it: having worked with students from different levels, I believe assessment as learning can have a much more positive impact on our students because it promotes two important elements: metacognition and self-efficacy.
Bandura (1997) posits that a self-efficacious person is someone who has the skills and beliefs to set and achieve goals. That means that self-efficacy is connected with the idea of being able to organize one’s time and resources, acquire knowledge and, consequently, accomplish what was planned. Academic self-efficacy relates to being self-efficacious in the school setting and is considered a reliable predictor of academic success (Linnenbrink & Pintrich, 2002).
Metacognition was coined by John Flavell in the 1970s and it refers to knowing our own cognitive processes and being able to organize, monitor, adjust, and reflect on our own learning process (Flavell, 1979). Metacognition is popularly referred to as thinking about thinking or learning how to learn and has been shown to improve learning outcomes (Hacker et al., 2009)
I can give a few examples of how focusing on assessment as learning helped my own students become more self-efficacious and metacognitive. I’m a guest lecturer of language, cognition, and bilingualism at the Pontifical Catholic University of Paraná and my students don’t have any tests. We decided to focus more on formative assessment. They do have to share an e-portfolio and work on a final project for my subject. Their mission is to design a product based on the discussions we had in class referencing the authors and texts we worked with.
I try not to limit their creativity as I think they need to discover who they are as learners. The assignments can be delivered in any format. The final one has to be a reflective journal of how they have incorporated the things we discussed into their own practice as educators.
One of my groups decided to create a podcast on managing emotions!
Another group made an amazing infographic about emotional intelligence.
One of my students built her dream school on The Sims based on the principles we discussed! I had no idea she would use a game to show me what she had learned.
Basically, what I’m trying to encourage my students to do is to become more independent and reflect on their learning path through different types of assignments. They organize themselves, set their own goals, choose their preferred method or tool and then reflect on the whole process.
Learning is a complex phenomenon that cannot be easily measured, especially when we use conventional methods that basically turn everything students produce into numbers. Naturally, I still have to grade them because the university system demands numbers, but these numbers don’t matter that much for me. I focus much more on whether they accomplished the task or not and how their reflection represents what they believe they have learned.
I truly think that we can shift things if we start thinking about assessment as learning. That means we’ll pay a lot more attention to each of our learners’ individual paths rather than a snapshot of their learning experience captured on a test. In addition, if we do not obsess over a single format or a one-size-fits-all approach, we might get impressive work from our students.
If we manage to do that, I believe that assessment can become a more functional aspect of learning as it will not simply get students ready to perform well on one day, the day they take the test, and be done with it. Assessment needs to be the foundation of learning in an ever-adjusting process of trying things out, getting feedback, trying again, keeping a record, and making slow but consistent improvements over time. Then we can truly say that we’re helping create self-directed lifelong learners.
Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. W. H. Freeman.
Bjork, E., & Bjork, R. (2011). Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In Bjork, E. and Brork, R. (Eds., Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to Society (pp. 56-64. Worth.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2010). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 81-90.
Earl, L. M. (2012). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Corwin Press.
Flavell, J. H. (1979). Metacognition and cognitive monitoring: A new area of cognitive-developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906–911.
Hacker, D. J., Dunlosky, J., & Graesser, A. C. (2009). Handbook of metacognition in education. Routledge.
Hargreaves, E. (2005) Assessment for learning? Thinking outside the (black) box, Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 213-224..
Linnenbrink, E. A., & Pintrich, P. R. (2002). Motivation as an enabler for academic success. School Psychology Review, 31(3), 313-327
André Hedlund (MSc) is a Chevening Alumnus, MSc in Psychology of Education (University of Bristol), an Educational Consultant, Speaker, university Lecturer on Bilingualism and Cognition, and Academic Director of EdYOUFest, board member of BRAZ-TESOL’s MBE SIG and the author of The Owl Factor: Reframing your Teaching Philosophy. He blogs at edcrocks.com.