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Can active engagement with assessment improve student outcomes?
Assessment is one of the most pervasive aspects of our current education system and is undeniably a powerful tool that, when used correctly, can enhance learning. It is through carefully considered assessment decisions that teachers are able to determine whether the intended learning goals have been met; in turn this allows them to provide quality feedback to learners that they can use to improve their work. The quest for improved methods and procedures is ongoing and concerns regarding assessment, results and accountability continue to dominate political discussions regarding educational reform.
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Methods of successful assessment are essential to the daily practice of all teachers as they are required to review and monitor the progress of learners both long term and in lessons. When I first embarked upon my career as a teacher, I believed assessment to be the relationship between examinations and results but my experiences in schools as a trainee have highlighted that it is much broader than I first believed. The confusion I experienced regarding assessment and its purpose was not uncommon for an individual new to the teaching profession. Research in this area is extensive and much of it suggests that teachers enter the profession with insufficient practice in developing strategies for assessment. Deluca and Klinger (2010) argue that this is a direct result of training courses focusing on the use of assessment for evaluating student performance rather than on the use of assessment as part of the learning process for students. Brown, McInerney and Liem (2009) further explore the rationale for assessment and state that we as teachers assess our students for three key purposes: to improve student learning; to certify that learning has taken place; or to evaluate the quality of instruction.
The rationale for this project stems from my interest in how assessment is being implemented in schools and how teachers and students construct and experience assessment. I am increasingly interested in the idea that assessment can be used to improve the process of education rather than simply as a tool to evaluate its results and agree whole heartedly with Dylan William (2013) who states that assessment can be thought of as the bridge between teaching and learning.
I developed a personal interest and concern with the role of the student in assessment throughout my teacher training year as I found myself asking how can students improve the quality of their work and how can I support them in this process? It became apparent to me that very little is being done to include the student in the assessment process. Davis, Miller and Summers (2012) discovered that in including students in assessment you enable them to demonstrate their learning and achievement in relation to the learning outcomes set out by the teacher. When students are given the opportunity to make choices or create their own goals in relation to their learning it increases engagement and achievement. The research by Davis and et al (2012) showed that as a result, students have a deeper knowledge of the criteria which they are going to be assessed against; they reflect on the desired outcome by considering their current knowledge and how they can move forward which in turn leads to them feeling they have some ownership of the assessment and therefore it is more relevant to them.
As I examined the research literature related to assessment practices, student engagement and student outcomes in order to further understand how assessment can be used to support students, two significant themes emerged that influenced this action research project. First, students must be an active participant in the assessment process to allow them to understand what they are learning and why and second, providing clear assessment criteria and feedback enables students to understand what is expected of them and as a result they understand how to advance their own learning. Therefore, the intention of this assignment is to review the research literature and its implications for practice to help answer the question: Can active engagement with assessment improve student outcomes?
Assessment is one of the main factors that contribute to a high-quality teaching and learning environment. It is an integral part of instruction as it enables teachers to establish whether the pre-determined learning goals have been met and in turn, they can evaluate their students’ performance. It is surprising, considering the importance of assessment in education, that the term itself is largely used without a clear definition. There is a presumption in the profession that we are all speaking the same language of assessment; however, it appears that this may not be the case. Butt (2010) suggests that the lack of clarity regarding the definition has arisen as a result of researchers attempting to secure a singular term for an incredibly complex process that is used to monitor both national standards of performance, as well as individual progress over time. The literature addresses this difficulty and widely acknowledges that assessment, on any scale, has two key functions; to report on learning or to aid learning. As such, Lambert and Lines (2000) propose the most fitting definition stating that assessment is ‘the process of gathering, interpreting, recording and using information about students’ responses to educational tasks’ (p. 12).
According to the work of Bloom, Hastins and Madaus (1971), teachers should employ assessment as a learning tool which they can use to identify student weaknesses and in turn devise a solution. In other words, rather than using assessment to evaluate student learning at the end of a unit of work (summative), Bloom (1971) recommended interweaving assessment with the teaching process to diagnose difficulties and provide corrective measures along the way (formative). Under this definition assessment becomes a lens for understanding student performance, identifying difficulties and helping teachers to improve their approaches.
The role of the learner
A common theme in the literature is that learning and feedback cannot be the sole responsibility of the teacher. Falchikov (2003) argues that ‘our task as teachers is to help students learn and we can harness the power of assessment to achieve this end by involving them in the process’ (p. 102). The concept of using assessment to support students in closing the gap between their existing performance and their desired performance has come to be known as assessment for learning. There is a plethora of evidence that I will shortly go on to review that points to the benefits for both student and teacher if assessment is used to support student learning. The literature suggests that when students are involved with the assessment of their learning, they become empowered to take ownership over the process. Students no longer feel victimised by the end of unit test, instead they feel confident, empowered and in control of their own learning.
Adie and Willis (2015) argue that for students to be actively engaged in their own learning journey, they need to know what they are learning, why they are learning it, how well they are currently learning it and how to take the next steps to advance their learning. Powell and Kalina (2009) argue that an effective classroom, with empowered students is dependent on using constructivist strategies, tools and practices as suggested by Piaget and Vygotsky (p. 241) In cognitive constructivism, ideas are constructed through an independent, personal experience, whereas in social constructivism they are constructed through interaction with the teacher and other students. Whilst the theories are very different, both approaches argue that ideas are constructed from experience to have a personal meaning for the student (Powell & Kalina, 2009, p. 242). The most interesting concept of both theories is the fact that they position the learner as an active agent in the process of knowledge acquisition, thereby challenging the idea that knowledge can be transferred from expert to student. As a result, the role of the educator changes from someone who ‘teaches’ to someone who facilitates learning’ (Bodner, Klobuchar, and Geelan, 2001, p. 6).
In order to create an effective teaching and learning environment teachers need to know how to incorporate constructivist strategies into their daily practice. Rust, Donovan and Price (2005) argue that ‘acquiring knowledge and understanding of assessment processes, criteria and standards needs the same kind of active engagement and participation as learning about anything else’ (p. 232) which highlights the necessity of inviting the learner into the process. The student should be a central figure within a constructivist classroom and the focus should always be on learning rather than teaching. In the classroom this can be achieved through setting learning goals, providing exemplars, self/peer review and feedback to name but a few strategies. In general, the research on these strategies shows that not all approaches are equally effective and are largely dependent on the manner in which they are carried out by the teacher.
The research sadly shows that many students enter an assessment feeling confused about what is being asked of them and resort to guessing as a way of interpreting assessment standards (Rust et al., 2005). It is evident that in order to succeed students must possess an understanding of the teachers’ concept of quality through transparent assessment criteria. Nicol and MacFarlaneDick (2006) argue in doing so it can support students in understanding how to advance their performance from the perspective of a marker.
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Baartman and Prins (2018) argue that ‘understanding tacit criteria in a (work) community of practice takes place through an active, shared process rather than a one-way communication of explicit criteria’ (p. 2). Their work suggests that it is insufficient to simply provide students with criteria as this does not aid them in developing an understanding of the teachers’ concept of quality. In 2003, Rust et al carried out a study exploring the effect the provision of transparent success criteria had on student outcomes. The study was carried out with a view to improve student performance through a structured pre-assessment workshop in which students were able to engage with the success criteria. During a ninety-minute workshop, students received a clear explanation from the tutor of each criterion and had the opportunity to engage in the marking of exemplar assignments through a discussion-based activity. The study discovered that learners who had been given this opportunity subsequently achieved better results thus providing support for the value of the student having an active role in understanding criteria.
A further study in 2013 was conducted by Lipnevich, McCallen, Pace Miles and Smith into the effect the provision of rubrics and written exemplars had on university students’ work. Within their investigation, students were given the opportunity to revise an assignment that they had previously completed but not received feedback for. The participants were split into three groups in different feedback conditions with group one being issued detailed rubrics, group two written exemplars and group three, both. Following a period of independent engagement with these materials, students revised and resubmitted their work. The study reported that significant improvements were made under all three conditions, with the stand alone rubric leading to the greatest improvement. Lipnevich et al (2013) summarised the findings of the study stating that ‘giving students the opportunity to revise their written work, and providing them with information on how to improve, led to substantially enhanced performance (p. 550). The results of this study, whilst positive, could be criticised for not strictly following the principles of AfL as students were given no feedback on their original assignment and therefore had no concept of their current state of understanding against the desired goal.
These case studies show that making assessment criteria transparent has a positive impact on student performance. It should be noted however, that these studies, among others which report on improved performance are situated in the higher-education context and therefore it is challenging to suggest whether similar results would be found in a secondary school setting.
Within an assessment for learning framework, teachers are responsible for providing feedback that allows students to close the gap between their current knowledge and desired knowledge. Sadler (1989) established that feedback could actually only have an effect if a student was able to: develop an understanding of the standards and qualities required in their subject; relate their own performance and the feedback on it to those standards; and take action towards producing higher quality work. As with assessment criteria, the research reflects that feedback is of little value if students do not have the opportunity to engage, discuss and question it, therefore highlighting the necessity of student understanding.
Hattie and Timperley (2007) suggest that the following three major questions must be asked by teacher and/or student throughout the process:
- Where am I going (what are the goals?)
- How am I going (what progress is being made toward the goal?)
- Where to next (what activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)
They argue that students receive very little valuable feedback on assessment as it too often does not address these three major questions (p. 101). The research, whilst making a number of valid arguments, also poses a significant number of challenges in that it gives very little information as to how one successfully builds an effective feedback model that answers each of these questions.
Many researchers argue that effective formative feedback comes from the instructor as well as from self and/or peer assessment and is based on clear criteria (Sadler 1989). Student self-assessment is a process by which a learner collects information about themselves and reflects on his or her own learning. It is the student’s own assessment of personal progress in knowledge, skills, processes, or attitudes (Black & William, 1998). Logan (2009) explored how self-assessment can enhance teaching and learning effectiveness and indicated that it gives students a better understanding of assessment criteria and leads to deeper learning” (p. 30). Whilst the findings of this study are mostly positive, it is worth noting the research has limitations due to the small sample of students used. Andrade and Valtcheva (2009) highlight that ‘self-assessment is done on drafts of works in progress in order to inform revision and improvement’ (p. 13). It is not a case of students determining their own grades. It is largely agreed within the literature that the process of self-assessment is valuable, however, as Demore (2017) notes ‘this value is dependent on the teaching methods, practice and support provided by teachers for students in the classroom throughout the school year’ (p. iii). Demore’s research shows a clear relationship between self-assessment and their own performance, it highlighted that students need to have a rubric to guide their thinking and sufficient training must be provided by the teacher to increase the reliability of the practice.
The purpose of this review was to critically evaluate the trends in assessment for learning case studies in order to establish whether formative methods of assessment improve student outcomes. In 1998, Black and William conducted an extensive review of the literature with a view to establishing whether improvement in classroom assessment leads to improvement in student achievement. After analysing over 250 articles they reported effects of a half to a full deviation when formative assessment methods were used. In light of such literature student centered practices are widely accepted to have a positive impact on learning.
The literature has highlighted the challenges faced by teachers, particularly those newly qualified, when trying to decide on a best practice approach to assessment. I am reminded that learning is recursive and about students revisiting and reshaping existing knowledge, thus confirming that assessment really is for learning. As teachers we face the challenge of trying to find out what works best for our students and I am interested in exploring whether employing constructivist strategies will improve the learning and assessment process for my own pupils.
The findings of this review would suggest that when carrying out my own research, I will find that student outcomes will improve as a result of enhanced engagement with assessment criteria. Some may argue that this makes my study futile, however, there is a significant lack of empirical data regarding student centered assessment practices in secondary schools thus highlighting the need for further investigation. Therefore, my research question is: can active engagement with assessment improve student outcomes?
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