Assessment of Learning, Assessment for Learning and Assessment as Learning Lecture

Introduction

The topic area of assessment was introduced in Chapter 7.1- in that chapter, the term 'assessment for learning' was invoked as a prominent contemporary approach to assessment. This chapter develops the ideas in its predecessor, and focuses on three allied, though competing, conceptualisations of assessment. These are, in turn, assessment of learning (AoL), assessment for learning (AfL), and assessment as learning (AaL).

A section of the chapter is devoted to each of the three variants mentioned above. Though there are inevitably overlaps in practice between AoL, AfL, and AaL, they are analysed separately here so that their distinctive features, their relative positives, and issues associated and identified with each might be more clearly explained and appreciated. 

Learning objectives for the chapter are itemised below, and there is a set of reflective prompts for each section, so that you can more fully consider these assessment-related topic areas as they relate to your own experiences as a learner and as an education professional.   

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • to be able to define assessment of, for, and as learning
  • to be able to appreciate the key features of the three perspectives
  • to be able to make your own judgements about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the three approaches explored in the chapter
  • to be able to apply discretion in your choice of assessment approaches in your own teaching practice

What is AoL and what are its strengths/limitations?

Assessment of learning (AoL) is perhaps the form of assessment which makes most everyday sense, in that the term refers to the varieties of assessment which are summative: they are designed to evidence how learners have developed in skills and knowledge terms as a consequence of attending and completing a course of instruction. AoL is intended to validate that such achievement has taken place and that learning outcomes for the course have been met, to award qualifications for the level of proficiency attained, and to inform decision-making about future progression to higher-level courses. AoL is often used as a marker to others (parents, prospective employers, new institutions as examples) about the level of achievement of the learner under consideration. Such grades may also go on to inform the education system about the quality of the educational experience being delivered in that institution.

AoL is often public, in the sense that examination results, GCSE passes and the like may be publicly available; information derived from such grades is of value to the perception of the individual learner, to schools, and to other interested parties and stakeholders. As such, then, it is important that AoL is robust, transparent, logical, and auditable, so that the qualifications earned and the inferences which may be drawn from data derived from those results are defensible (Ginnis, 2002).

Where there are courses of instruction, there will invariably be some form of AoL. Summative assessment is a long-standing aspect of education, and is important in many respects. Learners as well as others need, and respond well to, a single summary statement of their learning, and AoL is a straightforward way of providing this.

In terms of course design, AoL can support the idea of learning as a narrative; the course building to climactic final assessments from which the qualification and its level may be wholly or substantively derived. Outside of compulsory education, in practical skills such as driving, though there may be ancillary competencies to be assessed such as hazard perception and a theoretical knowledge of road markings and the Highway Code, driving courses build to a single practical examination. This test takes into consideration and assesses all the aspects of driving which have been studied and practised perhaps in isolation, to give a single reckoning of a person's fitness to drive unsupervised.    

The roles of the teacher in an AoL context are many and varied. Effective and responsible AoL demands that teachers can give reasonable rationales in the setting of a given piece of AoL work at that part of the course, that the learning outcomes of the assessment are clear and relevant, and that learners have had fair and comprehensive opportunity to prepare for the assessment. It is useful for there to be alternative means to achieve the learning outcomes (these might be coursework alternatives, or opportunities to retake in examination circumstances), as well as appeal procedures in place if there are valid disagreements over grading (Capel, 2016).

Though AoL is often summative, it can be used in a formative capacity, too - for example at the end of a sequence of learning on a particular sub-topic, or even as an end-of-session activity intended to assess learning attained in a session. There are overlaps between AoL and AaL to at least this extent; the two should not be seen as being mutually exclusive.

AoL requires that the assessment methods used are fair and relevant to the subject and level being studied, and that learning outcomes are achievable within that summative assessment in an equally fair way. Though examinations and tests are often used, they are not the only types of assessment which might be articulated in AoL. Others might include, for example, presentations, portfolio work, examination of products, live performances, and exhibitions. Coursework may be used in both formative and summative contexts, building up over time to provide evidence not only of achievement and engagement with the topics studied on an ongoing basis, but also as a summative statement of the learner's ability over the whole of the course. Often, course examination will incorporate elements of coursework and final examinations to offer learners assessment opportunities throughout the course, as well as spreading the burden of assessment over time (Smith, 2014).

Quality assurance in AoL is paramount, particularly in certificated qualifications. Examinations may be externally marked, as in GCSE and A levels, or there may be processes of second marking, or of layers of internal and external sampling and verification to ensure that marking is robust, is fair, is to the standards lid out in the curriculum documentation, and is transparent. Grading of AoL needs, therefore to be reliable and valid if the qualifications or other referable data about learners is to withstand external scrutiny, and it to be considered a reliable assessment of learner abilities. It may be that AoL is externally-set, in which case there will be past papers and previous years' examples to consult. The setting of practice papers, mock examinations, and other ways of simulating the experience of sitting a final assessment can be useful to learners, not least in dispelling myths and in helping to focus and organise students' preparations for their summative work. Differentiation should be built into the assessment arrangements, and there should, of course, be equality of access to any piece of AoL related working. This may involve alternative provision for assessment, or a range of equally-suitable methods of demonstrating that learning outcomes have been achieved (McGill, 2015).

The advantages of AoL include the fact that a final assessment is well-understood in principle in Western society, and that it provokes the idea of trajectory towards something, as well as a final event which helps mark the climax of a course. Learners respond well to knowing how they have achieved, and though a final mark may be reductive, it nevertheless offers a capsule grade for one to measure oneself against in performance terms. AoL methods can be used at all levels and across all subjects; they are flexible and responsive to the need for assessment in education (Wellington, 2006). AoL can, though, be stressful to learners as they become aware of their responsibilities to perform within the assessment rubric, and there can be tight deadlines for turnaround of marked and moderated with to learner which can be difficult to achieve. A single AoL opportunity may not fully reflect a learner's individual competencies; we have all, perhaps, come across the lazy but talented learner who can perform well in an examination, or otherwise the competent student who fails to submit a crucial piece of final work, or who habitually underperforms in test conditions. Summative AoL may also not provide much in the way of feedback beyond a grade, particularly if that work has been externally graded; a grade, though a useful shorthand, can only give so much qualitative information to and about a learner and the nature of their engagement with a subject. Capable teachers will always guard against the temptation to teach "to the test", which is to shape the input so that it only addresses the needs of summative assessments. This kind of approach does little to make learning meaningful, can create gaps in learners' understanding of the subject, and is fraught with other issues, not least the moral responsibility of the educator to their pupils and to the subject.         

Reflection

What forms of AoL have you experienced as a learner? How have they made you feel?

To what extent do you feel, in retrospect, that your learning was properly and fully acknowledged in AoL contexts?

In what ways might AoL reward those who can achieve under pressure? Is examination performance, for example, the same as having an appropriate understanding of a topic? Consider both sides of that argument.


What is AfL and what are its strengths/limitations?

Assessment for learning (AfL) can be defined as an approach which puts learners at the centre of classroom engagement by giving them all the relevant information which they require to take appropriate steps by which they can develop themselves in the subject area under instruction. AfL contrasts with AoL in that where assessment of learning is a summative task, and therefore separated from learning itself, assessment for learning integrates the two, making assessment both meaningful to learners and productive of new knowledge. This section examines AfL in more detail, moving beyond description towards analysis of AfL as an approach to assessment, and an assessment of its relative strengths and weaknesses.

An AfL approach understands that the integration of assessment with tasks and activities in the classroom is central to not only supporting learning, but to enhancing pupil achievement. In order to do this, learners need to know (Jones, 2005):

  • the aim of the learning
  • what is required of them as learners
  • how far they have already progressed towards achieving the aim
  • how they can achieve the aim

Jones (2005) links quality of learning with learner knowledge of the above-listed aspects; a shared ownership of the learning between teacher and pupils not only means that responsibility for their achievement is aimed, but there are also benefits for learner motivation, and for their self-esteem and confidence.

Jones (2005) also identifies how the tutor may improve the effectiveness of their assessment, by working in a way informed by AfL principles - teachers should consider:

  • giving clear explanations of learning aims to pupils, and then checking that those aims are understood
  • demonstrating not only the level of attainment required by the course, but how those standards of competence may be recognised
  • the giving of timely and effective feedback, which gives clear guidance on improvements if needed
  • be positive and progressive, demanding continual improvement and the maintenance of high standards of achievement
  • the promotion of learners' self-assessment and peer assessment competencies
  • developing mechanisms by which feedback can be given, and reflective practice on learning may be entered by learners

Feedback should be individualised; a bespoke approach can incentivise weaker learners and reward more able learners, while giving each an appropriate level of guidance and challenge. There can be a temptation to focus attention on the less able to bring them up to an acceptable minimum standard; though this dedication is to be lauded, it should not occur at the expense of those who are performing well, and whose potential may go unchallenged through lack of attention being paid by teaching staff.

Questioning should be used throughout teaching sessions with care and in an even-handed way. All learners should be questioned, and the strategies used to share questions across the group be varied to offer both randomness and surprise, as well as to seize on opportunities which may occur in the teaching moment. Reflection should also be used proactively, both during and at the end of each teaching session. The educator should ask themselves about the effectiveness of their various questioning techniques, the appropriateness of tasks and activities, and the discussions which emerged through the session in promoting assessment opportunities. Furthermore, teachers should ask if there was evidence of development in learners' understanding because of the session; did the assessments evidence that learning had taken place? This will go towards summarising the usefulness of that session to the learners, and thus to the achievement of session aims and objectives. This means there needs to be planning for AfL in advance, at both the scheme of work and the lesson planning levels of preparation, as well as in the writing and varied diet of individual assessment-related activities. Opportunities for achievement of defined and mutually-understood learning objectives need to be built into each session, and that means they should be determined and prepared for in advance (Spendlove, 2015).

The advantages of such a way of working is that, if correctly and rigorously planned and prepared in advance, and executed in-session, then all the pieces are in place for AfL to take place. The potential downsides of such an approach are in the amount of preparatory work required, the concentration and diligence expected while teaching, and the requirement of buy-in by learners. An AfL approach assumes the informed consent of learners as active participants in their learning, and this may not be guaranteed of all learners.  A well-organised and meaningful session, though, led by a capable and committed teacher who is enthusiastic and invested in the achievement of their pupils, has the best chance of securing not only the respect and attention of the class, but of their engagement with the session and course objectives. A teacher who is ill-prepared or who lacks passion cannot realistically expect anything else from those attending the class.   

Reflection

What are the advantages of an AfL approach over an AoL one? And what about comparative disadvantages?

You have probably been assessed in an AfL context before. When was this? Was it always clear that you were being assessed?

What does an AfL-informed teaching approach mean in terms of the teacher's relationship to learners, and how might that conceivably differ from one where AoL is dominant? 


What is AaL and what are its strengths/limitations?

Assessment as learning (AaL) is student-centric, and considers assessment as it relates to an understanding of one's own thought processes as a learner. This distinguishes it from assessment of learning, which is summative and separate from learning, and assessment for learning, which integrates assessment-relevant tasks with the acquisition of new competencies as they are taught. In AaL, learning is a not merely a process of transfer of knowledge to the learner with the teacher's support, but is related more precisely with the way that learners develop internally as they engage with new ideas. This means that learners must be critically invested in their learning, so that they can fully engage in processes related to making sense of new information as they access it, that connections can be made to existing knowledge, and that the fresh material can be incorporated and analysed so that new learning may take place. AaL therefore has a concern with metacognition, in that knowledge of one's own thinking processes is central, and that learners can become proficient in critically examining their own learning and are constantly refining their abilities to adjust their relationship to knowledge as new ideas, concepts, and intellectual positions on topic become available to them (Manitoba Education, 2006).

As might be apparent from the above description, AaL is related to reflection, in that the metacognitive (or thinking about thinking) processes which drive this student-centred approach to assessment relate directly to how learners process and organise information, and relate it to existing conceptualisations of the world. AaL is also concerned with learner motivation, perception of self, learners' understanding of the ways in which they learn, and the strategies that they draw upon to make sense of the world. There are also links to be made with learner processes of planning and preparation, of research and of organising new information, and of appraisal and discrimination.

AaL, therefore, is concerned with the development over time of learner abilities to become independent learners and to be self-regulating and self-assessing, though this needs to be developed and supported by educators. Part of the role of teachers in scaffolding students in this regard, then, is in providing contexts in which students can work towards self-assessment through learning in incremental and measured steps. This includes, for example, the providing of the contextual study and reflective skills to empower learners towards self-assessment, and in designing assessments (and, indeed, curricula) in which not only AaL can be engaged, but where this is relevant and appropriate to the development of those learners in the subject being explored (Earl, 2013).

AaL does not remove or downplay the relevance of the teacher figure in assessment; rather, it alters it by expanding that role into the consideration of how best to develop learners towards being flexible in their approach to learning, to being reflective and evidence-driven, to being self-motivating and independent, and to being analytical and evaluative, as well as having the higher-level transferable and communicative skills so that learning may be articulated. Such competencies are not easy to acquire, and require direction and focus from the teacher, as well as modelling so that learners may have appropriate role models from which to develop. The role of the teacher in an AaL context is rather to support appropriate goal-setting and progress monitoring in learners, and to tutor self-assessment competencies. The role of the educator is also to use relevant examples and instances of good practice which are meaningful to learners, to support learners not only in self-reflection about their learning journey but also to develop their capacity for engaging constructively with doubt, uncertainty, and with ambiguous data. Educators need also to create and sustain a learning environment which is conducive to critical enquiry, where ambition and intellectual risk-taking is supported, and where feedback on and monitoring of student feedback is readily available.  

In an AaL context, the quality and detail of feedback given to learners can be critical. Though AaL is naturally geared towards independent enquiry, learners nevertheless need support, direction and guidance in their endeavours in the form of feedback, be it interim or summative, informal or formalised. Effective and timely feedback provides a necessary check and balance, not only to reassure the learner that they are making appropriate progress in their work, but that they are also challenged about their work in constructive ways. Appropriate mentoring offers alternatives, suggests new directions, different hypotheses, and an equitable and collegiate environment in which to discuss the learner's progress and their thoughts on that progress. Part of the teacher's role is to extend the support networks available to independent learners; this might include family and friends, learner peers, other professional teaching colleagues and support staff such as librarians (Manitoba Education, 2006). AaL is differentiated and egalitarian by nature as the learning experience is learner-generated, and the support available is often tailored to that students and to their support requirements. The potential for learners to have a learning experience which is meaningful to them, takes their circumstances into full consideration, and which respects their autonomy as scholars and students is strong in an AaL context (Dann, 2002). 

Though AaL may, on the surface, be more suitable for research work, higher level learning and project-based working, there may be opportunities at all levels and subjects for aspects of AaL to be incorporated into the suite of assessment approaches adopted by a course of instruction. The support, contextual skills, and mentoring aspects of AaL can be difficult to organise logistically, and may represent a large investment in time and interpersonal resources, but may yield benefits in engaged, self-motivating and self-aware learners. AaL is perhaps most appropriate where the aims and objectives relate less to the product of assessment and more towards the range of cognitive skills deployed in service of that assessment being completed. Often, a mechanism by which students can give running and/or summative commentaries on their own learning, either through reflective assessments or through journaling their experiences, can be useful in providing additional support of claims of reflexivity in learning, and in engagement with metacognitive processes.      

Reflection

Have you ever been assessed in AaL terms? If so, was it always clear to you that this was being done? To what extent are higher level cognitive and communicative skills more relevant to an AaL approach to AoL or AaL? Why might this be?

How do you feel about assessment where the student takes the lead? What safeguards might you want to see in place do that you could ensure that learning is taking place at the right level and in the appropriate detail?

What are the obligations to you as a learner in an AaL context? And what about as a teacher? How do they differ from AaL and AoL responsibilities? And in what ways are they similar, if not identical? 

Conclusion

This chapter has covered three separate-conceived approached to assessment. Though we have explored them in isolation from each other, it may well be that a course of instruction takes its ideas from more than one, or from all three.

It would be a very strange teaching environment which had no assessment except for a final examination, for example. Assessment is ongoing and summative, is formal and informal, can be teacher-directed, and student-centric. The balance of these - and other - elements which you elect to employ as an educator will be influenced by a set of parameters. Some of these conditions you may well have little control over, such as where there externally-set curriculum and testing arrangements in place for you to apply to your learners. Others, such as the ways in which individual lessons are planned and prepared for, and executed and reflected upon, are well within your remit to sculpt as you see fit in your professional capacity as an educator. 

The balance chosen, and the range and creativity which you have brought to your assessment types and underpinning philosophies, will also have to consider the needs of your learners, their preferences and their own learning drives; the challenge is to select wisely and appropriately, so that the menu of assessment offered to learners offers choice, the chance for student motivating and proactivity, yet works to support the curriculum aims in workable contexts. This balance is not always straightforward to achieve, and the challenge to you is real, though never less than worthwhile.  

Reflection

Now you have completed this chapter, you should be able to:

  • define assessment of, for, and as learning
  • appreciate the key features of the three perspectives
  • make your own judgements about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the three approaches explored in the chapter
  • apply discretion in your choice of assessment approaches in your own teaching practice

Reference list

Capel, S. (2016) Learning to teach in the secondary school: A companion to school experience. Edited by Susan Capel, Marilyn Leask, and Sarah Younie. 7th edn. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Dann, R. (2002) Promoting assessment as learning: improving the learning process. London: Routledge Falmer.

Earl, L.M. (2013) Assessment as learning: using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Ginnis, P. (2002) The teacher's toolkit: raise classroom achievement with strategies for every learner. London: Crown House Publishing.

Jones, C.A. (2005) Assessment for learning. Available at: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/7800/1/AssessmentforLearning.pdf (Accessed: 10 November 2016).

Manitoba Education (2005) Rethinking classroom assessment with purpose in mind assessment for learning assessment as learning assessment of learning. Available at: http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/assess/wncp/full_doc.pdf (Accessed: 11 November 2016).

McGill, R.M. (2015) Teacher toolkit: helping you survive your first five years. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Smith, I. (2014) Assessment and learning. 2nd edn. London, United Kingdom: Teachers' Pocketbooks.

Spendlove, D. (2015) 100 ideas for secondary teachers: assessment for learning. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Wellington, J. (2006) Secondary education: the key concepts. London: Routledge.


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