Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.

Engaging Students in Dialogue

One of the most powerful aspects of effective assessment practice resides in engaging students in dialogue about their learning as a result of the information gathered during the assessment phase. Formative assessments are check-ins throughout a unit of instruction to see how students are progressing. The more engaged our students become in conversations with teachers about their learning, the greater the likelihood that they will experience success. Royce Sadler (1998) posed three questions that frame this conversation: “Where am I going? Where am I now? How can I close the gap?”

The role of the classroom teacher is to help each student bridge the gap between where that student is and where that student needs to be. This requires specific assessment practices, such as differentiating instruction, re-teaching certain targets, or re-sorting students to allow for small-group work connected to teacher strengths. For example, an analysis of the results of students on a common assessment may reveal that although some students struggled with certain concepts, Teacher A had great success with that concept with her class of students. Teacher A can then re-teach the key concept to the struggling students while the remaining teachers in the departmental or grade-level team moves forward with the other students.

It’s also clear that changes in teacher practice require administrator leadership. If Teacher A is going to be able to re-teach struggling students, for example, she requires a principal who supports flexibility in teacher and student timetables. Administrators can further support teachers’ effort to close the gap by providing common preparation time for teacher teams or subject-area specialists, ensuring that professional development is aligned with the goal of improving student success, and providing time at staff meetings for a focused look at results of recent assessments (perhaps by subject area as a starting point).

As teachers engage students in dialogue about their learning, the guiding principle must be looking at how student involvement in each teacher-created assessment reflects a bigger plan for involving students in their own assessment. Descriptive feedback is essential for students to understand how they can respond to Sadler’s three questions; it is also one of the key components that lead to significant gains in student achievement (Black & Wiliam, 1998). This kind of feedback:

  • Describes features of work or performance
  • Relates directly to learning targets and/or standards of quality
  • Points out strengths
  • Gives specific information about how to improve

Ruth Butler (1987) reports on another study that examined the effects of four kinds of feedback (comments, grades, praise, and no feedback) on divergent thinking tasks with fifth and sixth grade students. The post-test results showed that students who received comments—that is, descriptive feedback—reached the highest levels of achievement, one standard deviation higher than the others. Clearly, this type of feedback allows for teacher and student to work in partnership and to bridge the gap between what has been demonstrated and what is required.

Assessment drives activities that students engage in and is critical to the next steps in the learning process. Assessment underpins each student’s learning. Educators must carefully choose an appropriate assessment strategy designed to yield quality evidence that also ensures students engage with the learning tools that have been provided, and in the learning activities that have lead to achievement of the desired results.

Note: Portions of this blog initially appeared in the Solution Tree anthology The Principal As Assessment Leader edited by Thomas Guskey and available on the Solution Tree website.

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