Katie White is coordinator of learning for the North East School Division in Canada. With more than 20 years in education, she has been an administrator, a learning coach, and a classroom teacher.

Assessment Quick Wins

Okay, I will admit it…the title of this blog post is a little misleading. 

Assessment is something that deserves thoughtful and extended consideration. “Quick” has the potential to move teachers and students from valid and reliable assessment to assessment that is surface-level. 

However, I also know that when educators decide to shift assessment paradigms and adjust daily practices, looking at the whole assessment topic can seem daunting, and knowing where to start can feel out of our reach. It is for this reason that I am going to offer some “quick wins” that might provide a tangible entry point into a deeper exploration of assessment for both teachers and students.  

QW #1: Begin collecting samples of student work

Samples of student work are so useful for learning conversations. We can use essays, constructed responses, solutions, labs, video clips, and so on, to make success criteria visible. When we tell students that tone matters, we can show them what that looks like in a piece of student writing. When we explain that flexibility while solving a problem is important, we can draw their attention to what this flexibility actually looks like. 

We can also use samples to illustrate the absence of success criteria. We can show them work that still needs revision, and our learners can work together to refine the work. We can share how work develops over time by showing both drafts and polished or revised versions, helping them to see that rich learning is rarely once-and-done. Samples of student work are a gateway into assessment conversations. Just make sure you have permission from your students to use their work in this way with future classes.

QW #2: Approach assessment evidence through strength first

I have written about this particular quick win in previous blog posts, and it is definitely a win for both teachers and students. For teachers, by looking first for strengths (and documenting those strengths), we begin to feel more optimistic. We start to see strengths as “things that we do not have to address,” which is great news for time-stretched teachers. 

Training our brains to look for strength first requires effort, but it is well worth it. We can group students based on strengths, offer strength-focused feedback, encourage leveraging strengths in future work (goal setting through strength), and plan peer supports that revolve around strength. Strengths represent success criteria, but through a glass-half-full perspective. This builds confidence for everyone in the learning relationship.

QW #3: Pre-plan 2-3 mid-lesson assessment questions

We know that questions are the foundation of assessment, but we might forget that these questions can be posed in the middle of instruction (as opposed to on a written final assessment) in order to help us become instructionally agile in the moment. Pre-planning 2-3 questions that will give us insight into student understanding and skill as it develops can be so helpful in catching misconceptions and needs sooner rather than later. 

Dylan Wiliam (2011) calls these questions hinge-point questions and they can give immediate insight into whether our instruction is yielding the intended results. Carefully considering such questions before instruction ensures we gather the kinds of information that are most useful. It is also important to consider how best to collect student responses so that we can be clear about the level of understanding for every student. Gathering student thinking through whiteboards, digital feedback tools, concepts maps, and paired conversations combined with observations can ensure we are collecting assessment information for every learner.

QW #4: Replace transactional language with the language of learning

Sometimes, the first place to begin our assessment shift is in how we talk about learning. Moving from language that is passive or transactional is an intentional habit to break. Instead of referencing teaching, we can reference learning. Rather than covering material, we are activating thinking. Getting your work done shifts to extending and expressing your thinking and ideas. Quality trumps quantity. 

If we want to move our learners toward a different view of assessment and instruction, we might want to be intentional about how we phrase our directions and feedback. A relentless focus on the language of quality learning is a powerful way to shift student compliance into deeper investment. Our language communicates that we are “all about the learning.”

QW #5: Frame every lesson with an essential question

Before each lesson, clarify for yourself the one thing you absolutely need students to learn and then turn that thing into an essential question. For example, if I want students to be able to apply badminton skills to a new net game I will be introducing, I might ask, “How are badminton and pickle ball the same and how are they different?” Perhaps I need students to understand that message and meaning are related but different. My essential question for this lesson might be, “What has to exist in order for message to turn into meaning?” 

Making this simple commitment to framing our lessons around an essential question enhances our focus on what is most important (our learning goals), increasing the likelihood of successful learning. It also ensures students are always aware of why the things we do in our classrooms matter. Lastly, it makes our intended learning crystal clear for both our students and ourselves. 

QW #6: Build time into every lesson when students can ask questions, and extend and revise thinking

This quick win requires a designation of class time to linger on those goals we feel are most important (must do, can’t fail). Slowing down a little each day might feel like a waste of time in our relentless pursuit of “coverage,” but in the end, it increases the likelihood that every student acquires those essential skills and knowledge. 

During this short period of time each day, we could ask, “What questions do you still need to explore?” or “How will you use the next 10 minutes to learn more and enhance your work?” This short gift of time allows us to focus on goal setting and revision, which are important parts of formative assessment. It also communicates to students that the most important learning must happen for every single person in the classroom.

QW #7: Give yourself 5 minutes in each class to observe students

Sometimes, we can forget the power of observation. As we orchestrate large groups of students through complex plans, we may miss opportunities to step back, watch, and assess important indicators of student learning. For just five minutes each class, plan to watch for engagement, for need, for interest, for strategic thinking, for confidence, and for independence. 

There’s so much we can learn about each student through observation, but we have to make time to do it. Planning a learning experience that is complex but accessible can give us just the right opportunity to see how students are developing the skills and understanding we are working towards.

QW #8: Invite students to help you help their families understand assessment shifts you are making

A fair question to ask ourselves while in the middle of shifting assessment practices is: How can I help families understand the changes we are making in my classroom? One of the best strategies for approaching this kind of communication is to invite students to help you construct the messages. In reality, if our students don’t understand what we are doing and why, then we might need to refine our approaches or, at the very least, our communication about those approaches. 

Then, when the changes begin to serve students more clearly, our learners can help us explain the shifts to their families. Videos and artifacts can be a great way to capture the ways students understand new assessment paradigms. A video of a student explaining the importance of reassessment, for example, is far more powerful than any message we might send. Because assessment is a relationship between students and teachers, it is powerful to invite students to co-construct and explain the ways assessment will support learning in our classrooms.

QW #9: Stop scoring everything that moves

Constantly thinking about quantifying student work sometimes removes us from thinking about how to grow that work and the learners associated with it. Attaching a score to every iteration of student learning also communicates that the work is about points and not about the value of deepening our understanding and skill. Intrinsic motivation of any kind is removed when every formative and summative assessment is scored and when students are held accountable for proficiency even when practicing and exploring. 

In addition, the sheer workload of attaching a number to everything can be exhausting for teachers. Reserve summative assessment (scoring) for times when students are ready, for when they have practiced and explored enough to develop proficiency (or close to it), and for when you are measuring the learning goal to the level of complexity required. You can use everything else to analyze strength and need and to plan tomorrow’s lessons.

QW #10: Make time every day to reflect on your instruction and, more importantly, students’ responses to your instruction

This final quick win is the most important. Reflecting on our practice and the effect it is having on our learners is the best way to use assessment differently. When we think about assessment as a way to capture student thinking and skill so we can adjust our instruction in response to student needs is a powerful shift in how assessment has traditionally been used. 

Making time to consider how we might adjust our class time, our student groupings, and our lesson plans is an investment that will always pay huge dividends. Reflective practitioners are seekers. They stay curious and investigate ways to address even the most challenging situations. Making time to reflect is an important quick win.

References:

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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