Good quality assessment is an important tool for every educator. At simplest it is just informally checking how students are progressing in their learning, which can provide a nice snapshot of an individual student or the whole class. Arranging these snapshots chronologically creates a display of individual learning process. These portfolios, learning journals, or other displays are very useful in learning environments where students are not formally evaluated, but they can also be used very effectively in all educational systems.
Formal education is often built on learning objectives and learning outcomes and thus assessing students’ performance is seen to be necessary. Students’ progress in formal education is tied to a curriculum and students are evaluated to see if they meet the standards of the educational system. But, to support students’ individual and self-regulated learning process we also need to have strong formative assessment practices. Formative assessment of learning is then used to inform future instruction in the class, and thus also may become assessment for learning.
Classroom assessment has several requirements, though, to be beneficial for students and their learning process. The very first and the most important requirement is that all assessments are non-punitive, so that they don’t create a threat for students to engage in their learning. It is detrimental to use assessments that direct students to use shallow or strategic learning approaches!
An assessment cannot be a one-shot-only situation, because that emphasizes the view of learning as a product, not a process. Criterion based (or standards based) assessment where students get try again until they reach the standard is a good option. It is important to remember that while trying to measure students’ knowledge/skill in the content, the assessment shouldn’t be focused on students’ work habits or organization skills. Including learning about executive function to lessons is a good way to improve study skills.
The second requirement is that students must be included in decisions about how and what they learn and how that learning is assessed (as per APA learner-centered psychological principles). This doesn’t mean letting students to do whatever they want, but opening the discussion with students about their learning process, allowing students to choose their learning/study strategies, and providing choices for both assessments and assignments.
The third requirement is for the assessment to improve the learning process, and build students’ self-efficacy beliefs while treating learners as co-creators and partners in their learning process (APA). Assessment contributes to students’ growing meta-cognitive skills, by providing feedback about both the learning and studying strategies and practices (not just the product, i.e. worksheet, paper, project, poster etc) in order to support students growth. There is a big difference in evaluating the study strategies and providing feedback about them.
To be effective assessment must also inform the teacher about next steps in instruction and help the teacher to accommodate individual differences in learners’ backgrounds, interests, abilities, and experiences (APA). This also presents the requirement for providing choices in the classroom.
It is a good practice to include students’ self-assessments into the formative assessment system in the classroom, because it improves students understanding of their own skills and learning when they see how well the self-assessment and formative assessments meet. And, a major discrepancy between self- assessment and formative assessment is an excellent conversation starter between the teacher and the student — in both situations when the student over- or underestimates her/his skills and knowledge – and in which case it easily becomes both an assessment of learning and an assessment for learning.
And please, let’s not get confused between (formative) assessments and (summative) evaluations! One question about Finnish education that I often get to answer is about the absence of standardized testing in K-12 in Finland. While this is absolutely true, and students don’t have to be prepped for tests for several weeks, the reality is that all teachers engage in ongoing formative assessment, in order to know how their students are learning.
APA Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.