Archive | January, 2015

Student-centered assessment

18 Jan

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.

How to engage students in their own learning process

3 Jan

The fundamental idea of student engagement in education us, being the focus of hundred papers and even more on the blog posts. We know that students’ engagement leads to better educational outcomes, and how students engage better in their learning if they find the information interesting and the learning meaningful. But, sometimes building instruction that meets the interests of a classroom full of students seems impossible.

One main problem is that “students are typically presented as the customers of engagement, rather than coauthors of their learning”.[1] It is really, really hard to be intrinsically interested and very engaged with things you cannot control, or in activities that are mandated by someone else. To be engaged in the learning process students must be given ownership for their learning. This ownership grows from personal and situational choices within the learning experience.

In formal education, whether K-12 or Higher Ed, students’ behavior is too often emphasized over the affective and cognitive parts of their engagement. I understand how much easier it is to measure the visible behaviour, but am worried it leads to a shallow view of learning – which is so much more than just a change in one’s behaviour.  Emphasizing behavior easily leads to the approach where learning is seen as successful completion of various learning products (essays, projects, worksheets etc.).

Learning is a complex experience, and we all engage in different kind of learning experiences in our everyday lives. These experiences have an effect on formal learning, the learning that happens in the classroom, and we shouldn’t ignore the importance of informal learning experiences. Already preschoolers arrive to school with preconceptions and filters that strongly affect their learning experiences. These different perceptions about learning also explain why engagement is so different for each individual student, and why some students choose to engage deeply, and others just on the surface level.

The picture below shows how learning engagement and learning approaches develop in the context of formal education.  This picture is modified from  Ramsden model of student learning in context (2003, p.83)[2].

Learning approaches filtered

The easiest way to increase student engagement in any given level of education is to provide students with choices for their learning activities: how to obtain necessary information, and for task/assignments and formative assessments. This also creates a student-centered learning environment:

  • Information can be obtained from reading, or listening a lecture, watching a webinar or demonstration etc. The information sharing (or direct instruction) is also the part where students’ preferences for getting information are seen to have an impact on their learning and engagement.
  • Students are more engaged in their assignments when they get to choose from a selection. It is also harder for a student to explain why s/he did not finish the homework s/he got to choose. But the choices must be real, not just the topic of your essay. The best practice is to have students justify their choice for an assignment or assessment, because this reveals the filters students use to choose their approach in learning and engagement.
  • Formative assessment (especially in the form of timely and individualized feedback) seems to be an under-utilized practice in education, both in K-12 and in higher education. During the last year I have gone through classes in my studies where the feedback was virtually non-existent and summative assessment was provided after the class was over. How did that support my learning as a scholar-practitioner?

In order to provide a balanced learning experience and increase students’ ownership in their learning process students should also be provided with ample opportunities for self-assessment and self-evaluation.  These cannot be tied into the grade, because the purpose is to engage students in a dialogue about their learning process and their goals, but the self-assessments provide excellent talking points for the teacher and the student, especially if the student either over-or underperforms in the assessment when compared to their self-assessment.

I hope these ideas help teachers to advocate for students to be seen as co-authors of their own education. I am not promoting fully student-directed models of education, because I believe in core curricula, but I am trying to emphasize the fact that students’ learning outcomes –in any given educational model – are greatly improved when students are seen as active participants in guiding their own learning process.

[1]Trowler, V. (2010). Student engagement literature review. York: Higher Education Academy.

[2] Ramsden, P. (2003). Learning to teach in higher education (2nd ed.). London: Routledge Falmer