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31 ways to keep your assessment sharp

There's no reason to be nervous about pupils' learning targets, writes Harry Dodds

1 Keep your purpose in mind

Teacher assessment is about finding evidence that tells you and your pupils where they are in their learning, where you need to go next and how to get there.

2 It isn't just about 'tests'

Assessment needn't be painful and is about much more than formal tests - you need to be assessing ability and achievement every day.

3 Get all parties involved

Share your assessment criteria with everyone who has an interest in pupils' learning - pupils, parents, support staff - so they all know what has to be done. If you're using grades, make sure that all concerned know what they mean.

4 Be clear about criteria

In every sense, pupils need to know the score. For example, younger pupils could use a series of "I can..." statements such as, "I have reached level 3 when I can join up the letters in my handwriting."

5 Get pupils to set targets

You can help children to understand assessment criteria better by getting them to formulate them in their own way. At the start of a task, invite pupils to suggest what they will have to do to perform well. Record their ideas and relate them to the more formal criteria.

6 Talk it through in advance

When you discuss work to be assessed with your class, base your discussion on the criteria so that you and your pupils have them in mind.

7 Look on the bright side

Always find something positive to say in your feedback. Make your comments "formative" while you are working on particular learning objectives, and "summative" when you come to the end of that areaof work.

8 Praise with care

Timely spoken feedback can be just as useful as written remarks, especially if it leads to targets for the next activity. But beware giving feedback in front of the whole class. Not everyone likes being praised in public, so judge with caution.

9 Spread the word on success

Make sure that everyone who is (or who ought to be) interested in a pupil's achievement knows about it. Tell form tutors, parents, heads of year and relevant support staff.

10 Mean what you say

Focus on success, not failure - but don't pretend that work is great if it isn't. Children can see through insincerity. Make sure praise is genuine and has been earned.

11 Avoid comparisons

Use pupils' previous work as your marker of quality and progress rather than comparisons with other children's work - it's not useful to you and can discourage them.

12 Aim at realistic targets

Use your assessment results to set targets that are individualised and achievable - it will help to bolster your pupils'


13 Use results to plan ahead

Feed the results of your assessment back into your plans. And when you explain learning objectives at the start of a lesson, make it clear that you are pitching the activities to their learning needs.

14 Keep tabs on progress

Assemble representative evidence with pupils so you can show their progress against specific targets. Build a portfolio for each pupil and include commentaries from them in their file that show they understand their progress.

15 Get it out in the open

If your subject has assessment training materials - for example, GCSE English speaking and listening standardisation videos - share them with pupils. It will help to clarify the criteria and show exactly how things are supposed to be done.

16 Make time for reflection

Give pupils time to reflect on their results. When pupils have their work returned to them, their first impulse is often to find the grade and read no further. Ask pupils to add a brief note in response to your comments. This will ensure that they have taken your remarks on board.

17 Map out the learning journey

Make the destination clear and discuss your objectives with each pupil. Build in mini-assessment milestones along the way, where pupils can take a breather and get their bearings.

18 Seize your opportunities

Assess by stealth. Listen in to group discussions and tell pupils what assessment criteria they have satisfied simply by talking about their classwork.

19 Keep a cross-curricular eye

Business studies or geography presentations, for example, can also provide useful evidence to record achievement in English speaking and listening. Use of ICT in any subject can and should lead to assessable outcomes in both subject areas.

20 Give specific feedback

Written feedback is most effective when specific, not general. Comments such as "good work" or "could do better" are useless as they do not say why. A two-column format is useful, with a "+" and a "-" column. Use one for strengths, the other for areas for improvement.

21 Be a SMART marker

When you mark pupils' work, set targets that are SMART - "specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timed".

22 Just show me a sign

Develop your own signalling system so that pupils can indicate during a lesson whether they are confident in what they are learning, need more guidance or are totally lost - it's a quick and dirty form of self-assessment.

23 Get pupils to mark work

Develop pupils' peer-marking skills. Use anonymised work samples at first to show the whole range of achievement. Make clear the aims and objectives for a task, then ask pupils to devise and apply a mark scheme that will show how well they have done.

24 Everyone loves a quiz

Ask pupils to prepare a series of questions for their peers to assess their understanding of recent work. The software package Hot Potatoes is an excellent quiz-writing resource, but it is most effective when pupils use it. For more information see:

25 Make assistants count

Involve your support staff inthe assessment process - as assessors. They know their pupils well. If they are fully briefed about the objectives for your lesson and the criteria for success, they will be able to provide you with tightly focused feedback.

26 Have a point in homework

When you set homework, make the assessment criteria for the piece of work absolutely clear. Parents will appreciate this if they are trying to support their children.

27 Keep records

There's no point in assessing if you don't record your results. Most teachers keep a mark book, but is it up-to-date and does it present data in useful and accessible ways? Use highlighter colour-coding to make performance levels easy to track.

28 Don't be a technophobe

Computers are a great aid for recording results.

Download class lists and any existing assessment information - CAT scores, curriculum levels, exam results - from your school's information management system (ask in the school office for more details). Use spreadsheet graphs to present data, perhaps as a pupil profile. Set up a database to record data and design a report to present it attractively.

29 Do it the right way round

Don't try to assess if you haven't taught - it's pointless, unless you're trying to find a baseline from which to begin. Be clear about your purpose in assessing from the outset.

30 Know why you're doing it

Never use an assessment result without knowing the precise context and criteria that produced it.

31 Avoid typecasting

Never use assessment results to label learners or consign them to convenient pigeon-holes. And steer clear of self-fulfilling prophecies.

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