Research in England has shown that performance rises significantly where pupils understand clearly what they have to do to improve and become immersed in self-assessment. All abilities make progress but those at the bottom end do proportionately better under what has become known as formative assessment or assessment for learning.
Chris Harrison, a researcher at King's College in London, said formative assessment methods lead to changes in classroom practice. Pupils begin to understand what they are meant to be learning, rather than simply completing activities and exercises, and study in greater depth.
Ms Harrison helped run two 18-month test projects in Medway and Oxfordshire, involving 24 science and mathematics teachers in six schools. She told the conference at Heriot-Watt University that pupils benefit from lessons in which they become more active.
Teachers on the project changed the type of questions they asked once they studied the new methods, expending more effort on framing questions and preferring to get at children's understanding of a topic. The formative approach involves regular testing to identify problems and offer feedback to help overcome them. Other features are comment-only marking and both peer and self-assessment.
Ms Harrison said marking without a number or grade made a difference and took up less time overall because teachers only marked pieces of work that showed children's understanding. "Pupils actually started to read what teachers had been writing," she said. "It has made teachers much more explicit about what they see as good performance in a piece of work."
Students said they did not like red pen marking and too many comments were written illegibly.
Self-assessment, where children try to find quality in their own work, is only possible after they are involved in assessing their classmates' work. They then become used to the standards expected.
"They need to understand what the teacher is after before they hand their work in and the only way to do that is gradually build up over time an understanding of what quality is," Ms Harrison said.
Classrooms had changed "quite dramatically" with more collaborative learning and more children doing homework together and talking about how they can help each other. Tests become an important part of learning and are never done at the end but during the process to help review learning.
Ms Harrison said formative assessment and cognitive acceleration programmes, which concentrate on thinking skills, improve learning and lead to greater job satisfaction among staff.
"There are teachers who want to get in there in the morning and work with the kids," she said.
Further details about cognitive acceleration are available from Carolyn Yates at CYates8758@aol.com.