Assessment can make learning fun

30th January 2004 at 00:00
Major advances appear to have been secured in making teachers better at their jobs and pupils more eager to learn - and the secret may lie in formative assessment.

In one of the most positive evaluations in recent years, a research team from London University found that 100 per cent of the staff in the primary and secondary schools involved said the project was highly successful in adding to their understanding of the role assessment can play in learning and in improving their motivation.

The reason for this impact appears to be that staff were made to focus on the changes they can make to their teaching by using a range of techniques in assessing pupils, rather than using a score or grade (summative assessment).

These include the use of "wait time" in which teachers pause for three seconds before requiring an answer (the average is said to be less than one second) and "traffic lighting", in which pupils hold up green, amber and red cards to show their levels of understanding.

More than nine out of 10 had changed teaching and assessment practices as a result of their involvement, and were now more focused on the needs of pupils.

The "Assessment is for Learning" project, run by Learning and Teaching Scotland, is also credited with improving pupils' learning skills (by 94 per cent of staff), learning and motivation (89 per cent), quality of work (88 per cent) and attainment (78 per cent).

"There was a substantial increase in perceptions of pupils' engagement with learning," the interim report from the university's Institute of Education states. "The impact on lower attainers, shy and disengaged pupils was particularly notable. Pupils were better motivated and demonstrated more positive attitudes towards learning. Many were more confident."

Teachers had greater awareness of gaps in pupils' knowledge and of their learning needs. This led to a virtuous circle of "improved teaching, achieving and amenable children (and) teachers' growing enjoyment of their work".

The project involves four groups of eight to nine schools working together.

But, while each group was supported by a development officer and staff from two university faculties, schools still reported being under pressure because formative assessment is time-consuming, particularly when teachers have to prepare pupils for exams as well.

The researchers say one answer is to slim down the content of the curriculum, "if there is a genuine commitment to enhance the quality of learning and the development of pupils' learning skills".

But the report warns that, for the new approach to become the norm in Scottish schools, there will have to be a far deeper awareness of what formative assessment is about. The matching of project schools to comparators not involved in the initiative showed that the latter group had only superficial knowledge.

If dissemination to all schools is to be effective, the report says, this should be done by teachers who are best placed to convey their enthusiasm and motivation to others and give the process credibility.

WHAT MAKES IT WORK?

* higher-order questioning techniques

* thinking skills

* problem-solving techniques

* the use of wrong answers

* wait time

* traffic lighting group and pair work

* discussions

* peer assessment

* feedback comments rather than grades

* oral feedback from teachers

* sharing assessment criteria

* redrafting of work

* developing communication skills

* being more inclusive in teaching

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