Catch up: How can we craft effective assessment for learning?

An on demand event jointly hosted by the NAHT and Discovery Education

In this fireside chat Mike Chiles, experienced Middle Leader, Principal Examiner and author and Andrew Hammond, Senior Director of Learning at Discovery Education explore how teachers can rethink their approach to assessment to establish the foundations to support learning.

Establishing an effective process of assessment is one of the most challenging aspects of teaching but equally one of the most important ingredients for good teaching and learning. As a profession, we should look to take back control on how learning is assessed to create a climate for leaders in all phases of education to support and enable their teachers to take control and use assessment to guide pupils in closing the knowledge gap.

The core principles of CRAFT provide a meaningful, manageable, and motivational whole-school approach to assessment. Let us unpick the five core principles. The C of CRAFT explores the role of teachers in providing pupils with the platform to transform new learning into memorable materials that can be used to rehearse and deliberately practise. The R of CRAFT outlines how pupils can then use their powerful notes to become more reflective and self-regulated learners to strengthen memory connections through the combined use of the learning strategies of retrieval and spaced practice. The A of CRAFT is the use of assessment opportunities to check for understanding and allow teachers and pupils themselves to unravel what they know, what they need to know and how they can get there. In the F and T of CRAFT this involves the combined use of feedback and feedforward strategies to provide pupils with positive and specific targets to close the knowledge gaps.

In the past, the use of level-based and benchmark assessments, as well as an emphasis of summative over formative approaches have led to the distorted understanding of how to assess pupil’s learning, which was reflected in the 2015 Department for Education report on Assessment without Levels. We should see the process of assessing learning as an opportunity to gather information to respond and direct pupils on the right track to success.

This was supported by the work of Harry Fletcher-Wood who provided a clear indication of the need for a greater emphasis on formative over summative assessments. He said,

‘When assessment is formative, the aim is to reveal pupils’ weaknesses so that the teacher can act on them. When assessment is summative, the aim is to give pupils a final grade, and so there can be pressure to try to conceal and gloss over understanding.’

If we take the example of a train journey, the use of summative assessment is the end of that journey, the final stop. It is assessment of learning to see what a pupil has achieved at the end of a unit of work or school year. On the other hand, when it is formative, pupils get on and off the train as they are directed by the teacher through regular feedback on how to get to the end of the journey. When assessment is formative it is assessment for learning and can be used to indicate where pupils are at and support the teacher’s plans for the next steps to help their pupils improve. For it to be used as a formative tool, teachers need to review and adapt their approach to teaching to support pupils in further forward towards the learning intention.

In 2007, Wiliam and Thompson outlined five overarching strategies to conceptualise the process of using assessment formatively, part of the learning process:

  1. Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success.
  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions and other learning tasks that elicit evidence of student understanding.
  3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward.
  4. Activating students as instructional resources for one another.
  5. Activating students as owners of their own learning.[1]

This leads us on to how schools can create assessment opportunities that cumulatively build on knowledge to new scenarios over time. In the past, pupils have completed end of unit topics after a block on lessons. These structured high-stake summative assessments tend to yield low impact in supporting teachers in understanding what pupils know and how to move them forward. It is also usually at a point many weeks or months after pupils were taught. In this structure, although pupils may perform well on one end of topic assessment it does not mean they have learnt the concepts and processes. We know from extensive research into how our memory works, there is a difference between learning and performance. Learning takes place when there is a change in long term memory. Performance in one assessment may not be replicated in a further assessment when concepts and processes are revisited at a later stage in the learning journey.

In contrast, applying a cumulative approach to assessment, such as in the History example below, can cultivate the right conditions for pupils to practise concepts and processes from topics over time. This allows teachers to use this cumulative approach to devise structured interim assessments that build in knowledge from previous topics to allow pupils to continually practise bringing knowledge back to mind to strengthen schema. This can be illustrated by learning progressions, which Popham defined as follows:

‘A carefully sequenced set of building blocks that students must master en route to a more distant curricular aim. The building blocks consist of subskills and bodies of enabling knowledge.’

In establishing a structure to assessment design, it is important then to consider how these interim assessments will fit into the curriculum. This is where curriculum design is important and teachers having a clear understanding of how their curriculum builds on and revisits knowledge over time. I like to see curriculum design as creating a tapestry that tells the story of your subject, weaving together the complex concepts and processes to create an overall picture at the end. It is important teachers have a clear understanding of the intent of the curriculum and how knowledge weaves through to build in complexity over time.

As well as teachers having a clear understanding of the curriculum, pupils also need to know what it is their supposed to be learning and how their learning will be judged. One strategy is to provide curriculum roadmaps that set out a clear outline of what pupils will be learning and where their journey will take them. In sharing these learning intentions as ‘fertile question’ it will help pupils to understand the journey they will undertake and free up some of their working memory. Alongside these checkpoints, it allows pupils to become reflective and self-regulated learners, providing them with a structure to begin to assess their own progress along the journey.

Once we have established as teachers what we want pupils to learn and how we can communicate this to pupils, we need to gather information that can provide an indication of their progress towards the learning intentions. This is where formative classroom strategies, low stake quizzes as well as silent and sustained milestones can provide information on pupil progress.

One of these strategies is through the planned use of questioning to promote discussion. Teachers ask lots of questions every lesson to gather data on pupil progress. We ask pupils questions to promote thought for the pupil and shed light on any misconceptions they may have. One effective assessment tool to use in the classroom is the use of hinge questions. The use of hinge questions allows teachers to gather information quickly in a low stake, high impact manner. The key is to the designing of the questions so that they reveal misconceptions and assumptions that pupils may have. The ‘hinge point’ will be different depending on the subject and the concepts and processes that the teacher is assessing, and this should be decided by the individual teacher. It is important that teachers have the autonomy to decide their hinge points when they feel it is appropriate. As leaders our focus should be on supporting teachers to create the most effective hinge questions that reveal misconceptions. For these hinge questions to be an effective assessment tool, pupils should provide their answers simultaneously. So, a hands up approach should be avoided.

Finally, the use of feedback to support pupils to feedforward is an important element to support assessment for learning. When we have established the difference between what pupils currently know and what pupils needs to know, we can provide them with the right feedback to move forward. When applying effective feedback there are five key principles that teachers can use; appropriately timed, generates a receptive culture, granular in delivery, supports self-regulation, and is a continual process.

First and foremost, feedback should be more work for pupils than the teacher. Before pupils ask for feedback teachers should encourage the proofreading of work to ensure it is ready for checking. When it comes to delivering feedback, teachers should aim to provide razor sharp comments that are focused on exactly how to improve. The more obstacles we place when giving feedback the longer it will take for pupils to move further towards the learning intention.

To close, the purpose of assessments in any school should be to support teachers and pupils in establishing what they know and what they need to do to move forward. Establishing the process for creating these assessment opportunities is important and there is argument to suggest a greater emphasis on a formative approach, training teachers to use responsive teaching to guide pupils to close the knowledge gap.

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Michael Chiles

Michael is an experienced Middle Leader and Principal Examiner, leading departments in several challenging secondary schools in the UK. He has delivered training Nationally and Internationally to support teachers in their approaches to implementing effective assessment practices.

In his debut book with John Catt, Michael has written about the importance of school leaders cultivating the right conditions to enable teachers to use assessment as a tool to support learning, in and out of the classroom, to support pupils in closing the knowledge gap.


[1] William, D. and Thompson, M. (2007) ‘Integrating assessment with instruction: what will it take to make it work?, in C. A. Dwyer (ed). The future of assessment: shaping teaching and learning (pp. 53-82). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.