FreshGrade's Blog: Assessment For Learning

Assessment for Learning: Classroom Strategies to Improve Learning for ALL Students

Article written by: Damian Cooper

In this blog post, we shall examine how Jackie Clark, a grade 3 teacher, combines her deep understanding of assessment for learning with her use of instructional technology to improve the reading skills of her students.  I strongly encourage you to view the webinar, “Assessment for Learning: Classroom Strategies to Improve Learning for ALL Students” in which you will be able to see both Powerpoint slides and videoclips *  illustrating my comments.

First, a review of some terminology.  The different terms that are used when we talk about assessment can cause a great deal of confusion for teachers, as well as students and parents.  There are no right and wrong definitions. Rather, educators in different jurisdictions attach different interpretations. For the purposes of this post, I shall use the following definitions:

  • Diagnostic assessment: to assess skills, knowledge & understanding prior to instruction
  • Formative assessment: to inform learning during the instructional process
  • Summative assessment: to assess learning at the end of an instructional period
  • Common formative assessments: team-designed to assess progress towards learning targets, often across a grade level
  • Assessment for learning: to inform learning during the instructional process
  • Assessment as learning: student monitored to enable progress towards specific learning goals
  • Assessment of learning: to assess learning at the end of an instructional period

Notice that the definitions for formative assessment and assessment for learning are the same, as are the definitions for summative assessment and assessment of learning.  But rather than getting hung up on definitions, it is more helpful to consider the different purposes for assessment.  And to do that, I ask you to consider this figure skater. 

Assessment For Learning versus formative assessment by using a figure skater metaphor

She is performing at a major international competition.  Her performance will be scored by a group of judges, and her composite score will determine whether she is on the podium or not at the end of the competition.  How did our skater make it to this level? She worked with her coach, perhaps for several years. So who is more invested in the skater’s success? The judge or her coach?  The coach, of course. What is the purpose of the judge’s assessment of the skater’s? To evaluate the quality of her final performance. What is the purpose of the coach’s ongoing assessment?  To provide feedback to help her excel. What “language” does the judge use to communicate his evaluation of the skater’s performance? A score. What “language” does the coach use to communicate with the skater during practice?  Feedback. Clearly, the coach and judge have very different purposes. Hence, they use different languages to communicate.

* Videoclips used in the webinar are from VOCAL 101.  (See references)

Of course the challenge for the teacher is that she has to be both coach and judge!  And so it is essential that the teacher be crystal clear herself, as well as when speaking to her students and their parents, about which hat – coach or judge – she is wearing, when.  And this leads us to the need to clarify our assessment purpose before we set students to work. I suggest that teachers use 3 essential questions (Wiggins & McTighe) to help them do this:

    • What is the purpose of this assessment?
      • Diagnostic?  Formative? Summative?
    • Who is the primary user of the data?
      • Teacher?  Student? Parent?  Next grade teacher?   Employer? University/College entrance board?
    • What kind of data does the user need?
      • Feedback?  Rubric level?  Score?


…assessment which is explicitly designed to promote learning is the single most powerful tool we have for both raising standards and empowering lifelong learners.

(Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box, 1999, University of Cambridge School of Education)

it should be where educators put most of their time and energy.  Dylan Wiliam and his colleagues’ work in assessment for learning is widely recognized across Canada and the United States. (2005)   They have identified 5 key AfL strategies:

  • Clarifying learning intentions and sharing criteria for success
  • Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning
  • Activating students as instructional sources for one another

Jackie Clark understands how assessment can be used to improve learning as well as any teacher I have ever met.  Her grade 3 reading program follows an 8-step cycle, with steps 2 through 8 repeating throughout the year:

  1. Data-gathering: based on PM Benchmarks and DRA assessment
  2. Student oral reading: diagnostic assessment by teacher
  3. Student viewing video of her reading performance: prior to conference with teacher
  4. Student setting goals for improvement: student and teacher collaborate on this
  5. Conference with peer coach: student and peer review video of reading performance
  6. Conference with teacher: to review reading goals in light of self and peer assessment
  7. Teacher communication with parents: via email, to communicate goals and progress towards them
  8. Student meeting with parent and teacher: 3-way conference as part of reporting process, both interim and final

In the webinar, I used video clips of Jackie’s classroom to illustrate how her 8-step cycle maps onto Dylan Wiliam’s 5 AfL strategies. Let’s examine what this relationship looks like by working through the 5 strategies.

Strategy 1: Clarifying learning intentions and sharing criteria for success

Assessment For Learning By Clarifying Learning Intentions And Sharing Criteria For Success

In order for Jackie to be able to conduct one-on-one reading conferences with each child, she has to be confident that the rest of the class will be meaningfully engaged.  And so early in the school year, Jackie establishes behavioural expectations for 6 generic learning skills that will ensure all students are learning, regardless of whether she is instructing the whole class, working with small groups or conferencing with individual students.

Here are the anchor charts for these learning skills that Jackie co-creates with the children during the first weeks of the school year.

Creating Behavioural Expectations To Ensure That Students Are Always Learning
Creating Behavioural Expectations To Ensure That Students Are Always Learning 2
Creating Behavioural Expectations To Ensure That Students Are Always Learning 3

During the initial individual reading conferences, Jackie works with each child to set specific goals for their skill improvement.  This occurs during steps 2 and 4 of the 8-step cycle described above. Each child’s goals are selected from the “CRAFTE” wall illustrated below.

Student Learning Goals For Learning Assessment

Strategy 2: Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning & Strategy 3: Providing feedback that moves learners forward

Providing Feedback That Moves Learners Forward

Each one-on-one reading conference sees Jackie interacting with one of her students by reviewing their goals, reading aloud an unfamiliar passage (which is recorded on a tablet and stored in the child’s own “cloud” account), and providing feedback that promotes self-reflection and self-correction.  I cannot begin to describe how brilliantly Jackie does this so I do urge you to access the conferencing clip in the webinar.

Strategy 4: Activating students as owners of their own learning

It is steps 3 and 5 in the 8-step cycle that spark the most interest when I explain the process to teachers.  This is where the child reviews the video of her reading performance on the tablet and critiques it on a laptop with reference to the reading goals that she has set.  This is metacognition at its best, with children who are only eight years old!

Activating Students Of Owners Of Their Own Learning
Activating Students Of Owners Of Their Own Learning

Strategy 5: Activating students as instructional sources for one another

In step 5, the child – Viktoria, on the right in the picture below – works with her peer coach, Alexis, to review Viktoria’s reading performance once again.  This time, her peer coach provides a second set of ears and eyes to help Viktoria assess her progress, according to her specific goals.

Activating Students As Instructional Sources For One Another

Step 6 in the cycle sees Jackie meet again with Viktoria, this time to review her progress towards her reading goals.  They discuss how well Viktoria was able to self-assess her own reading performance video, as well the extent to which Alexis, her peer coach, was able to help.

The last two steps in the cycle involve communication with Viktoria’s mother, first via email, and then in a 3-way conference.  

Step 7: Teacher communication with parents

Step 8: Student meeting with parent and teacher

Viktoria’s parents have both been able to review video clips of their daughter’s  reading throughout the term by accessing her “cloud” account through the parent portal on the school’s website.  But during the 3-way conference, teacher, student and parent engage in face-to-face discussion about Viktoria’s progress while watching selected video clips.  

Assessment For Learning And Watching Progress

So consider how powerful Jackie’s use of digital evidence has been throughout the 8-step cycle.  She used an early reading sample as a diagnostic assessment, along with data from PM Benchmarks and DRA assessments.  She then used the next video sample while conferring with Viktoria in order to set specific goals for improvement. Subsequent recordings were used by Jackie for formative assessment, providing in-the-moment feedback to Viktoria to help her improve.  These recordings were also self-assessed by Viktoria, and were then the focus for peer assessment provided by her reading buddy, Alexis. Finally, selected recordings were used for summative assessment purposes to determine how far Viktoria had progressed over the entire term, and to celebrate her success with her mother.

In summary, Jackie Clark’s deep and insightful understanding of both the research and practice behind assessment for learning, combined with her masterful use of instructional technology, enable her to differentiate her grade 3 reading program to directly meet the individual needs of each child in the class.  But crucial to her success is the significant time and effort that Jackie and her students spend on establishing and monitoring the behavioural expectations so that she is able to spend sufficient one-on-one time with each child.  

In my work with teachers, poor behaviour by the rest of the class is always cited as the primary reason for their being unable to differentiate instruction and to spend the necessary time addressing individual students’ needs.  Too often the approach I see in classrooms is reactive, rather than proactive. That is to say a teacher has to interrupt her work with an individual or small group to deal with misbehaviours among the rest of the class. Jackie spends most of her time establishing and reviewing expected behaviours, before she goes into conferencing mode with an individuals or small groups.  And once the conferencing is over, she always requires the rest of the class to assess how well they met the behavioural expectations.  


Webinar: Assessment for Learning: Classroom Strategies to Improve Learning for ALL Students

Online course: VOCAL 101: Validating Observation and Conversation when Assessing Learning: An Introductory Course

Wiggins, G., McTighe, J., (2013)  Essential Questions: opening doors to student understanding, ASCD

Broadfoot P, Daugherty R, Gardner J, Gipps C, Harlen W, James M & Stobart G (1999) Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box. Nuffield Foundation and University of Cambridge. Dylan

Siobhan Leahy, S., Lyon, C., Thompson, M., & Wiliam, D. (2005). Classroom Assessment: Minute by Minute, Day by Day. Educational leadership, 63(3), 18-24

PM Benchmark: An Assessment Tool for Grades K-6, (2001), Nelson Education

Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA), Pearson



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