PROFESSOR DYLAN WILLIAM: Assessing the best method of learning

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WHEN most people hear the word "assessment" they think of tests and examinations. Such assessments can be important and useful for finding out where people have reached in their learning .

We use them to decide whether an individual has reached the right standard to be a driver, a teacher, a doctor, or an airline pilot.

Because these kinds of assessments attempt to sum up where people have got to, they are sometimes called "summative" assessments.

However, if you look at schools, universities, or indeed anywhere people are learning, you will find these summative assessments comprise only a tiny fraction of all the assessments carried out.

The vast majority are not carried out at the end of learning - to see what has been learnt - but while the learning is taking place.

The purpose of these day-to-day, and even minute-to-minute, assessments is to help judge whether learners are learning what the teacher wants them to .

This kind of fine-tuning of teaching while it happens is often called "formative" assessment, because information from the assessment helps form the direction of future learning.

It is assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning.

Since the 1980s, there has been a massive increase in summative testing in the UK. Some claim British schoolchildren are the most tested on the planet.

Whether such testing is a good idea or not depends on what kinds of tests we use, and what people do with information from them .

What I want to argue is that the emphasis on summative testing has deflected attention away from the role assessment can play in helping people learn.

Put simply, we have been putting too much effort into target-setting, and not enough into target-getting.

Of course we need to set targets for schools, teachers and learners, but that is the easy part of the task. The hard bit is achieving them.

For the last ten years, Professor Paul Black and I have been researching the role formative assessment has in raising standards of achievement.

WE reviewed 600 research studies from around the world, and the conclusions were startling - improving formative assessment in classrooms appears to be the most effective way of improving standards of achievement in schools, even if we measure achievement in such narrow terms as traditional tests and examinations.

Since almost all the studies were carried out in other countries, we did an experiment to see if we found the same effects here. We worked with 24 teachers in six schools in England over an 18-month period, and found that improving formative assessment raised GCSE scores by more than half a grade per student per subject.

The most important changes in classrooms were the way the teachers gave feedback to students, and the ways in which they involved the students in their own learning.

The most common form of feedback in schools in this country is for students to be given a mark, often with some sort of comment. Carefully controlled studies have shown that giving students marks is no better than giving no feedback at all.

Giving comments, on the other hand, produces substantial improvements in learning. However, what is surprising is that giving both marks and comments together produces no improvement.

When students get both a mark and a comment, the first thing they do is look at their mark. The second thing they do is look at their neighbour’s mark. They hardly ever look at the comments. Teachers who spend time crafting helpful comments are therefore wasting their time if they also give a mark - the students who get high marks feel they don’t need to read the comments, and those who get low marks don’t want to.

The teachers would be better off just giving marks. The students won’t learn anything, but it saves time.

It is important that when the teacher does give feedback, we make sure that the students act on it. At the moment, a teacher will typically spend more time marking a student’s work than the student will spend on following up the comment. This is crazy.

Of course students need some feedback about how they are doing in terms of marks, grades or levels, but I suggest this should be no more than once every two or three years in primary schools, maybe once a year in lower secondary , and perhaps once a term when before school-leaving or university-entrance exams.

A common concern is that getting students to mark their own or each other’s work is a waste of time. However, we have found that pupils commenting on each others’ work can have a substantial impact on learning.

STUDENTS are much better at spotting mistakes or weaknesses in other people’s work than in their own and are much tougher on each other than any teacher would dare to be. What’s more, they can take and act on criticism from classmates more easily than that from the teacher.

This leads on naturally to students teaching each other. This is a powerful way to promote learning and students can often communicate far more effectively with each other than the teacher can (as one student remarked: "Teachers have got a funny kind of language if you know what I mean"). In many situations, therefore, peer-assessment and peer-teaching will get better results than if we had one teacher per student. So what needs to be done?

We need to focus on feedback that moves students forward, rather than telling them where they are . After all, they can do nothing about where they are currently in their learning, but they can do something about where they end up.

However, focusing on things like "effort" is not enough. Telling students they need to "try harder" is no better than telling a bad comedian he needs to be funnier.

Our feedback must tell students not just what needs to be improved, but also how to go about it. We need to involve them more in their learning.

To some teachers, involving students feels like a loss of control . But by the end of the project, our teachers described the process as one of sharing responsibility. But perhaps more important was that they were enjoying teaching more, and the students were enjoying learning more.

Teaching well is compatible with better results. Frequent marks isn’t.

Dylan Wiliam is assistant principal and Professor of Educational Assessment at King’s College, London, and an adviser to the Scottish Executive.