Enabling Learners through Bespoke Assessments

Mary George, Curriculum Leader, Science

What makes learning relevant and enjoyable to school students, particularly in the Secondary School? My journey in finding answers to this enduring question has been exciting and ever evolving. This has been even more challenging and strangely enough enabling, teaching virtually or in the blended model.

Should an educator focus on skills, concepts or content? How do we as educators know what we teach is learnt? In many interviews and other discussions when a teacher is asked this question, the replies range from formative assessments to chunking of various types and styles.

When a teacher ‘brandishes’ assessments the class response ranges from fear to feeling in control depending on how they have been trained for assessments. Does anybody ever hear students say – yes, I enjoy assessments? Experience and evidence support the fact that students are partners in progress when a teacher spends time telling her class the purpose, ways and means of preparing for assessments and also how to use assessments for their benefit.

Do the principles of great assessments remain the same in the physical and online school? Do assessments have to be stressful for teachers as well with the vagaries of designing, administering and marking them? Not to forget the finale of giving feedback and feed forward? If anyone reading this is thinking of student reflection, that then is also part of the assessment game.

Bespoke assessments are a teacher’s ‘Swiss Army Knife’. They are focused on a certain set of skills ranging from subject skills to literacy and numeracy skills to ATL skills no doubt, but also suiting the cohort or individual student needs. Top tips for success with designing such assessments include

Let students know what your role is and the class non-negotiables

Here is the opportunity for a teacher to tell their class what is expected of them and how they would facilitate learning for them. Establishing a firm, friendly and supportive role is an absolute necessity to build a culture of respect, care and wellbeing. Spending time building this foundation is very useful and perhaps what underpins the philosophy of using the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ for the right reasons.

Here is an example

Know your learner

Design fun ways that allow you to understand what your students are capable of. Are they creative or critical thinkers? Do they enjoy visuals, games, projects or hands-on work? Do they prefer debates and discussions or quiet time to think? In my experience, when you get a new class it helps to share your own story and get the students to talk about who they are and their aspirations and interestsduring circle time. If this happens, you as their teacher have administered the first bespoke formative assessment in a non-threatening friendly chat– bingo! An example of how this is done online and with the use of a Padlet is here

Set up a challenge and some competition

Design ways in which students can collaborate and find their comfort zone and yet, ‘show off’ their skills and innate abilities. An example could be to throw a problem-solving task with instructions for students to work in small groups on site or online, each group sharing their findings and the teacher doing the plenary. Such a task facilitates a teacher to identify the level of skills each student has and helps as a baseline assessment of the intended skill, for example, critical thinking, problem solving and communication.

Allow students to practise through mini paper pencil assessments, chats on MS Teams or other platforms of online teaching

As a topic unfolds while teaching, students can be given a taster of what ‘real’ or examination style assessments are like with a focus on allocated time and marks, command terms as well as writing techniques. Alongside, mastery over content and subject vocabulary can be achieved through these smart, mini assessments. This kind of student focused formative assessment can be very effective particularly, if the teacher scaffolds the questions using simpler language, breaks the question, supplies key terms and so on.

Here is an example

Provide multiple and varied opportunities to students to show you what they have learnt

Students often worry about responding verbally, switching on cameras in an online scenario or something as simple as asking ‘Ms, how many questions are there? Is it difficult?’ This includes a bunch of other matters which may sound trivial to the teacher! So, what to do? Get students to enjoy assessments by letting them get creative to show you how they can do this. Writing, speaking, creating a poster or making a model – anything that suits the concepts and skills being taught could be an option for students when they are learning and practising to showcase their learning.

Here is an example – use graphic organisers when students have to write an essay or a structured answer by getting them to listen to podcasts, watch videos, or build something to explain their mastery of the concept and content. In the online scenario, you can use tools such as Flipgrid or Padlet. Finally, get the class with different abilities to move towards the ‘prescribed’ examination style answers in a collaborative manner. In this regard the Padlet is a great tool that has been experimented by many educators worldwide and an example is here

The shift from practice assessments to controlled, graded assessments

This sounds like the ultimate tool for the educator who spends time designing the assessment, administering the same and marking. While marking can be done in various ways, why not allow the test to mark itself, give students instant feedback and allow the teacher to get a quick check on the class performance and where there are gaps in knowledge, understanding and application. In this respect Kognity has proved to be a very useful online resource and assessment tool.Quick feedback can be given by the teacher in a structured and focused manner by recording their voice.

A few Kognity assessments followed by traditional assessment papers proves a smooth transition for training students for the real examination. This then means that every assessment – whether planned and graded or practice and formative – needs to be informative for the teacher, learner and other stakeholders. Here comes the use of a standard, well designed learning and reflection guide.

The final question is if the essential steps of assessment are followed with care, do students feel enabled? Can the fear of assessments be minimised for students? How can teachers use assessments with confidence to support learning without feeling the burden of marking the traditional way?