Changing how we think about assessment – Knowing your students as learners

A person is a fluid process, not a fixed and static energy; a flowing river of change, not a block of solid material; a continually changing constellation of potentialities, not a fixed quantity of traits.        Carl Rogers, 1961

In the 1980’s (yes, I am that old) Howard Gardner’s Theory of  Multiple Intelligences captured the educational world and began a shift towards a more student-centred, asset-based view of learning (Read more about asset-based learning). We acknowledged that there are different ways of knowing and different ways of demonstrating learning. One way was not better than another just…different! Intuitively, educators at the time accepted this premise and many of us pondered, ‘But how will I meet the needs of all students?’ We explored the tenets of differentiated instruction. (I always wondered why the phrase wasn’t ‘differentiated learning’ to align with a learner-centred approach?)

I faithfully administered surveys and learning inventories. My students could tell you if they were predominantly visual, auditory or kinesthetic learners (VAK) or concrete, abstract, logical or sequential (Learning Styles) and relate these to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. I remember how this impacted my teaching. Simple things like giving verbal instructions then writing them down, or allowing students to be more active or to build things or to use more photos and videos. But, to be honest, I’m not sure if these insights into how students learned actually made a significant difference in the way I designed learning experiences — certainly not in the way I assessed students.

Has this scenario ever happened to you? “I know this student understands the concepts. We talked about it; the student showed me how the model works but on the test this student did poorly! Why is that? That doesn’t make sense! What do I do now?” Hands up out there. How many of you have experienced this disconnect when trying to report academic achievement? It happens all the time!

Changing how we think about assessment means we create opportunities for students to show us their skills and understandings and we treat those moments as valid demonstrations of learning. Further, we even value the moments when students show us their learning unelicited! This approaches a true concept of differentiation and begins to respond to the question, ‘What do I do now? For this student? At this moment in time?’

As I look back to what students taught me through their learning journeys by the mid 1990s, I began to accept the validity of listening to students explaining or modeling their thinking. Rather than telling students what they should know, I relied heavily on asking clarifying questions to help me understand the connections they were making. I redefined for myself what actually counts  – not comparing students against each other but knowing each student well enough so, together, we could track and monitor learning over time against agreed upon criteria.

The educator-student relationship has been found to be consistently among the highest correlates with achievement.   John Hattie, 2012

Following a relational-based approach in education is not just an appreciation for the need for strong relationships. It also requires an understanding of student learning and behaviour from a relational perspective. This means understanding that students don’t truly act independently; rather, they act as a response to their relationships and contexts. D. Trantor, L. Carson, T. Borland, 2018

The school year is approaching. The first days are crucial to building relationships that are foundational for the rest of the school year. What intentional moves will you introduce, early in the school year, to truly get to know how your students learn – more than a gathering of social or demographic pieces of information? Recall the ‘zipper’ approach where assessment and instruction are seamlessly combined. If “the primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning” (Growing Success, p. 28), then exploring how students learn will provide feedback to you as an educator in making effective instructional decisions.  

Starting Points:

For early learners, setting out a variety of materials and provocations in the classroom provides opportunities for the educator to watch and listen over several days. Conferencing with students and asking clarifying questions about what they are thinking provides further insight. Establish a list of criteria for yourself, anticipating what you might hear. Be open to being surprised!

With older students, begin a discussion. Be transparent by explaining how you learn best. Give examples. Perhaps make a comparison to a sibling or a colleague who learns differently than you do.

Ask students if they have taken learning inventories in previous grades. Probe their thinking through a series of prompts:

  • What do you remember? When did you say, ‘oh, that’s like me?’
  • How do you learn best? (Possible examples include: When you are listening to someone speak?  When you are building something? When you viewing information? When you are writing information down? When you are sketching? When you are using technology to organize your thinking?)
  • What format of learning works best for you? (Possible examples include: When you are working alone? With a partner? In a group?)
  • What conditions help you learn best? (e.g. Do you learn best in a quiet room?  In a secluded spot? Lying on the floor? At a desk? Writing on a vertical board? With classmates around and talking? With background music? etc.)
  • How do you prefer demonstrating your learning? (e.g. Building a model? Explaining your thinking orally, drawing or sketching? Using an app? Writing on paper? Creating presentations, projects or through the arts? etc)

running-297154_1280Call to Action: Share with us, using the comment box or through twitter @HarnessingA, how you intend to know your students as learners.

Being mindful of how students learn is the first step in intentionally adjusting instructional moves that harness the power of assessment. Educators impact student learning when they create opportunities to anticipate then address student thinking or misconceptions. When educators listen, observe, clarify, conference, deconstruct samples of work and document thinking they set into motion powerful assessment and instructional moves.

The question becomes, ‘How can I afford not to invest the time in getting to know to my students as learners?’

Administrators: Know your staff members as learners

Are you, or several staff members, new to the school? Do you know how each staff member learns best? Given a choice, what would educators prefer when choosing models of professional learning?

  • Participating in a book club format,
  • Reading professional articles or viewing classroom-based videos,
  • Moderating samples of student work,
  • Classroom-based learning including co-teaching or team teaching followed by a debriefing process,
  • Engaging in self-directed inquiry;  With a partner? With same-grade or across grade colleagues? In divisional or departmental groupings?

How might you offer choice to meet the learning needs of all staff members under the umbrella of your school improvement planning process driven by collaborative professionalism?

“…collaborative professionalism is defined as professionals – at all levels of the education system – working together, sharing knowledge, skills and experience to improve student achievement and well-being of both students and staff.”       Ontario, PPM 159

Coming Soon: Changing how we think about assessment: Fostering a positive learning environment for all 


Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12, 2010.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning. Routledge.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2016). Policy/Program Memorandum 159- Collaborative Professionalism

Trantor, D., Carson, L., Borland, T., (2018). The Third Path: A Relationship-Based Approach to Student Well-Being and Achievement. Nelson.


  1. I network with other teachers daily. Today for example, I went over lesson #1 for math Grade 4 (first 20) days. We tried out the dice activity together.


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