Changing how we think about assessment – Becoming partners in learning

“The assessment relationships students have with the teacher, tasks and one another shape their opportunities to learn and they impact on the identities students develop as learners …” (Cowie et al, 2010, p. 354).

Who is in charge of the assessment process in your classroom?

Who decides what is being assessed, when assessment happens, what criteria are being used to determine progress, and what the format of the assessment will be?

Of course, some of these decisions are made for us by policies set out by our school districts or our government education departments. And of course, we, the educators, are the learning experts in our subjects, so we would expect to be the ones who determine the answers to the above questions…wouldn’t we?.

However, assessment research strongly supports the notion that learners have an important role to play in the process. So what might that look like? Let’s examine those questions one by one:

Who decides what’s being assessed?

Most of us would say, “I have an established curriculum to teach.” As in many jurisdictions, in Ontario the curriculum sets out the knowledge and skills that students are to learn. However, educators have many decisions to make about when and how these expectations are taught and assessed. What if we opened the doors to receiving input from students about those decisions? What if, at the most basic level, we at least let students know, with clarity and meaning, what they will be expected to learn over a period of learning, enabling them to track their own progress?

Who decides when assessment happens?

Do your students have any say in when they demonstrate their learning? In one classroom we visited, Grade 2 learners had the choice to let their teacher know that they were ready to “show what you know” with respect to 2D and 3D shapes and figures.

Who decides what criteria are being used to determine progress?

As the expert learner in your classroom, you know the criteria – what it looks like to be successful – for the learning goals that are the focus of the learning. In this area, again, the research is clear – when students have a role in collaboratively developing the criteria with the educator, learning happens. In fact, Dylan Wiliam, an assessment expert from the UK, indicates that these assessment for learning practices can double the speed of learning!

“We concluded that the research suggested that attention to the use of assessment to inform instruction, particularly at the classroom level, in many cases effectively doubled the speed of student learning.” (Wiliam, D., p. 36)

Who decides what the format of the assessment will be?

When we first began teaching (many moons ago), it was typical to teach for a period of time, and then to create an assessment to see what had been learned. The assessment was usually a test or a product determined by the educator. Once you’re clear on what is to be learned, and what criteria to look for, does it matter how the learner demonstrates the learning? Could we give students some choice in the format?

When educators start to treat students as partners in the learning process, we’re not handing over the reins and letting anarchy run rampant in our classrooms. Rather, we are empowering learners to take control of the learning process.

“…teacher classroom assessment practices have social, emotional and cognitive impacts that are intertwined. Formal and informal classroom assessment processes impact on students’ sense of themselves as learners and knowers, on how others perceive them and on how they choose to enact (perform) their identity.” (Cowie et al, 2010, p. 354)

running-297154_1280 One last thought – and a call to action! Students often are the untapped learning resource in our classrooms. What change can you make in your approach to assessment that will provide your students greater choice in and ownership of their learning? How can you begin to build a relationship with students that is rooted in a collaborative partnership? Remember, start small…think big!

Cowie, B., Jones, A., & Otrel-Cass, K. (2010). Re-engaging students in science: Issues of assessment, funds of knowledge and sites for learning. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 9, p. 347-366.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.



  1. So true for us to be partners and learners with our students. As educators, we have to remember that we are prototyping our lessons on a daily basis as our students are our end users. We need the partnership in order to provide personalization and ownership of learning. Thanks for this post and reminding us to call for action “Students often are the untapped learning resource in our classrooms.”


  2. Students always surprise me. They often think of ways to show their learning that I had not even thought of before. As educators I think we need to be open to allowing and encouraging our students to choose their path as we guide them toward the learning goals and achievable success criteria. We are partners in the learning as well as the assessment process.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s