Changing how we think about assessment – Teaching students how to learn

“…the most empowering and loving thing we can do is help students learn how to learn for themselves.” (Jackson, 2009)

There are soooo many things to teach our students. To begin with, the curriculum. But let’s not forget learning skills and work habits*, competencies such as collaboration, critical thinking, and social and behavioural skills, to name a few. Who needs more?

And yet, we strongly believe (and research supports this), that one of the most important things you can teach your students is the skill of learning. By that we mean being able to:

  • determine where you are in the learning process – ‘what I already know and can do, and what I haven’t yet mastered;
  • set goals based on that information;
  • decide what steps to take to achieve the goals; and
  • monitor progress toward those goals.

It makes sense. This is basically what educators do for students, through assessment and feedback. Or would like to. We all know how challenging this is to do for an entire class of individuals!

Have you ever thought of the assessment process as a teaching strategy? When we assess and provide feedback, we actually have a ‘teachable moment’ – an opportunity to show students how we are assessing and arriving at the feedback. If we can let them in on this secret, how empowering would that be??

What if even a few of the students in your class were able to do some of these things for themselves and for their peers? What would they need to be able to learn to do this?

Collaboratively developing the learner’s understanding of learning goals and success criteria. 

‘As a learner, I can’t determine where I am in my learning if I don’t know what I’m supposed to be learning’ — learning goals, and what it would look like to learn it — success criteria. By developing your students’ understanding of these two important elements of the assessment process, you are providing them the foundational tools to begin to help themselves.

Help them build a ‘roadmap’ of the learning.

Beyond knowing ‘what I’m supposed to learn’, it also helps to know how these bits of knowledge and skills fit together. The roadmap can answer the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” For example, a learning goal in writing may be “We are learning to organize our ideas and information for writing in a variety of ways.” This is an important skill to learn to write well. However, it would be even more helpful if students saw this learning goals as part of a bigger picture, i.e.

Big goal: We are learning to write in a way that persuades others.

This means that, we are learning to:

  • identify a topic of interest that is controversial.
  • identify a personal point of view and other possible points of view on the topic
  • gather relevant information to support a personal point of view.
  • organize ideas and information for writing in a variety of ways.

Explicitly teach them to use the criteria to monitor their own progress, and to support the progress of others in the classroom learning community.

Providing or collaboratively developing the learning goals and success criteria with students is an important first step. Helping them to use these tools to monitor their learning as they are practising and producing writing is equally as important. You can:

  • Model how to apply the goals and criteria to a sample of writing;
  • As a whole class, discuss with students how a sample meets or doesn’t meet the criteria;
  • Provide opportunities for students to assess their own or peers’ writing;
  • Listen as they self or peer assess, and give them feedback on the quality of the feedback they give;
  • Build in opportunities to practise these skills often – ideally on a daily basis.

“…student engagement means that teachers are not solely responsible for the assessment of their students; instead, students become comparable stakeholders with the right and obligation to play a significant role in analysis and reflection about their own learning, and in decision making about next steps.” (Heritage, 2013, p. 97)

running-297154_1280 One last thought…and a call to action! Being ‘in the driver’s seat’ is highly motivating. By developing learners’ knowledge and skills to set goals, monitor their learning, and make decisions about what actions to take to achieve, you are doing exactly that. Make a commitment now to think differently about your role as an educator, and to try one of the practices suggested in this post.

*Learning Skills and Work Habits are set out in the Ontario policy, Growing Success (2010). See p. 10.

Heritage, M. (2013). Formative assessment in practice: a process of inquiry and action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Jackson, R. (2009). Never Work Harder Than Your Students and Other Principles of Great Teaching. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (2010). Growing Success: Assessment, Evaluation, and Reporting in Ontario Schools. First Edition, Covering Grades 1 to 12. Toronto, ON: Author.

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