MET:Assessment of Learning

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This page created by Alana Giesbrecht (March 2013)

Definition of Terms


Assessment refers to the activities used by teachers and students to prompt, shape, and measure learning (Black & Wiliam, 1998). Assessment can be categorized as Assessment as Learning, Assessment for Learning, or Assessment of Learning.

Assessment for learning
  • "comprises two phases—initial or diagnostic assessment and formative assessment
  • assessment can be based on a variety of information sources (e.g., portfolios, works in progress, teacher observation, conversation)
  • verbal or written feedback to the student is primarily descriptive and emphasizes strengths, identifies challenges, and points to next steps
  • as teachers check on understanding they adjust their instruction to keep students on track
  • no grades or scores are given - record-keeping is primarily anecdotal and descriptive
  • occurs throughout the learning process, from the outset of the course of study to the time of summative assessment
Assessment as learning
  • begins as students become aware of the goals of instruction and the criteria for performance
  • involves goal-setting, monitoring progress, and reflecting on results
  • implies student ownership and responsibility for moving his or her thinking forward (metacognition)
  • occurs throughout the learning process
Assessment of learning
  • assessment that is accompanied by a number or letter grade (summative)
  • compares one student’s achievement with standards
  • results can be communicated to the student and parents
  • occurs at the end of the learning unit
Diagnostic assessment, or pre-assessment
  • assessment made to determine what a student does and does not know about a topic
  • assessment made to determine a student's learning style or preferences
  • assessment used to determine how well a student can already perform a certain set of skills related to a particular subject or group of subjects
  • occurs at the beginning of a unit of study
  • used to inform instruction: makes up the initial phase of assessment for learning
Formative assessment
  • assessment made to determine a student’s knowledge and skills, including learning gaps as they progress through a unit of study
  • used to inform instruction and guide learning
  • occurs during the course of a unit of study
  • makes up the subsequent phase of assessment for learning
Summative assessment
  • assessment that is made at the end of a unit of study to determine the level of understanding the student has achieved
  • includes a mark or grade against an expected standard" (Assessment for learning, 2013).
  • often used interchangeably with the term assessment of learning

(Assessment Triangle)


Behaviourism in Education

Behaviourist principles dominated education in the first half of the twentieth century. Teachers possessed knowledge that they delivered to students, and students demonstrated their level of mastery of the content via summative assessments that measured their ability to recall isolated facts (Biggs, 2006; Calfee, 1994). Critics of behaviourism in education say that these summative assessments, or assessments of learning, are problematic or even detrimental to student learning because they do not authentically gauge what students have learned. Wiggins (1990) uses the analogy of testing a new driver's ability behind the wheel solely through written tests - the written tests are not capable of completely measuring the skill, therefore they lack validity. Further, there is the danger of instruction being tailored to the assessment of learning, at the loss of other high quality learning experiences.

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive approaches to learning have been replacing behaviourism since the 1960's. These approaches are more student-centered than teacher-centred, and focus on the processes of learning; instead of passively receiving knowledge, students are actively involved in a process that requires more than just memory. Students engage, explore, and experience the world around them (Calfee, 1994).

Implications for Assessment

Assessment of learning is sometimes dismissed as outdated: parallel to behaviourism and not as valuable a tool as assessment 'as' and 'for' learning (Biggs, 2006). A tension has arisen in classrooms that use cognitive approaches to learning measured by behavioural assessments of learning. Teachers have noticed that traditional assessments of learning, usually tests that require low cognitive level activities such as recall, are not sufficient to evaluate high quality cognitive processes. The resulting divide, between standardized and/or traditional assessments, and what is actually happening in the classroom, has translated into an arguably deserved backlash against those assessments of learning (Harlen, 2005; Shalaway, 2005). Although standardized or traditional assessments of learning are suitable for comparison purposes and for testing factual knowledge, authentic assessments that mesh with contemporary learning theories like cognitive theory and constructivism, while still meeting the evaluation and reporting goals of assessment of learning, are necessary (Wiggins, 1993). In that way, assessment of learning can braid with assessment as learning and assessment for learning to create optimal assessment and learning for students.

Authentic Assessments of Learning

Authentic assessments of learning address the gap that exists between what students learn, and what traditional assessments measure. They include alternatives that can be differentiated to suit various learning styles, such as verbal, visual, kinesthetic, and written. The choice offered by these alternatives allows all students to demonstrate the depth and breadth of what they have learned; students can display learning through tasks such as roleplay, debate, filmstrips, collages, exhibits, sculptures, journals, portfolios, and position papers, to name a few (Peterson, 1995; Shalaway, 2005). Although many of these authentic assessment products are most frequently associated with assessment for learning, they function just as well to meet the goals of assessment of learning.

Evaluating authentic assessments of learning can be time-consuming. However, rubrics can help teachers manage the amount of time that they spend evaluating assessments of learning, while increasing the transparency of their standards. Teachers can create custom rubrics for their assessments of learning at sites like

Goals of Authentic Assessment of Learning

Assessment of learning has two primary goals:

1. to report progress to parents and communities

- authentic assessments tell parents clear information about how their child's knowledge and skills have developed in relation to pre-established criterion. Letter grades, grade point averages, and percentages do not offer that clarity. Therefore, authentic assessments of learning offer qualitative, narrative feedback on its own or in combination with numerical and letter grades (Cho & DeCastro-Ambrosetti, 2005; Saphier & Gower, 1997).

2. to determine the level of understanding that the student has achieved

- authentic assessments augment traditional assessments of learning to provide a more full, clear evaluation of learning. Far from being restricted to tests, teachers aiming to create authentic assessments of learning have nearly unlimited options, as long as their assessment requires students to apply learning in the same way that it would be in a real-life application (Cho & DeCastro-Ambrosetti, 2005; Marzano, Pickering, & McTighe, 1993).
Creating Authentic Assessments of Learning

The following is a list of ideas to consider when creating authentic assessments of learning:

  • will the assessment engage students?
  • does the assessment require students to fully use the knowledge that they constructed in the unit of study / learning experience?
  • does the assessment acknowledge and accomodate various learning styles?
  • does the assessment require students to demonstrate knowledge in a way that is representative of its real-world application?
  • can the assessment indicate students' learning along a continuum, rather than pass/fail?
  • is the assessment structured in such a way that students' individual strengths can be shown?
  • is it possible for students to collaborate on the assessment, or work in a community?
  • are the standards of the assessment clearly stated and transparent to students?

The more of these criteria that an assessment of learning can meet, the more authentic and meaningful its results will be (Saphier & Gower, 1997; Wiggins, 1993). The 'Assessment Wheel' to the right shows a sample of some of the different formats available to teachers as they plan authentic assessments of learning.

The Argument for Assessment of Learning

Although its two main goals are reporting and evaluating, when properly conducted assessment of learning offers even more benefits. For example, authentic assessments of learning provide valuable information to teachers. A teacher cannot know if their teaching practices are effective, unless they can measure their students' progress; diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments work together to provide a complete picture of student progress. In that way, authentic assessments of learning will signal to the sensitive teacher when it is time to adjust their practice. Also, when the goals of the final assessment are achievable and transparent to students, authentic assessments of learning can motivate student achievement (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Cho & DeCastro-Ambrosetti, 2005; Stiggins, 2004; Wiggins, 1993). In this way, authentic assessments of learning function similarly to assessments 'for' and 'as' learning, enhancing the learning process while evaluating it (Shepard, 2008/2009).


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