Improving progress through AfL
Over recent years, much has been written about the role of Assessment for Learning (AfL) in improving progress and how schools should use it to maximise achievement and learning sustainability.
At the national level, following the findings of the Assessment Reform Group (ARG) on the positive impact of formative assessment on improving learning, the idea of AfL was embraced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA, 2006) who defined it as “the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there”.
Since then schools have been trying to implement AfL into their everyday practice, with different degrees of success regarding the various stages of implementation. At first, as with any new initiative, the idea of AfL met with some scepticism from the teaching profession as the lack of in-depth understanding of the theory and principles underpinning AfL, and often inadequate training, meant that teachers often felt that it would mean more work for them, especially regarding the expectations of giving feedback in terms of comments for improvement. My practical experience, lessons observations and academic research into the use of AfL in everyday practice confirm that still in some settings today, where AfL is being implemented, there appears to be only ritualised understanding of the processes behind it and the principled understanding can be harder to grasp.
In providing information for schools, the QCA (2006) adopted the main AfL principles, as mentioned above, based on research-based evidence (Black and Wiliam). These principles recognise the importance of assessment for learning to classroom practice and advocate that AfL should become part of effective planning of teaching and learning, and a key professional skill for teachers, because at the core of it is the involvement of learners in their own learning processes.
Effective teaching should provide pupils with constructive guidance on improvement to enable them to become reflective and self-managing. These principles are important because they summarise the essence of assessment for learning and bridge the gap between educational research and the actual practice by identifying for teachers what is crucial to assessment for learning and why it is important to strive to make it part of effective classroom practice. This type of assessment is imperative for learners, because through their involvement, it helps them to manage their own learning, which is a skill for life rather than just for passing examinations (Stobart).
In order to have a better understanding of principles which encourage pupils to learn and why some pupils are more successful than others, extensive studies into the psychology of learning focused on motivation and, in particular, on the association between motivation and learning outcomes (Boekaerts, Dweck). Research indicates that motivational beliefs, which act as a frame of reference for pupils’ feelings and actions in a given subject or task, result from learning experiences and act as favourable contexts for learning, where students are not motivated to learn in the face of failure, but students who have positive beliefs about their capacity to learn have higher achievements.
Learners who are well-motivated are capable of using their self-regulatory skills effectively for higher achievement, whereas learners who are not skilled, or not inclined, to use self-regulatory skills, are poorly motivated and over-reliant on teachers. Therefore the involvement of students in their learning, e.g. through self-assessment, peer-assessment or self-reflection, is a key element of the AfL practice, which can be overlooked where learner autonomy becomes procedural, rather than an aim in itself, for example through explicit learning objectives and time for self-evaluation.
Schools thus face a crucial challenge of developing strategies of working successfully within the system of high-stake tests, for certification and accountability purposes, and developing self-regulated learners through formative practices.
Dr J Goodman