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Using student assessment to improve teaching

Using student assessment to improve teaching

Research 6 minute read

Monitoring the learning progress of students also enables teachers to monitor their own teaching, as Martina Bovell explains.

Using student assessment to improve teaching

Monitoring learning rests on the assumption that students are always at some point on a defined sequence of learning and that they will make progress along that sequence, regardless of their background and the learning they bring to the classroom.  Teachers can articulate and plot learning goals for each student, and design and deliver programs of instruction and learning opportunities that will allow every student to demonstrate improvement in their learning.

The improvement of learning – the first and ultimate aim of schools – involves identifying specific learning outcomes that students have achieved and building on this learning to extend their knowledge and skills. Improvement also involves identifying and measuring that extra learning.

Excellence in teaching practice

Research by Professor John Hattie in Visible Learning suggests one of the most powerful influences on student achievement (ranked second out of 138 identified influences) is teachers' knowledge of their students' stages of cognitive development. This finding demonstrates how a teacher’s knowledge of the way a child is thinking can inform their selection of suitable materials and tasks in terms of appropriate levels of difficulty and challenge.

Another powerful influence is teachers' formative evaluation of their intentions and expectations for their students' learning (ranked third). Teachers who ask themselves, ‘How have I gone in getting my students to learn what I have been teaching them?’ to reflect on the effect of their teaching – particularly the negative effect – are identified as demonstrating attributes of excellence in teaching. Importantly, Hattie’s research shows that when evidence-based models are used, and student data is graphed against previous results rather than merely recorded, the effects on student achievement are higher.

Using data from standardised assessments

Standardised tests that are commonly used in Australian classrooms, such as NAPLAN and the ACER Progressive Achievement Tests are carefully constructed to help teachers locate where a student is situated on the sequence of learning. The tests can also identify gaps in learning: what in the sequence has been skipped over or missed, as well as what needs to be learnt in order to continue to learn.

In these kinds of standardised tests, questions address the typical sequence of learning for a domain. Questions addressing more elementary skills, processes and strategies that are needed to make progress in a domain are usually placed at the beginning of the test, and those that address more complex operations required to complete more sophisticated tasks are usually placed towards the end of the test.

In a typical reading test, questions or ‘items’ are grouped in units and relate to a specific text. Within a unit, questions are ordered from easiest to hardest. Different reading passages – narrative, informational, persuasive – contain different text and language features, and therefore require different kinds of reading knowledge and skills. One of the reasons why standardised reading tests contain a variety of text types is to assess a wide variety of reading skills.

When test questions are written, a short statement describing the skill, thinking process, or strategy required to answer the question is also written. This statement, called an item descriptor, represents a point of learning. When item descriptors from a unit of questions are ordered by difficulty, the sequence of learning becomes clear. Table 1 lists item descriptors, ordered by difficulty, to show the sequence of learning for a Year 3  assessment based on a short report from the Society and Environment learning area.

easier Connects visual with written text to make simple inference in a short report
  Makes an assumption based on the main idea in a short report
  Connects ideas across adjacent sentences in a short report
  Locates information in a short report
  Interprets the meaning of a word in context in a short report
harder Identifies a summarising statement (title) of a short report

Table 1: the sequence of learning, easiest to hardest, for a Year 3 assessment based on a short report from the Society and Environment learning area

Gauging students’ learning progress

The results of such tests are presented in electronic form and usually include question-by-question results for each student, with each question being accompanied by its item descriptor.

The point in a test or a unit of questions where a student begins to have difficulty gives an indication of where the student is at in their learning. By referring to the item descriptors, teachers see the thinking skills and strategies that have and have not been demonstrated by the student, and thus the stage of development of the student. Teachers can then select suitable texts and develop appropriate instructional materials and activities.

Formative evaluation of teaching

Actively seeking evidence of students' failure to learn then using this evidence to improve and change teaching, and further seeking evidence of the effect of the change is, according to John Hattie, what makes the difference.

Analysis and interpretation of test results can prompt teachers to ask questions about their teaching, including:

  • Which students have not achieved my teaching aims?
  • How is my teaching preventing students from making progress?
  • What do I need to do next with each student to improve their learning?
  • How should I change what I am doing to ensure the students achieve their learning?
  • With which colleagues can I discuss these results?
  • Which colleagues can advise on instruction methods?
  • Do I fully understand the subject matter I am teaching?
  • Do I need coaching in the subject?

The classroom is the engine room of school and student improvement. It therefore makes sense that classroom teachers should be equipped with the best possible information about each student they teach.

Further information:
This article is an adaptation of a presentation by Martina Bovell at the Near East South Asia Council of Overseas Schools Leadership Conference in Kathmandu in October 2013.