Assessment: A Misunderstood Term

Over the past few months I have been invited to speak to  a variety of educators on Formative Assessment, what it looks like in my class and how it has become, for me, the foundation for student learning.

Of and For

image credited to Caren Cameron

Before sharing the strategies and processes I use with my students I asked each group this question: Why do we spent so much time on Assessment of Learning when research tells us that it is Assessment for Learning that makes the biggest difference in impacting student learning?

The conversation that ensues is a wonderful reflection of where so many educators are when it comes to discussing assessment. Too often when this word is used it is thought of in negative terms. For most teachers the term assessment is associated with tests, exams, and summative data rather than the bigger picture of teachers and students using assessment practises daily to inform and move student learning forward.


One of the reasons that came from the discussions was fear. Fear of how to go about making changes, fear of what other teachers in the building will think, fear of not being supported by administration. Another reason given is uncertainty. This comes from a society that stresses competition and is unaware of what really makes a difference in moving students forward. Teachers are uncertain about what assessment for learning really looks and how to make it happen in their classrooms. The ‘OF’ is a part of the process of assessing our students as it gives a snapshot in time but it should be a very small piece of our overall assessment practises rather than the focal point.

At the end of a session, one of the teachers pointed out that he felt what I was teaching my students about setting criteria, establishing what the goal is at the beginning, giving and accepting feedback to improve learning and reflecting on what they have done and how to improve, are vital skills for life not just inside the classroom walls. It was wonderful to hear these words as I knew he truly ‘got it’. The big picture of Assessment for Learning is so much more than a set of strategies that are only valuable in a classroom.

Screen shot 2013-09-19 at 3.58.26 PM

Since beginning my journey of embedding  formative assessment practises (or assessment for learning, whichever one you wish to use) into my day to day teaching the growth of student ownership has been quite remarkable. My students ask about criteria for all we do, they ask for time for peer feedback on a regular basis, they are reflecting in many aspects of their lives, and use learning language without a blink of an eye. After spending a few months in my class they no longer ask, “Is this for marks?” and have recognized the importance of focusing on the journey not the end. As research has shown, some of my most struggling learners are appreciating this approach the most as they feel value in what they have accomplished; they now see themselves as learners. There is no better evidence than this.


My wish is that there is more conversation around best assessment practise in the classroom. What does it look like? How do we help students take ownership of their learning? How do we help students see their own potential as learners? Most of all, I hope that one day when I mention assessment it will not be thought of as a negative word.

It continues to befuddle me that with all the research showing the positive impact on student learning of teachers who have integrated formative assessment into their teaching why not more educators have made the shift. Why do you think this is? Can this be changed? Some important questions that need to be discussed.


9 thoughts on “Assessment: A Misunderstood Term

  1. Thanks Ann-Marie, yes, it can be changed! Your sharing your journey has helped me and I believe my efforts and sharing will also help others. It is not easy as the familiar is comfortable and changing requires great effort. Thanks for making the effort and taking the time!

    • Thank you for letting me know that my sharing has helped you. When we put ourselves out there and share our stories whether it be through a blog or through a few hours in a day at a workshop/presentation you wonder whether an impact has been made. Change is very uncomfortable, you are so very right. But this zone of unfamiliarity breeds the most growth.

  2. I think it can be changed, but it will take time and more inspirational stories like yours 🙂 I always love reading your posts, and I share your passion for formative assessment. We just need to keep talking and sharing and believing in what we are doing for our students. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to come explore your class in action in the near future!


    • Thank you, Beverly. I look forward to many more conversations with your around assessment as well as inquiry, PBL and more. It is great to talk with those who share this same passion and see the difference it can make with our students. I have to agree, the talking is what needs to happen. I hope that we can get more conversations going with a wider audience.

  3. I think one issue identified by Dylan Wiliam is the need for good assessment items to use as the basis of assessment for learning, questions and tasks closely linked to learning intentions.
    In our York Science project we are developing such items for middle school (ages11-14). We believe that not only will this enable better embedded formative assessment, they will also help teachers focus their planning on what they want students to be able to do.

    • Thank you for commenting on my post. I agree that we do need to ensure activities are directly linked to the learning intentions otherwise the leaning intention has no validity. I feel it is also very important that educators understand that if they wish to see change with the ownership of learning that it will not happen by doing only one strategy or pulling one skill out of the toolbox and using it periodically. I am excited to hear your entire school is working together to implement formative assessment. Without my collaborative group I may not have continued on the journey when I hit the hurdles and dips along the way. Having a support system in place was key to my learning journey.

  4. We believe, with Dylan Wiliam that one of the reasons ways to improve formative assessment is to provide good questions and tasks that will provide evidence of learning. Our York Science project ( is doing just that for middle school (11-14) science.
    We also believe that thinking about assessment items when planning the lesson will help teachers clarify the learning intentions of the lesson.

  5. Thank you for this very nice blog post! It is right on spot! Formative assessment, when used properly, supports students’ individual learning process. The key is to use students’ self assessment with immediate feedback provided by formative assessment, so that they can see what they need to learn, and also feel they have an effect on their own learning. I often use the 3C framework to demonstrate this.

    • Thank you Nina. I agree that the key is immediate feedback and then the time for students to apply this feedback. Too often students are given some form of feedback but then the class ends, or worse the assignment is due. Neither of these allows the time to implement the learning. It has been wonderful to see the pride the students feel of their work when they are able to improve what they are doing.

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