Assessment before Teaching and Learning
Before beginning a unit of study such as a project, a teacher assesses primarily to gauge learners’ needs. When teachers plan a project, along with their curriculum and assessment standards, they reflect on what they have learned about learner learning from previous experience with the topic. They recall misconceptions that learners often have and areas that have proven to be particularly difficult. Records of tests and quizzes give them useful information about the effectiveness of previous teaching. This kind of information is useful and important as a foundation for planning, but it is only the beginning.
Every teacher knows that all learners are different and that all groups of learners have their own strengths and personalities. Individual learners also vary in the type of previous teaching and learning they have had, as well as the understanding and interest they bring to a new topic.
By conducting discussions, asking learners to fill out graphic organizers or write in journals, teachers can get a sense of learners’ understanding about a topic and their general attitude about the subject. Collecting information about individual learner’s understanding before beginning a project helps teachers gauge learners’ needs and plan learning activities that increase their motivation to learn and help them succeed.
Assessment during Teaching and Learning
During the course of a project, assessment serves three different purposes:
- To encourage self-direction and collaboration
- To monitor progress
- To check for understanding or to encourage metacognition
Through a variety of kinds of informal assessments such as learning logs, anecdotal observations, checklists, and conferences, teachers collect information about learners’ skill development and how their’ thinking and understanding of the topic is progressing. This information helps the teacher differentiate teaching and learning by making on-the-spot decisions, such as taking time out to review a concept before moving ahead with a scheduled activity or revising a sequence of activities to take advantage of learner interest.
Knowing how learners are thinking about a topic also helps the teacher to “make adaptations for individual learning differences to ensure that all learners understand, practice, and master each component as they progress toward the final goal” (Guskey, 2005, p. 33). Through individual feedback and flexible grouping, teachers can help learners grow from where they are to where they need to be. Teaching and learning that meets learners’ individual needs gives them the confidence that they will learn and motivates them to become engaged in the topic and even to take risks with their learning.
Another important purpose of assessment is the development of thoughtful, independent, self-directed learners. In some classrooms, learners only get feedback on their learning at the end of a section of work through a test. Often by the time they find out how they did, the class has already moved on to another topic, and the learner has little opportunity or interest in correcting any misunderstandings or improving their skills.
In a classroom where assessment occurs often in a variety of ways, learners learn to understand what excellence looks like in the work associated with the topic. They may even have had a role in describing quality work on final products or performances. Parents and learners receive frequent specific feedback on how learners are doing and what they can do to improve. Learners have learned strategies for assessing their own thinking and work in comparison to assessment standards of excellence. They have opportunities to reflect individually and in groups on how well they work together to solve problems. When they use their assessments to set specific goals, they can take advantage of support and feedback to improve their work to be more like the exemplars (Shepard, 2005) and monitor their thinking and teamwork. According to Black and his colleagues (Black, Harrison, Lee, & Marshall, 2003), “This ability to monitor one's own learning may be one of the most important benefits of formative assessment” (p. 67). Peer- and self-assessment help learners become independent learners who understand their own strengths and needs and know how to set goals and monitor their own progress.
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