When we learn, our brains literally change. It’s a phenomenon central to the rapidly progressing field of developmental cognitive neuroscience. Recent findings suggest that students store and use learned information as networks, called schemas, of new and known information in their brains. This network provides insight into how students learn — by connecting new information to existing knowledge. So when a student is introduced to a new concept that they have little related knowledge of, it can be difficult for them to learn.
Not only does this kind of neuroscience development provide further evidence for existing teaching practices, and support the development of new ones, it also urges us to consider the tools surrounding our practices.
If we’re working with best practice learning science, what is best practice when it comes to learning tools, like assessments? We know students need a foundation to learn, so we need to be sure that we can effectively assess them to determine how much related knowledge they have.
Assessments are an invaluable source of information for teachers. The data and insights they provide inform teacher practice and ensure each student is on track with their individual learning journey. That’s why it’s so important that the assessments and assessment tools we use are in line with what educational research outlines as effective.
While there is a lot out there on the topic, here’s some of the most important components of effective feedback according to educational research.
When students know where they’re going they have the opportunity to practice so they can get there. According to this study by Marzano (2005), students who have a clear understanding of their learning targets significantly outperform those who don’t. By outlining the learning outcomes before commencing a new focus area, in a clear way that your students understand, students will have a specific goal that they can work towards. This provides the focus and structure students need to work on a concept giving them more opportunities to perform well in assessments.
As mentioned above, students store new and existing knowledge in the brain as web-like structures known as schemas. They also use these schemas to learn new information by drawing on existing related knowledge. That means that before starting a new concept in the classroom, we need to first understand what our students already know. Formative assessments will help us uncover this, allowing us to look back, before we move forward. After all, assessments should only exist so learning can take place.
Summative assessments will then give us the additional information to determine whether students are learning the new content or to identify gaps forming in their learning. This continuous use of evidence to support the next steps in student instruction are recommended as a part of an effective assessment learning cycle.
Project-based assessment is also valuable, particularly when it comes to maths learning. This type of assessment encourages students to collaborate with peers, promotes mathematical communication skills and develops creative computational abilities, all vital skills for the further development of maths knowledge.
If students need related knowledge in order to learn, and we use assessments to determine this knowledge, we will likely find that different students have different foundations or starting points. By using criterion-referenced assessment — assessments that compare students to themselves as opposed to comparing students to each other students (norm-referenced assessment]) — students can understand and own their individual progress. This can help students to own their learning and to develop a growth mindset.
Feedback is extremely powerful in the classroom. It can have a hugely positive or negative impact on a students’ learning journey. This impact is ultimately defined by how effective the feedback is. If limited to just the grade (whether a letter grade or number), students will not get the information they need to understand their strengths or how they can improve.
So what is effective feedback? According to this 2020 study, the more information feedback includes, the more effective it is, especially if it contains information about the students’ accuracy and procedural appropriateness. Occasional feedback on self-regulatory skills like emotion, attention or motivation during a task also contribute to effectiveness. In a review of 71 formative assessments studies, Lane et al (2019) also found that effective feedback should be individualised, timely and aligned with the curriculum; and detailed and provide actionable steps for students.
Assessments can only do their job if they are accompanied by effective feedback, so it’s vital to ensure feedback is included as part of the assessment process.
Encouraging students to self-assess gives them the opportunity to take ownership of their learning. Research has found reflection can encourage self efficacy and metacognitive prompting, which in turn improves problem-solving and efficiency. Teachers can help students develop self-assessment skills and habits by building reflection time into the assessment process. According to this study, a 5-point scale for reflection on the learning process is a great model for self-assessment. This scale could include statements like the following:
Clear goals set before assessment, coupled with feedback from the teacher creates a foundation for students to evaluate their own performance. Often over time, student and teacher evaluations begin to align, and students are able to set realistic goals for future learning.
The efficacy of assessments is vital to supporting teacher practice in the classroom. As we continue to adapt our practices in line with new science, we must also continue to look to what research says is best practice in assessment too.
A new paper written by educational psychologists from EdTech Recharge, Dr Kripa Sundar (NarayanKripa Sundararajan) and Dr Katerine Schenke takes a deep dive into how Maths Pathway uses assessment to support differentiation and other education best practices in the classroom.
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