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Good assessments lie at the heart of learning

Girl in Wesley blazer studies at desk
Undertaking a variety of assessment approaches gives students like Ilka Xavier-Allen and her peers multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do

Good assessments lie at the heart of learning. After all, they enable teachers to understand what students currently know and can do in order to plan and deliver an appropriate program so their students progress in their learning, as Anne-Louise Szujda explains.

When we think of assessment, we often think of assignments, tests and exams, and these are undoubtedly important, but assessment takes many forms. Our teachers at Wesley undertake a wide variety of assessments for a variety of reasons. Informal assessments include regular day-to-day observations – of what students say or do in class discussion, while conducting a scientific investigation, as they collaborate in groups, in using problem-solving techniques to solve a maths problem and the like.

Other informal assessments might take the form of quizzes and polls to obtain feedback on a group’s progressing knowledge or skills, or to review learning from a previous lesson. Ongoing assessment of students’ learning progress might include the use of multiple-choice, true/false, list matching and drag-and-drop quizzes and tests. More formally, teachers might assess students’ physical and digital artefacts, performances, presentations, portfolios, lab reports, and learning journals and other self-assessments, as well as school-based assignments and essays, tests and exams. Then there are Progressive Achievement Test results we use to diagnose student learning and monitor progress over time, and the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) exams and International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program exams.

The purpose of assessment

Using a variety of assessment approaches supports the main aim of assessment, which is to give students multiple opportunities to demonstrate and reflect on what they know and can do. Taking multiple measures using different assessments also enables teachers to make judgements about students’ achievement that are reliable.

Assessment tasks also need to effectively measure the intended learning goals in a way that is fair and consistent, and that matches the curriculum objectives or subject description. Ensuring assessments are ‘fit for purpose’ enables teachers to make judgements about students’ achievement that are valid.

Using a rich variety of assessment approaches also means we can introduce assessments progressively as students mature, develop their knowledge and skills, and progress as learners. We might use more observation of the behaviours of three-year olds in ECLC to infer what they know and can do and more assignments and self-assessments with Year 12 students in Senior School.

As well as assessment for learning, assessment is important for the purpose of credentialing or certification, in the form of a VCE or IB Diploma, and also for selection – particularly for university entrance in the form of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank or ATAR.

So what’s the purpose of exams?

From time to time there’s debate among educators and education researchers about the relevance and usefulness of exams. One view is that exams promote a superficial understanding of topics and fail to represent the kinds of things students will be asked to do ‘in the real world’ – and should be replaced by authentic assessments that promote deep understanding. The alternative view is that exams are an efficient method to measure a broad range of understandings, knowledge and skills in a specific discipline in a common setting for all.

If we keep in mind the purposes of assessment, though, the question is not whether exams should be replaced, but what mix of assessment types is most appropriate to measure the knowledge and skills we want students to develop for particular subjects. This has never been an either-or question: schooling has always used a mix of assessments to measure the depth and breadth of students’ understanding and skills.

Exams foster learning

By providing our students with opportunities to sit formal tests and exams as they progress toward and into the Senior School years, we enable them to trial and develop the skills required to prepare for and perform in an exam situation. Students need opportunities to attempt, reflect on, take advice about and revise their approach to exam preparation and exam taking. Practising is not about ‘teaching to the test,’ but developing skills, routines and tools so that students can thrive in an exam situation and demonstrate what they know and can do to the best of their ability. Some students discover that under-preparation leaves them feeling stressed and overwhelmed in an exam. Most discover what researchers have confirmed: good performances on exams and a well-organised study schedule are strongly correlated, and poor performances on exams and late-night, last-minute study are also strongly correlated.

Tests and exams do more than enable students to learn how best to undertake tests and exams, though. Research suggests that preparing for a test or exam itself promotes subsequent learning and sitting tests or exams also deepens retention. According to Penny Van Bergen and Rod Lane in ‘Exams might be stressful, but they improve learning,’ this is because studying is like exercising. ‘When one exercises, the muscles in use grow stronger,’ they note. ‘Likewise, the process of searching through one’s memory and retrieving the relevant information strengthens that memory pathway for future uses.’ Like any exercise, study has a ‘use it or lose it’ effect on learning.

One of the best forms of exercise for students, say Marissa Hartwig and John Dunlosky, is self-testing. According to their research investigating whether self-testing and scheduling are related to achievement, Hartwig and Dunlosky found that students who space their study sessions before exams rather than cram them also self-test and reread, all of which not only improve achievement but also the retention of knowledge and skills. Scheduling, self-testing and rereading have something else in common as well: they are characteristics of students who take ownership of their learning.

The good news is that exams, along with a rich variety of other kinds of assessment, give our students multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they know and can do and enable our teachers to identify the best next teaching steps so that every student progresses effectively in their learning.

Anne-Louise Szujda is the Deputy Director, Curriculum and Student Reporting, at the Wesley College Institute.

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