Why we assess learners


"As educators, the question "Why am I assessing?" should not be answered with the feeling "to ambush and trap the learner!"

Stielau J. & Lephalala M. Authentic Assessment in Distance Education: some practical suggestions. NAETE Conference (1997)

Answering the questionnaire in Activity 1 has given you some idea of what you currently assess and how you do it. It may be useful now to ask yourself why you are assessing learners. For example, would you assess the learners if you did not have to produce marks for reports? Do you assess learners because you have to, or because you want to and find it valuable? Different teachers working under different circumstances may give quite different answers to these questions.

Click here to read about some of the reasons why people assess. While doing so record at least one specific example of how you have used assessment for each of the following purposes

  • to help students learn
  • to report on student progress
  • to help you make decisions about your teaching

Equally important to the question of why we assess is the question of what we assess. An understanding of the principles of your curriculum regarding assessment would help you answer this question. In fact what we assess and when we conduct assessments are very similar issues that break the mold of traditional testing and examination.

Integrating assessment with teaching and learning means that what you assess, when you assess and why you assess are closely linked. Continuous assessment requires us to assess the learning processas as well as the product of learning. Both are important in the development of skills and knowledge.

When assessment helps to form the learning, we call it formative assessment. For example, if we give feedback to learners to help them to learn further, then we are assessing formatively. Formative assessment may take place during and after a particular learning process. One of the shortfalls of examinations, and even tests, is that we hardly ever provide meaningful formative feedback afterwards. If you do give specific feedback after examinations and tests you should be congratulated on some sound assessment practice!

Formative assessment is as much a part of learning as it is a part of assessment. The dialogue between the teacher and the learner that takes place during various forms of formative assessment is a vital part of the learning process.

"In order for learners to gain insight into their learning and their understanding, frequent feedback is critical: students need to monitor their learning and actively evaluate their strategies and their current levels of understanding."

John D Bransford et al., How People Learn

When assessment tells us about the end product or a sum of the learning, we call it summative assessment. Both forms of assessment (summative and formative) are valid and have their place, depending on what you want to assess and for what reason you are doing the assessment. Most summative assessment could also be formative.

Summative assessment is not bad practice - not providing feedback after summative assessment, in which feedback could be given, is bad practice. Admittedly the exam system at the end of the year does not allow us much opportunity to provide formative feedback.

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