Actions to take

There are 6 actions for teachers to undertake when using 'assessment for learning' and 'assessment as learning'.

Curriculum, assessment, instruction, and learning are interconnected. They interact in an iterative and sometimes, though not always, cyclical process. Curriculum, assessment and instruction need to be aligned and coherent for the learning to be effective and meaningful (Earl & Katz, 2006).

Teachers can align curriculum, assessment, instruction and learning by using a backward design approach.

Backward design approach

 The stages of backward design, as outlined in 'Understanding by design' (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998) are:

  • Stage 1: Identify desired results - 'If the desired result is for learners to...' 
  • Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence - 'Then you need evidence of the students’ ability to …'
  • Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction - 'Then the learning experiences need to …'
These stages are sequential: first plan with the 'end in mind' by clarifying the learning you seek (Stage 1), then think about the evidence needed to certify that students have achieved those desired learnings (Stage 2) and finally, plan the means to the end - which teaching and learning activities and resources are required to help students achieve the goals (Stage 3).

Stage 1: Identify desired results

  • What should students know, understand, and be able to do?
  • What big ideas are worthy of understanding and implied in the established goals (e.g., content standards, curriculum objectives)?
  • What “enduring” understandings are desired?
  • What provocative questions are worth pursuing to guide student inquiry into these big ideas?
  • What specific knowledge and skills are targeted in the goals and needed for effective performance?

Stage 2: Determine acceptable evidence

Consider evidence of learning:
  • How will we know if students have achieved the desired results and met the content standards?
  • How will we know that students really understand the identified big ideas?
  • What will we accept as evidence of proficiency?

The backward design orientation suggests that we think about our design in terms of the collected assessment evidence needed to document and validate that the desired results of Stage 1 have been achieved.

Stage 3: Plan learning experiences and instruction

Now that the results have been identified and the appropriate evidence of learning/understanding is known, you can finalise a plan for the learning activities.

  • What will need to be taught and coached, and how should it best be taught, in light of the performance goals?
  •  What sequence of activity best suits the desired results?
  • How will we make learning both engaging and effective, given the goals and needed evidence?

Assessment for and as learning requires that students and teachers share a common understanding of what is being learned. The learning is articulated in student-friendly language as a learning goal. They may also be referred to as ‘learning intentions’, ‘learning objectives’, or ‘learning aims’.

Learning Goals

Learning goals can be applied to a lesson, a series of lessons, a term, a unit of work, etc. For example a long term goal might be to write an effective persuasive text, whereas a short term goal might be to write an effective introduction for a persuasive text.

Learning can be expressed in terms of:

  • Knowledge (know) - this is factual information. Examples include the parts of a plant, and key events of World War One.
  • Understanding (understand) - this often concerns concepts, reasons or processes. Examples include the need for a healthy diet, and the difference between convection, conduction and radiation.
  • Skills (do) - these are proficiencies, dexterities or abilities acquired through training or experience. For example applying techniques, drawing conclusions based on evidence, and using a multiplication grid, collaboration.

Learning goals are most effective when they focus on the learning rather than the learning activity. When writing learning intentions it is best to:

  • separate the task instructions from the learning intention
  • be clear about what you want students to learn.

Since learning intentions can often be applied to a number of different contexts, it's important to separate the learning intention explicitly from its context, so students are able to see the connections.

Example 1.

  • Before: Learning goal unclear - To present an argument for and against euthanasia.
  • After: Learning goal - To present a reasoned argument ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions.
  • Context: Euthanasia debate

Success Criteria

Success criteria describe specifically what achieving the learning goal successfully looks like. They help students know if they have succeeded in their learning and:

  • help to cultivate independent learners
  • provide effective feedback
  • create confident students who contribute to activities.

When students know the success criteria they are more informed about how they will be assessed. This means they can better assess their own and others’ work to identify successes and areas for improvement.

By keeping you and your students focused on the criteria that the work will be assessed against, they allow you and your students to provide more accurate feedback. Best practice suggests you discuss and agree to success criteria with the students in advance of the learning experiences. They can be used to develop an assessment tool such as a checklist or rubric and so on.

Example 1. Geography Year 10

  • Learning Objective: To know ways of controlling drought.
  • Context: Savannah grassland
  • Success Criteria: What I am looking for:
    • List the different causes of drought
    • Explain how these could be reduced
    • List you recommendations for how people can cope and live with drought
    • Make comparisons with drought in Australia.

Example 2. English Year 7

  • Learning Objective: Write persuasively using different techniques.
  • Context: Letter to local MP regarding culling of kangaroos
  • Success Criteria: What I am looking for:
    • A statement of your viewpoint
    • A number of reasons for this with evidence
    • A number of reasons from an alternative standpoint
    • Attempts at striking up empathy with the recipient
    • Recommended alternative action
    • A summary
    • Reasoning connectives.

Gather information about student learning through assessment strategies. Strategies can include formal and informal observations, discussions, learning conversations, questioning, conferences, homework, tasks done in groups, demonstrations, projects, portfolios, continuums, performances, peer and self-assessments, self-reflections and essays and tests.

Conversations, observations and products

Assessment information should be triangulated to include conversations, observations and products (COP).

COP assessment strategies include:

  1. conversation - conferences, notes, journal, blogs, moderated wikis, moderated online forums, student feedback, focused conversations and portfolio conferencing
  2. observations - a running record, list of books read, vocabulary checklists, notes from literature circles, observation checklist, process folio, anecdotal observations, questioning, listening, speaking, problem-solving
  3. products - performance tasks, assignments, test scores, reader responses, tests, portfolios, videos, journals, projects, graphs and presentations.

Basic principles for quality assessment

Earl & Katz (2006) describe 4 basic principles or quality issues that are important in classroom assessment - reliability, reference points, validity and record-keeping.

1. Reliability

In classroom assessment, reliability addresses the questions: How sure am I? / How confident am I that this assessment process provides enough consistent and stable information to allow me to make statements about a student’s learning with certainty?
If the assessment process is reliable, the inferences about a student’s learning should be similar when they are made by different teachers, when the learning is measured using various methods, or when students demonstrate their learning at different times.

When there is any doubt, there is probably not yet enough information to make a reliable statement.

To promote reliability:

  • Use a variety of assessment tasks to provide a range of information - the more information gathered, the clearer is the picture of a student’s learning profile.
  • Allow students to demonstrate competence in a manner that suits individual strengths - for example, one student may choose to do an oral presentation to demonstrate understanding of a concept, while another may choose to complete a written text.
  • Use a variety of systematic processes - for example, scoring keys, rubrics, rating scales and continua, to make statements about student work in relation to the learning outcomes.
  • Engage in moderation activities with other teachers to review student work - bringing a collective insight about what is expected to the exercise, results in a more consistent determination of what students understand.

2. Reference points

Teachers use 3 reference points when considering a student's performance in classroom assessment:
  1. How the student is performing in relation to some pre-determined criteria, learning outcome, or expectation (criterion-referenced or standards-referenced)?
  2. How the student is performing in relation to other students at the same age and year level (norm-referenced)?
  3. How is the student performing in relation to their performance at a prior time (self-referenced)?
'Assessment for learning' reference points: these are syllabus learning outcomes, or for some students, the learning outcomes of an individualised learning plan. They serve as guides in providing feedback and in planning instruction. Learning expectations that are clear and detailed, with exemplars and criteria that differentiate the quality and the changes along the learning continuum enable teachers to accurately consider each student’s work in relation to these expectations.
'Assessment as learning' reference points: these are a blend of syllabus expectations and the individual student’s understanding at an earlier point in time. Students compare their own learning over time with descriptions and examples of expected learning.
'Assessment of learning' reference points: these are typically the learning outcomes as identified in the syllabus. Assessment tasks include measures of these learning outcomes, and a student’s performance is interpreted and reported in relation to these standards.

3. Validity

Validity of classroom assessment depends on:
  • analysing the intended learning and all its embedded elements
  • having a good match among the assessment aspects, the intended learning, and the decisions that teachers and students make about the learning
  • ensuring that the assessment adequately covers the targeted learning outcomes, including content, thinking processes, skills, and attitudes
  • providing students with opportunities to show their knowledge of concepts in many different ways (such as using a range of assessment approaches) and with multiple measures, to establish a composite picture of student learning.
Teachers will consider how well the assessment measures what they are trying to measure, and if the interpretation of the results will lead to appropriate conclusions and consequences.

4. Record-keeping

The focus of record-keeping in 'assessment for learning' is on documenting individual student learning and annotating it in relation to the continuum of learning. The focus is also on identifying groups of students with similar learning patterns so that instruction can be efficiently differentiated. Teachers’ records need to be based on syllabus learning outcomes and need to give detailed accounts of student accomplishments in relation to these outcomes, with evidence to support these accounts.
In 'assessment as learning' students are the key players in record-keeping. They need to develop skills and attitudes that allow them to keep systematic records of their learning, and these records need to include reflections and insights as they occur. Their individual records become evidence of their progress in learning and in becoming independent learners.

For 'assessment of learning' approaches, it is records that provide details about the quality of the measurement. Detailed records of the various components of the assessment of learning are essential, with a description of what each component measures, with what accuracy and against what criteria and reference points, and should include supporting evidence related to the outcomes as justification.

When teachers keep records that are detailed and descriptive, they are in an excellent position to provide meaningful reports to parents and others. A symbolic representation of a student’s accomplishments, such as a letter grade or percentage is inadequate as it does not provide any depth of detail.

NESA principals of assessment

To further confirm choices of assessment tasks and processes, NESA's Teaching and Educational Standards (2014) Principles of Assessment can help check how your chosen strategies ‘measure up’ against these principles:

  • valid and based on syllabus outcomes
  • include criteria to clarify for students what aspects of learning are being assessed
  • enable students to demonstrate their learning in a range of different contexts
  • be reliable, free from bias and provide evidence that accurately represents a students’ knowledge, understanding and skills
  • be inclusive of and accessible to all students
  • be part of an ongoing learning process where progress is monitored over time.

The purpose of providing feedback is to reduce the gap between a student’s current level of knowledge and skills and the learning goal/s. Feedback can be oral or written; formal or informal; individual, group, whole class.

Feedback needs to:

  • relate specifically to the learning intention
  • be timely - preferably given during the lesson or very soon after as a week later is too late
  • include specific prompts to encourage improvement
  • relate clearly to the success criteria so the student is fully aware of the steps needed to 'close the gap' or improve their performance.

Using 'closing the gap' prompts

Prompts are comments to help students think about further learning. Prompts can be woven into the lesson as well as when marking student work. The 3 main ‘closing the gap’ prompts are:

1. Reminder Prompts

  • these are the least supportive type of prompt
  • they are the most basic instruction on how to improve the work/learning
  • these prompts are most suitable for able students 
  • they draw the learners’ attention back to the learning intention.
  • Examples include 'Say more about…' and 'Explain why you think this…'

2. Scaffolded prompts

  • these are most suitable for students who need more support than a simple reminder
  • they give more help by focusing on specifics, helping learners to extend their present understandings and improve their work
  • Examples include: 
    • A question - Can you explain why?
    • A directive - Please check your answers by...
    • An unfinished sentence - The colours in the flag are…

3. Example prompts

  • these are the most supportive type of prompt and are extremely successful with all students, but especially with average or below-average students
  • they are the most explicit, instructional and illustrative statements of how to improve
  • they involve making suggestions, offering information, giving a range of possible answers to choose from
  • An example is: choose one of these statements and/ or create one of your own: "George was unlucky because he tipped over Grandma’s medicine before she drank it all OR George had a lot of bad luck, particularly when he tipped over Grandma’s medicine before she had finished it."

Ideally, teachers use the classroom assessment process as an instructional intervention to teach students that failure can lead to learning success when feedback is sought and acted upon.

Success is defined as continual improvement, and to teach these lessons, teachers can use student involvement in the assessment, record-keeping, and communication process.

Our students must understand that, when we try to grow, we sometimes fail at first, and that failure is all right. The trick is to help students understand that failure holds the seeds of later success (Stiggins, 1999).

Student self-assessment places the primary responsibility for learning with the student. Once students have learned to recognise, describe and apply success criteria related to particular learning goals, they can use this information to assess their own and others’ learning.


Earl & Katz (2006) suggest teachers do the following to support students to self-assess:
  • model and teach the skills of self-assessment
  • guide students in setting goals, and monitoring their progress toward them
  • provide exemplars and models of good practice and quality work that reflect curriculum outcomes
  • work with students to develop clear criteria of good practice
  • guide students in developing internal feedback or self-monitoring mechanisms to validate and question their own thinking, and to become comfortable with the ambiguity and uncertainty that is inevitable in learning anything new
  • provide regular and challenging opportunities to practise, so that students can become confident, competent self-assessors.

Peer assessment

Students may provide feedback to their peers about:

  • what has been completed
  • strengths and/or what aspects have been completed well
  • suggestions to improve their work with reference to the learning and assessment intention
  • alternative strategies to complete the activity.

It's important to engage individual students in goal setting, monitoring and reflecting on their learning.

Through self-assessment, students can identify specific actions to improve and plan their next steps. They can also define their short and long-term goals with increasing confidence. The role of the teacher in this process is to:

  • model the setting of individual goals
  • provide follow-up support
  • give specific feedback on learning goals
  • help students identify and record focused actions they can take to achieve their goals
  • help students identify procedures students can use to monitor their own progress.

Teachers can include strategic questioning to help students reflect on their learning, for example:

  • Do I understand the purpose of the activity?
  • What do I already know about this topic?
  • What other information could assist me in my understanding?
  • What learning strategies do I need to complete or learn this?
  • What are the criteria for improving my work?
  • Do I understand the concepts I am learning?
  • Can I explain the steps I took?
  • Have I accomplished the goals I set for myself?
  • What would I do differently next time?
  • What is a question worth asking for next time?

Reflection and monitoring activities can include:

  • the use of learning logs and journals where students track their thoughts, questions, activities and any revisions made over the term
  • reflections on the learning processes used, including portfolios, learning logs, blogs and journals.

  • Clarke, S. (2005). Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom. London: Hodder Murray.
  • Earl, L., & Katz, S. (2006). Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind.
  • Elbow, P. (1998). Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press
  • NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) (2014). Principles of Effective Assessment.
  • NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA) (date unknown). Assessment for, as and of Learning.
  • Stiggins, R.J. (1999) Assessment, Student Confidence, and School Success. Phi Delta Kappan, 81(3).
  • Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by Design. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
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