Already widely employed in the mainstream, Assessment for Learning, or AFL for short, is gradually gaining importance in ELT. We’re starting to see references to it in some primary and pre-school courses (such as Pearson’s Big Fun) and it’s begun to feature on conference programmes, too, with Sarah Priestley giving a great introduction to this topic on this as part of the IATEFL Young Learners SIG pre-conference online event in February, for example. This post will cover the basics of AFL and give ideas for how to get started, and what the benefits could be.
What does it mean? How is AFL different from self-assessment?
‘Assessment for Learning’ means encouraging learners to think actively about their learning, review their progress, and create a feedback loop which then informs the teacher’s priorities for future lessons. It’s linked to the concept of ‘formative assessment’ – the feedback both helps teachers monitor student progress and allows them to adapt their teaching to student needs, for example by identifying what has and hasn’t gone well, and then planning additional activities to plug any gaps in students’ knowledge, perhaps using a different approach. Through this process, learners themselves should become more confident in knowing what they are supposed to learn and to what standard.
In a nutshell …
- AFL happens regularly, not just at the end of the school year or school term, like traditional forms of assessment.
- Students are more involved in the process of learning, and begin to ‘think like teachers’.
- Learning is made VISIBLE.
- As well as considering how well they did, learners identify what they need to do next.
Why do it?
At the recent ‘Future of ELT’ conference run by Regent’s College and Trinity College London, Gail Ellis from the British Council delivered an excellent plenary about the role of metacognition in helping children become more effective learners. She argued that we frequently underestimate young learners’ ability to self-assess. By giving them more credit for their metacognitive abilities, and allowing them to become commentators on their learning experiences, we respect their rights to show their preferences, give them increased autonomy and often boost their motivation along the way.
There are also some important implications for attainment. Research published by Paul Black and Dylan William shows that formative assessment has a strong positive effect on achievement (Inside The Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London, 1998).
So how can we do it?
Gail Ellis argued that reviewing, which can be carried out in L1, should be based around five reflection questions:
- What did you do?
- What did you learn?
- How did you learn?
- How well did you do?
- What do you need to do next?
Her plenary also promoted the value of incorporating a range of multi-modal reviewing techniques, including:
- Students drawing pictures to show what they learnt
- Filming students during an activity and asking them to talk about what they were doing
- Photographing students and asking them to comment on the process they followed for an activity
- Constructing models to show understanding
- Movement activities, such as miming a favourite story
- Using a puppet to ask reflection questions
- Using visual prompts as opportunities for reflection on previous work
Top tips for implementing AFL
Share success criteria with students so that they know at the beginning of the task what they are going to be assessed on. Give students a list of the things you will be looking for, or build them into the task design, and refer back to them in assessments. Examples of success criteria for a writing task could be: Include a heading, include three adjectives, include a picture, have a beginning, middle and end.
With clear success criteria in place, students can also give each other more meaningful peer feedback.
Give specific and useful feedback not just grades. In Sarah Priestley’s talk she suggests structuring feedback as two stars (two good things) and a wish (something she’d like to see next time).
Scaffold output by providing sentence starters or gapped sentences so the focus is on meaningful self-assessment, not on struggling to produce the language to talk about it. This can also be achieved by having learners answer yes/no to a series of statements about a task (eg I used paragraphs or I predicted what the story was about from the title). With lower levels, we can make use of visuals like traffic lights, and happy or sad faces for students to colour according to how confident they feel about their learning.
Sarah Priestley has very kindly made her IATEFL YL SIG talk slides available, and with her permission I’m reproducing them here: SPriestley AfL iatefl ylsig Feb2017
Over to you
Are there tips you’d like to share with other readers about effective Assessment for Learning? Perhaps you’ve seen the benefits of involving learners as active participants in assessment? Is AFL something you’re already familiar with or considering trying for the first time? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.