Assessment for Learning and Assessment as Learning

DevelopEBP

This project aimed to empower students by rewriting the familiar system of failure. Students were encouraged to take a more active role in their learning, specifically through developing an understanding of what is being assessed and how.

You can download a PDF of this report on the Excellence Gateway.

Summary

To achieve this, teachers removed the traditional grading system and focused on explicit and targeted feedback that students were encouraged to reflect and focus on, shifting the focus from attainment to skills development.

Through such refocusing, students were expected to take greater responsibility for their own learning and develop an improved relationship between students and teachers, as well as improved attendance.

Rationale

As the name suggests, DevelopEBP focuses on helping students grow, with a particular focus on high needs students aged 14-19 who have struggled in mainstream schooling.

As a result of students having had a negative experience in mainstream schooling, many students come to resit GCSE English with a preconceived idea that their skills and ability should be seen simply as a number with little value beyond whether or not they passed or failed.

Students are repeatedly told they need to achieve a ‘grade 4’, with little understanding of the skills and knowledge involved. Having failed previously, they come to DevelopEBP convinced they are unable to achieve success in their GCSE English.

When students are assessed, they look to the teacher to tell them how well they have achieved, fixating only on the number, with no sense of how evaluation happens or the relationship between skills and assessment. With a grade-based system, they often struggle to see any significant improvement in their work and become increasingly despondent. This can create a strained relationship between teachers and students, as well as poor attendance.

To counter this, the project set out to explore the benefits of supporting learners to take a more active role in the process of assessment through removing the grading system and replacing it with specific, targeted feedback for the students to use later to reflect on and set targets.

Approach

The project leader used her role as the college-wide English leader to select tutors teaching one GCSE resit group in each of the three centres participating in the project. An initial presentation outlining the project was received positively by staff, and subsequently also by the learners.

Each of the three centres focused on a different aspect of the project outcomes: Bedford looked at changing attitudes towards English learning and attendance, Dunstable looked at student/teacher rapport and progress made in skill objectives, and Norwich looked at student engagement and teaching and learning approaches.

Across the course of the project the students completed 2 assessments focusing on AQA Paper 1 and the skills required to succeed on questions (AO1, AO2 and AO4). After the initial assessment, each student was encouraged to select a specific skill to focus on and develop. This was tracked on an assessment feedback form and also through their ongoing reflective blogs.

Each week the tutor focused on a specific skill and the related question, after which the students sat another paper. The results from this assessment were used to illustrate to students the change in their responses, which enabled them to identify where they had improved and which skills they had developed.

The tutor participants communicated regularly through email, sharing data, student feedback and different approaches used. Tutors also met face-to-face towards the end of the project to discuss how things had gone, reflect on the process and select students for the case studies, to show who had fully engaged and experienced success as well as those who had not.

Professional Learning: Evidence of changes in teaching, learning and assessment practices

The focus of this action research was on assessment in terms of measurement and development, using one to inform the other. Moving away from a fixation on grading allowed students to break the cycle of failure and the subsequent associated despondency. This was the starting point for all three Develop centres: Bedford, Dunstable and Norwich; although all three looked at a specific knock-on effect from this system of failure.

The tutor leading this programme in Bedford, in line with the focus on changing attitudes towards English learning and attendance, observed the following changes in her students as well as in her own practice:

“I gave them 100% certificates for termly attendance and most of them really appreciated these to take home and show them off. I do show the register on the board for them all to see. I do think that spending some time to focus and reward good attendance has had a positive impact. Also, along the way, I have reflected on my lessons including: starting with a game, a riddle and discussing the news and other topics e.g. anxiety etc. I have sat myself amongst them for some of these activities and discussions, so there are no barriers. This has brought them together as a team and perhaps heightened their enjoyment of the lesson. We have had a trip to London, role plays, samosas and songs!!

Because of this they have a very focused attitude to work and rarely waste time …”

The tutor leading the research programme in Dunstable, in line with a focus on student/teacher rapport and progress made in skill objectives, noticed that students were struggling with how hard they found English. She adapted her practice to allow students time to reflect on how they felt, often starting with activities around unstructured writing, after which she noticed an increased engagement from the students, as well as their becoming more open about their struggles.

The tutor leading the programme in Norwich, in line with the focus on student engagement and teaching and learning approaches, observed that reflecting on student assessment was particularly useful in informing teaching and subsequently student learning.

Through developing self-reflection within the students, as well as reflecting on the lessons, it was felt that students responded well to repeating areas of success and continued to break down the areas of struggle they had identified. This enabled the students to receive tangible positive reinforcement and support.

Evidence of improved collaboration and changes in organisation practices

Across all three centres, it was initially noted that there seemed to be a disconnect in communication and the tutors often felt unsure about what was expected. This was largely because of a significant upheaval in staffing. Once staffing was stabilised and the three tutors involved were able to start sharing information, the situation improved significantly. Although every effort was made to meet face-to-face, this was not always possible because of geographical location. However, email trails and Google chats have enabled participants to remain in contact and share their thoughts.

Since the beginning of the project, the project lead in Dunstable has taken over the co-ordination of English across all of Develop. She has already scheduled standardisation meetings for all English tutors to attend and has planned an end-of-year debrief for all involved, to reflect on what is working in each centre and what is not. Moving forward, English across all centres will be addressed more collaboratively.

Evidence of improvement in learners’ achievements, retention and progression

Most students across all three centres saw an increase in attainment from their first assessment to their second approximately 6 weeks later. This is largely shown in the overall results (Figure 1b-1).

Some students struggled to engage. Four students across all three centres missed the initial assessment: three were late starters and one has a history of poor attendance because of health issues. Two students saw a decrease in attainment. One had patchy attendance; the other, as illustrated in the case study, lacked engagement. The remaining 13 students saw a significant improvement in results, improving by between 3 marks and 26 marks, which is simply astounding.

Bedford centre reported significant improvement in attendance and in the relationships between peers, as well as with the tutor. It was noted that students were developing a sense of pride and taking their certificates of attendance home to ‘show them off’: this showed a significant investment from the students. To address the focus on ‘getting along with each other’ the tutor incorporated games, activities and team building, including herself, noting that her class is ‘more of a team now’. Attendance at this centre, specific to English, has been excellent with 5 students achieving 100% attendance across all terms to date; 1 learner receiving 100% attendance to date for the 2nd term, and 2 learners with significantly increased attendance since September.

The Norwich centre, with a focus on student engagement and approaches to teaching and learning, observed that students initially seemed to be of the mindset of ‘just get it done’ rather than ‘take the time to do it right’. The greatest obstacle seems to be the fact that students feel they are ‘bad’ at English, label themselves as ‘stupid’, and frequently express how ‘impossible’ everything feels. Withholding grades and focusing on skills has mitigated this to some extent but the habit is deeply ingrained.
Another pertinent observation is that although students are now able to complete tasks and have improved their skills, timing remains a concern.

“Students struggle to complete tasks to time, and the longer they have to concentrate the more they struggle. This poses a problem for written exams as they need to focus for at least 2 hours. Focusing on exam strategy and how to use time will be invaluable for them.”

Learning from this project

Withholding grades was effective across all three centres as students had no choice but to begin to develop an understanding of the skills they are learning and how to achieve them; this is the only way they have of measuring progress. Students were receptive to this approach and there was a degree of relief at not receiving the same ‘not good enough’ grade over and over again. It allowed them to shift focus and begin to see improvements. However, it was also established that the system of failure has left a deep scar on most students’ sense of themselves and their own abilities. Most students still respond with surprise at evidence of improvement, and remain fearful of more failure. It was established that although focusing on skills instead of grades is a step in the right direction, in and of itself it is not enough.

Attendance was another key area of this research project. The Bedford centre in particular reported increased attendance across the course of the programme. It was established, however, that this would have been easier to monitor and assess with centralised access to records of attendance instead of relying on feedback from different people. While specific people at different centres have access to the individual breakdown, this is not generally known by staff. The centralised attendance looks at the students’ attendance across all courses – not just English. It was noted also that it is difficult to ascertain reasons for poor attendance, or to draw direct links between their improved relationships with regards to English with taking ownership of their own learning. Norwich in particular recorded that most absences were connected to sickness or external factors influencing students.

As most students have failed English GCSE in the mainstream school system, most students have reflected a more positive experience in the English classroom across the course of the project. This is primarily seen in terms of their daily engagement in class and activities in spite of their feeling ‘tired’ or of things being ‘harder than they expect’.

One student reported:

“I didn’t want to come to college today but I decided to because it is important”.

Such comments may be seen as evidence that DevelopEBP really does achieve its aim of empowering students by rewriting the familiar system of failure, now as a system of success.