Nina's Notes

for Effective Teaching and Meaningful Learning

Assessment in the student-centered classroom

Good quality assessment is an important tool for every educator.  Formal education is built on learning objectives and learning outcomes, which makes it different from self-directed learning, and thus assessing the progress is necessary. Formative assessment of learning is then used to inform future instruction in the class, and thus also may become assessment for learning.

Classroom assessment has several requirements, though, to be beneficial for students and their learning process.  The very first, and most important requirement is that all assessments are non-punitive, so that they don't create a threat for students to engage in their learning. An assessment cannot be a one-shot-only situation, because that emphasizes the view of learning as a product, not a process. The second requirement is for the assessment to improve the learning process, and build students' self-efficacy beliefs.  Assessment also contributes to students meta-cognitive skills, by providing feedback about both the learning and studying.  To be effective assessment must inform the teacher about next steps in instruction.

And please, let's not get confused between (formative) assessments and (summative) evaluations! One question about Finnish education that I often get to answer is about the absence of standardized testing  in K-12 in Finland.  While that is absolutely true, and students don't have to be prepped for tests for several weeks, the reality is that all teaches must engage in ongoing formative assessment, in order to know how their students are learning.

It is a good practice to include students' self-assessments into the formal assessment system you have in your classroom, because it improves students understanding of their own skills and learning when they see how well the self-assessment and formative assessments meet. And, a major discrepancy between self- assessment and formative assessment is an excellent conversation starter between the teacher and the student -- in both situations when the student either over- or underestimates her/his skills and knowledge - and in which case it easily becomes both an assessment of learning and an assessment for learning.

Feedback vs. Praise

There is a difference between praise and positive feedback in the classroom: praise emphasizes the teacher control and power relations, while feedback supports students’ self-regulation. However, in the professional literature these two concepts often seem to be used interchangeably, which easily causes confusion.

Praise in the classroom focuses on external rewards and behavior modification. In addition to this “generic praise promotes helpless behaviours” in the classroom, and the last thing we want to promote in any given classroom is learned academic helplessness! 

Feedback helps students to engage in self-regulation (and co-regulation), and thus supports their independent learning. 

The main problem with praise, however, is how it reinforces the behaviourist view of learning and the status quo of formal education (here: behaviour modification for students to better fit into the outdated model of classroom instruction deriving from the industrial era, and to sit still and quiet in the class). Public praise (i.e. "Thank you for focusing on your task")not only reinforces the model, but also may embarrass the student, which the researchers see as providing a possible inhibitory control for other students. 

The table below displays the differences between teaching in the behaviourist era and the necessary shift required for building today's knowledge societies (I cannot remember right now from where I got this excellent table, but I will put the citation here as soon as I find it!) 

The use of praise, as seen in Zentall & Morris, focuses on appropriately engaged behaviour, and extrinsic rewards (praise) with the expectation of students engaging in their schooling - but not necessarily in their own learning process.  Praise is also oppressive and othering by its nature, because of the imbalanced power relations.

The better choice for teachers is to engage in providing individual feedback about students’ learning process. This improves students’ metacognitive skills, and helps them to gain mastery of the subject to be learned. Feedback also provides opportunities for engaging in a dialogue --which is another tool for building excellent learning experiences! 

Zentall, S. R., & Morris, B. J. (2010). “Good job, you’reso smart”: The effects of inconsistency of praise type on young children’s motivation. Journal of experimental child psychology107(2),155-163.