habeeb (16)

Do they know if they know?

Here's a quick and easy way to analyze how well you are applying AFL principles in your classroom:

If a parent were to ask his or her child how they were doing in your class, could the child give an accurate, detailed, and specific answer about his or her progress?

If you are regularly providing descriptive feedback to students then they should be able to tell their parents not only if they are doing well or not, but also what their strengths are, what they have mastered, and in what areas they still need improvement.

Of course, many young people - because they are young people - will tend to answer with a simple "Fine" or "I don't know". However, if we could magically control for the idiosyncracies of youth, the question remains, could your students specifically and with detail tell their parents how they are doing in your classroom?

If the answer is "No" then it probably means you are not giving enough feedback - which in turn probably means that you are not assessing them regularly enough. Or perhaps it means you need to focus on training your students to better use the feedback that you are giving.

Don't confuse a student being able to report on his or her grade with a student being able to answer the question in detail. Being able to say, "I'm making a B" is very different from being able to say, "I've mastered grammar but am having trouble with analyzing poetry."

So what can you do to give your students more descriptive feedback so that they can better answer the question?
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Don't forget the power of SPIN!

Sometimes - or maybe all the time - perception is everything.


We have all realized this at some point or another in our lives.  We have said something, written something, or done something with a positive purpose in mind only to see it have the completely opposite effect due to the way it was perceived.  Perhaps no where is this more true than in the classroom.  Students watch what we do through various colored lenses.  As a result, our actions are often not perceived the way we would like.


This is why SPIN is so important. I know that typically SPIN has a negative connotation.  However, it's a powerful concept in communication.  SPIN doesn't have to mean lying or telling half-truths, as it often does in the political sense.  Instead, think of SPIN as preemptively and proactively making sure that our students hear us the way we intend to be heard.


The concept of SPIN applies to almost any topic, but in this case we'll apply it to AFL.  Assessing students more frequently could be viewed negatively by both students and parents.  Assessment tends to be viewed through the lens that believes students are tested and/or assessed too much.  However, as AFL-savvy educators, we realize that we need to assess more frequently so that both students and teacher receive the feedback needed to make important educational decisions.  This doesn't necessarily mean more grading or more grades, but AFL does mean more assessment.


So how do students react when you start assessing them daily or testing them on a very regular basis?  The answer probably depends on how well you SPIN.  AFL can mean more testing.  Or AFL can mean that the teacher is going to ensure that the students know what they need to know to succeed.  AFL can mean more work.  Or AFL can mean that students will feel more confident in their learning because they have had more practice and more feedback.


Below is what I find to be a great example of proactive AFL SPIN.  Jamie Garst, a Science teacher at Salem High School, has a summer assignment for his IB Biology 2 students.  This summer assignment will require them to come to school during the summer.  Did you hear that?  Students will have a summer assignment AND they will have to come to school during the summer.  I don't know about your students, but ours tend to NOT get excited about assignments and visits to the high school over the summer!


To pull this off, Jamie needs to SPIN.  He needs to make sure his students understand that that his AFL strategies will benefit them.  Read his letter to students (posted below) and assess how he did:


Greetings from Salem High School!

I hope this letter finds your summer break off to a relaxing start. I want to touch base with you to let you know how excited I am to be teaching IB Biology 2 next year. I truly look forward to meeting and working with each of you in the fall.

As part of your summer assignment, I am requesting that you attend a brief workshop on internal assessment laboratories that will be a major part of our year next year. At the workshop, we will learn about the general structure and format of internal assessments, design a simple experiment and obtain data, as well as evaluate labs of previous students. I anticipate the workshops lasting approximately 4 hours. I am offering a variety of dates to accommodate everyone’s busy schedule. 

Workshops will begin at 9:00 AM and will be held in my classroom (RM 266). Please let me know via email at your convenience which date you would like to attend (jgarst@salem.k12.va.us). If none of the above dates work, additional times can be available.

Following the workshop, you will be required to submit a complete lab write up based on the data we acquire during the workshop. This will be due the first day of school. I realize that the first attempt at an internal assessment is a learning process. The labs will be marked and returned for you to fix and re-submit for an actual grade during the first 6 weeks.

I look forward to hearing from each of you. Please let me know if I can be of any assistance at any time. Sincerely,

James F. Garst


So what do you think?  How was the SPIN?  If I was a student recipient here's how I think I would perceive this teacher's message:

  • Mr. Garst is going to be a very positive person and he seems to like me before meeting me - "truly look forward to meeting and working with each of you"
  • Mr. Garst likes the content and maybe won't be boring - "how excited I am to be teaching IB Biology 2 next year"
  • While I do not want to do summer work, completing this assignment will help me because it will give me valuable practice.
  • I don't need to stress over this assignment because the feedback will be used as practice.  I'll be able to re-submit it for an actual grade after it has been marked.

Of course, SPIN will only get you so far and must be backed up with action and results.  However, the way students perceive the teacher and the assignments either makes the teacher's job easier or harder.  If you're using solid AFL strategies - such as Jamie's summer PRACTICE lab - then you have a genuine source of positive SPIN.  When properly explained to students and parents, it's easy to see how AFL strategies are all about helping students learn.  But it's imperative that we control the SPIN to guide the perception.


Any thoughts? 

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AFL in Higher-Level Courses

Over the past several years, I have had the opportunity to talk with educators from schools across the country about the philosophy of AFL.  In doing so I have noticed several common reactions from educators to the idea of incorporating AFL-based strategies into their classrooms.  One of those common reactions is the one that SOME (not all) teachers of higher-level students and more rigorous courses OFTEN (not always) have.  That reaction goes something like this:

I see how AFL could work and don't necessarily disagree with it as a philosophy; however, I don't think it really applies to me or my classroom since I am teaching the most advanced students in college-level courses.  AFL strategies might make earning high grades in my classes too easy.  In a class like mine I need to make sure that a lot is required of my students, and I'm afraid that AFL will take too much responsibility away from them.  I'm teaching the way college professors teach, which is something these students need to experience prior to college.  Besides, the methods I use worked for me when I was a student, and most of my students get pretty good grades in my class - so why make changes.

If you are a teacher of higher-level courses and advanced students whose view toward AFL is at least somewhat consistent to the one I describe above, I would invite you to take another look at AFL and to reconsider your reasons for not adopting more AFL-based strategies in your classroom.  (That is, IF you are someone who has been reluctant to adopt AFL-based strategies)  In the following paragraphs I will examine each of the points of view described above and attempt to show why AFL does apply to higher-level courses.

1. I see how AFL could work and don't necessarily disagree with it as a philosophy; however, I don't think it really applies to me or my classroom since I am teaching the most advanced students in college-level courses.

AFL is definitely a philosophy as opposed to a specific set of practices.  It is a teaching philosophy based on the reality of how people learn.  People need feedback and opportunities to learn from mistakes.  This applies to all students - from our weakest and most unmotivated to our strongest and most talented. Applying an AFL philosophy to a classroom simply means assessing more frequently (not necessarily testing), providing regular feedback,and grading in a manner that allows students to learn from mistakes and, therefore, master content better. (see The Heart of AFL)   With that being the case, how would AFL's usefulness change based on the level of rigor associated with the course?  Do smarter kids not need feedback?  Do highly motivated students not learn better when they receive regular feedback?  Do college-bound students not need opportunities to learn from mistakes?  Of course not.  AFL-based strategies will help ALL students learn and should, therefore, be used in classrooms of ALL levels. 

2. AFL strategies might make earning high grades in my classes too easy.

I have actually heard this exact statement made, and honestly, it baffles me.  While I believe it to be imperative that teachers require students to work hard, I also believe that our primary job is to make difficult content relatively easy to learn.  Both situations can coexist - hard work and content made easy to understand.  That's our purpose - to take content and skills that students cannot learn on their own and make them learn-able.  We are called to communicate in a manner that enables young people to do more than they ever thought possible and more than they could ever do on their own.  We make the hard, easy.  Along the way, students will be asked to work very hard, but our goal is to not make the content hard to learn - it's already hard to learn.  Our goal is to make it easy to understand.  

The rigor of a course should come from the inherent rigor of the content and NOT from the way we teach the course.  I repeat, the rigor of a course should come from the inherent rigor of the content and NOT from the way we teach the course.

Therefore, if the grade we assign a student TRULY reflects learning and mastery, then making a good grade really shouldn't be all that difficult.  Some students may CHOOSE to not earn a good grade, but that should be their choice not a result of our teaching.  And while some students may occasionally be in a class that's over their head, that is the exception not the rule.  Therefore, if applying AFL strategies to a classroom leads to a increase in learning which in turn leads to an increase in the level of grades earned, why is that a problem?  (For more, see an earlier post entitled Does AFL lead to grade inflation?)   

3.  In a class like mine I need to make sure that a lot is required of my students, and I'm afraid that AFL will take too much responsibility away from them. 

Thinking along these lines represents a fundamental misunderstanding of AFL.  In discussions related to AFL it is common to talk about how AFL-based strategies will result in students learning more.  To me, this should excite teachers since our job is to find strategies to help students learn.  However, for some educators, this idea gets turned into, "Since students are not doing what it takes to learn, I now need to do these new and additional things for them."  There is a fundamental flaw with thinking that way: It presumes that the way you have been teaching is perfect, and that any problems that exist are student-centered.  

There is no doubt whatsoever that students and their choices play a huge role - perhaps the major role - in student learning.  Absolutely no doubt at all.  However, there is also no doubt whatsoever that teacher choices play a huge role - perhaps the major role - in student learning, as well.  (I realize there cannot be 2 majority roles, thus the word "perhaps".)  Just as doctors must continually hone their skills and gain new ones to meet the medical needs of their patients, teachers should seek continuous improvement to meet their students' needs.  So if your students aren't doing all that they should, but you could change something that you're doing that would result in increased learning, why would you not do so?  Why would a teacher stubbornly cling to, "I'm not going to do that, because students aren't doing their part"?  Our goal is to get all students to learn, not just the ones who do all that they should.

The other fundamental flaw with that line of thinking is that is presumes incorrectly that somehow AFL-based strategies require less of students.  I think what happens is that some people confuse talk of wanting to help students do better with making school too easy or not rigorous enough.  When it comes to AFL, that is an erroneous conclusion.  In fact, the exact opposite is true.  In a classroom where the teacher is using sound AFL-based strategies, the students are being trained to take ownership of and responsibility for their own progress.  By its very nature, AFL should place more responsibility on students.  (For more on that topic, read It's About Students Taking Ownership of Learning and/or Which Parent Do You Most Want to Please?)

4. I'm teaching the way college professors teach, which is something these students need to experience prior to college.

I'm going to be brutally honest here even though it might offend some of the college professors who read this blog.  While college professors are true experts in their field, and while many of them are skilled lecturers, and while I"m sure most are passionate about educating, my opinion is that the worst TEACHING in all of the educational world occurs in college classrooms.  The typical college classroom - as I have experienced it now at 3 universities - consists of the professor lecturing and the students taking notes.  Then, 2 or 3 times per semester, a test/exam is given on the notes.  While many of us have learned a lot content in this format, I would contend that our level of learning is not a result of how well we have been taught as much as a result of how much we have chosen to learn on our own.

Think about it for a moment.  If a teacher provides students with notes on a topic, has them read about it in a book, DOESN'T give them opportunities to practice the content and learn from their mistakes, and then tests them, what is that teacher actually assessing?  I believe that the teacher is assessing how well students can learn on their own from the content provided them.  If a student gets an A in that class is it a result of wonderful teaching?  No - it's a result of the student's wonderful studying.  This must be true because this sort of teacher strongly defends the opposite situation - when a student fails such a class few teachers would say that it was a result of terrible teaching but rather terrible study habits.  You can't have one without the other. 

So here's where that leads us:  College-style teaching is not - in general - the best teaching.  To teach in that style - even remotely like that style - is to adopt poor teaching strategies.  We should find it ludicrous to even consider doing anything less than the best job possible for our students.  Why would we let bad teaching at the next level cause us to be less than stellar at our current level?  HOWEVER, AFL STRATEGIES COULD PREPARE STUDENTS FOR DEALING WITH POOR TEACHING.  If we train our students to seek and use feedback to guide their own learning - in other words, to take control of their education - then they will be more likely to succeed in any type of future classroom situation.  AFL-based strategies are the very skills that our college-bound students need us to teach them.   

5. Besides, the methods I use worked for me when I was a student, and most of my students get pretty good grades in my class - so why make changes.

The fact that the way you teach is the way you liked being taught is in no way an indication that the way you are teaching is the best way to teach - unless, of course, everyone is just like you!  This would be a terrible reason to not try AFL-based strategies.  So would the fact that most of your students are finding success.  In every high school there are some students who are easier to teach than others.  They are the students who behave, have good attitudes, do what is asked of them, and want to be successful.  Let's face it, those students tend to be found in our higher-level more rigorous classes.  Please do not hear me wrong - I fully understand that teaching these students - any students - is not without its challenges, but the truth of the matter is that strong students can really make a teacher look good.  In my lifetime I have run into teachers whose teaching strategies work in their classrooms more because of WHO they are teaching than because of HOW they are teaching.  Bottom line, we must never allow ourselves to grow complacent with our professional growth.  So having success teaching strong students should never be a reason to not explore new ideas and strategies.  

My main point is this: AFL is a philosophy that, when used properly, improves learning.  Since ALL teachers of ALL students should want to improve learning, there really is NO teacher who could not benefit from adding a little AFL to the classroom. 


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As we at Salem High School have been exploring AFL, we have begun to realize the power of testing students for the purpose of learning. So often we think of assessment as simply giving a traditional test at the end a unit of study for the purpose of determining mastery and calculating a grade. The principles of Assessment FOR Learning would instead lead teachers to assess along the way - to use tests, quizzes, and other assessments as a means to help students learn. Assessment is much more powerful than teachers often realize. It is a learning tool.

Here is how assessment is applied in what I'll call a traditional classroom:

1. Teach Content
2. Practice Content
3. Teach Content
4. Practice Content
5. Assess Mastery of Content
6. Move on to New Content

Here is one example of how assessment could be applied in the AFL classroom:

1. Teach Content
2. Assess Understanding
3. Practice Content
4. Assess Understanding
5. Teach Content
6. Assess Understanding
7. Practice Content
8. Assess Understanding
9. Assess Mastery of Content

A recent NY Times article seems to back up this AFL approach. The article (Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits, Benedict Carey, September 6, 2010) discusses studying content multiple times over a period of days v. cramming. Not surprisingly, several major studies have found that cramming does not work as well, in general, as studying material in multiple chunks over time. But what research is also showing is that the act of taking a test on material actually helps people remember the material for a longer period of time.

I have copied and pasted below an excerpt from the article. Follow this link to read it in its entirety.

Begin Excerpt

Cognitive scientists do not deny that honest-to-goodness cramming can lead to a better grade on a given exam. But hurriedly jam-packing a brain is akin to speed-packing a cheap suitcase, as most students quickly learn — it holds its new load for a while, then most everything falls out.

“With many students, it’s not like they can’t remember the material” when they move to a more advanced class, said Henry L. Roediger III, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis. “It’s like they’ve never seen it before.”

When the neural suitcase is packed carefully and gradually, it holds its contents for far, far longer. An hour of study tonight, an hour on the weekend, another session a week from now: such so-called spacing improves later recall, without requiring students to put in more overall study effort or pay more attention, dozens of studies have found.

No one knows for sure why. It may be that the brain, when it revisits material at a later time, has to relearn some of what it has absorbed before adding new stuff — and that that process is itself self-reinforcing.

“The idea is that forgetting is the friend of learning,” said Dr. Kornell. “When you forget something, it allows you to relearn, and do so effectively, the next time you see it.”

That’s one reason cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment. The process of retrieving an idea is not like pulling a book from a shelf; it seems to fundamentally alter the way the information is subsequently stored, making it far more accessible in the future.

Dr. Roediger uses the analogy of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in physics, which holds that the act of measuring one property of a particle (position, for example) reduces the accuracy with which you can know another property (momentum, for example): “Testing not only measures knowledge but changes it,” he says — and, happily, in the direction of more certainty, not less.

In one of his own experiments, Dr. Roediger and Jeffrey Karpicke, also of Washington University, had college students study science passages from a reading comprehension test, in short study periods. When students studied the same material twice, in back-to-back sessions, they did very well on a test given immediately afterward, then began to forget the material.

But if they studied the passage just once and did a practice test in the second session, they did very well on one test two days later, and another given a week later.

“Testing has such bad connotation; people think of standardized testing or teaching to the test,” Dr. Roediger said. “Maybe we need to call it something else, but this is one of the most powerful learning tools we have.”

Of course, one reason the thought of testing tightens people’s stomachs is that tests are so often hard. Paradoxically, it is just this difficulty that makes them such effective study tools, research suggests. The harder it is to remember something, the harder it is to later forget. This effect, which researchers call “desirable difficulty,” is evident in daily life. The name of the actor who played Linc in “The Mod Squad”? Francie’s brother in “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”? The name of the co-discoverer, with Newton, of calculus?

The more mental sweat it takes to dig it out, the more securely it will be subsequently anchored.

End Excerpt

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Rubrics are a great way to help students learn from their mistakes and to assess their own knowledge (#5 and #6 of the 6 Key AFL Ideas). In the typical high school setting, rubrics are most commonly used by English teachers to show students how they will be grading essays/papers. Other teachers will sometimes use them to show students how projects will be graded. Essentially these rubrics detail how the teacher breaks the assignment down into specific parts and then show how many points each part will be worth. While there is nothing wrong at all with using rubrics this way, I would like to describe an additional way to incorporate rubrics into the classroom. The use of a rubric is a highly effective and easy to apply AFL strategy. In fact, I would contend that rubrics could be implemented into any content area and any classroom. If you teach content or skills then a rubric then you can use a rubric. For just a moment forget about using a rubric as a way to show a student how he or she will be graded. Instead, think of a rubric as an overview of the key knowledge/skills that you will be teaching during a set period of time – whether it’s a month-long, week-long, or even single-day unit. In this model, students are given the rubric – the overview of content – at the beginning of the unit. At regular intervals – perhaps daily, perhaps every other day, perhaps every ½ hour – students are given an opportunity to look over either the entire rubric or a portion of it and use it to assess their understanding. Students will look over the portion of the rubric to which the teacher directs them and will then rate themselves in one of three categories: 1. Category 1 – Content the student knows/understands and will not forget 2. Category 2 – Content about which the student has questions 3. Category 3 – Content the student still doesn’t know One of the nice side benefits of using a rubric in this manner is that it helps the teacher stay focused on what is most important. Especially with a young teacher or with a teacher who is teaching a specific unit or class for the first time, it is very easy to get sidetracked. Sometimes the content plays itself out over the course of teaching the unit. Often by the end of a unit a teacher might look back and realize that the core content had not received the appropriate level of focus as compared to some less-essential knowledge. By creating a rubric that students get at the very beginning of the unit and by then referencing that rubric throughout the unit, the teacher will be more likely to focus on the key content and to create graded assessments based on that key content. As students assess their understanding along the way, they become more aware of what they do and don’t know. Awareness of what one doesn’t know is a major step toward learning something. When it comes time to study for a summative assessment, the rubric becomes an excellent study guide. Students have rated their knowledge of the content and can spend their time focusing on the lower-rated items. While it is common for a teacher to hand a study guide to a student, it is less common - and much more effective - if a student has a personalized study guide that they have created and of which they have a sense of ownership. So what might such a rubric look like? Below is an example of how a rubric that follows this model might be used in a World History class that is learning about World War One:

(Click on the above image to download a pdf version of the rubric.)
Below is an example of how a rubric that follows this model might be used in a senior-level English class that is reading The Freedom Writers (thanks to Cammie Smith for her help on this one):

(Click on the above image to download a pdf version of the rubric.)
Helpful Hints:
  • The teacher will have to guide/train students about how to use the rubric in this manner. Don’t expect magic the first time.
  • This will work best if the teacher provides class time for the students to use their rubrics.
  • The teacher might want to keep the rubrics in the classroom so that they do not get lost. Students might not take them home until the night before a large test/quiz/graded assignment.
  • Be very explicit with your students about the purpose of the rubric. Don’t let this become just another "thing". This could be yet another worksheet provided by a teacher but not effectively used by students. Instead help your students view self-assessment as a core learning strategy and something that they can apply to future classes/learning. Help them view the rubric as a key to success.
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Here is a conversation you will probably never hear:

Sea World Trainer 1: "I am so tired of these seals. They always want a fish every time they do anything!"
Sea World Trainer 2: "Tell me about it. It's like they don't understand how important the show is. They only care about getting fish!"

The other day I was talking with Jamie Garst, a Chemistry/IB Biology teacher at Salem High School. He mentioned that he recently decided to use Smart Pals (a plastic sleeve that allows an ordinary piece of paper to be used like a small dry erase boards) as a way to review in his classroom. (See previous post on using white boards to review) This was his first experience doing this with his students. As he was instructing them on what to do he told them that they would also need a blank sheet of paper. As he started to tell them the reason why, the kids said, "We know - it's to keep track of what we don't know." This was the first time Jamie had done this with his students. Therefore, their knowledge of what to do is evidence of the fact that someone had trained them. It's not natural for students to get out paper to assess their understanding. These kids had been trained by another teacher or other teachers in the school.
As educators, what do we want students to do?

We want them to learn for the sake of learning.
We want them to work hard because it's the right thing to do and because it leads to learning.
We want them to be internally motivated to do their best.
We want them to care more about learning than they do grades.

I think you'd be hard pressed to find a teacher who wouldn't agree that he or she wants those previous statements to be true for his or her students. However, we train them quite differently.

We train students to learn for the sake of getting a grade.
We train them to work hard or else they'll get a bad grade and because it leads to good grades.
We train them to be externally motivated by grades.
We train them to care more about grades than learning.

Think about it for a moment. The typical classroom at any grade level is not all that different from the seal show at Sea World. The student does the work; he gets a grade or points. The seal does the trick; he gets a fish. The student doesn't do the work; he doesn't get the grade or the points. The seal doesn't do the trick; he doesn't get the fish.

Have you ever assigned something and had students say, "Is this graded?" Have you ever felt like your students wouldn't work as hard if they weren't getting a grade? Have students ever complained that you weren't grading them after they put effort into an assignment or activity? Does it ever seem like all the students (and parents) care about is the grade on the report card or transcript?

Look back at the start of this post. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for the Sea World trainer to complain about the seal always wanting a fish for the tricks it does? Why is it not just as ridiculous for an educator to complain about a student always wanting to know if something is graded or about a student being motivated by grades rather than learning?

Perhaps the answer is because unlike the seal, the student is capable of rational and logical thought processes and should, therefore, know better. However, think about how students have been conditioned from day 1 in school. Do the work - get a reward. Now consider that this has been the case for generations. Is it any wonder that our students tend to be more externally than internally motivated? Is it any wonder that they tend to focus so much on grades and lose sight of the bigger picture of learning?

So what can be done about this? Is it possible to change years of conditioning to get to what we really want from students? Of course, if all teachers in the educational system made a change then we could definitely alter the situation; however, that's probably (definitely) a bit of a stretch. So can students be trained to be more internally motivated and to look at grades differently?

The story of Jamie and his students tells me that the answer is "yes". From my experience, the typical student expectation of a review activity is that the teacher will tell the student everything he or she needs to know - or ask all the questions he or she will eventually be asked - and then the student goes home and studies everything that will be on the test. (Or in some cases, doesn't study at all.) However, what Jamie found out was that his students were being conditioned to expect something different. They now expected that when a review was finished each student would leave class with a personalized list of what that student had not yet mastered. This personalized list would become the student's unique study guide. What Jamie experienced is an example of the fact that student expectations can be changed.

So what if teachers in your building stopped practicing AFG? AFG is Assessment FOR Grading. AFG is what I did very intentionally as a new teacher. I assigned lots of graded assignments so that I could have lots of grades in my grade book. The main purpose of my assignments and my assessments was to get grades in the grade book which could then average together to get a final summative grade. I used points as rewards and withheld points as a consequence. This use of AFG would naturally lead to my students thinking that everything they did had to be graded. I was training my seals - I mean, students - to work hard for the fish - I mean, grade.

AFL is so different. AFL is about assessing and assigning to gain feedback. It's about teachers and students using that feedback to guide learning. The whole point of the assessments and assignments is learning - thus the name, Assessment FOR Learning. This site is full of resources and ideas for applying AFL principles to the classroom.

I think that we can train kids to think differently about grades. It will take effort and a lot of change on our part. It will take great consistency, but it can be done. Until we truly begin applying AFL principles with this goal in mind, does it make sense for us to complain that students react exactly as we have trained them to react?

The best part of this is that if we alter their view of grades, we will ultimately increase their level of learning.
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Confusion over Formative Assessment

Salem High School Earth Science teacher, Wes Lester, recently sent me this link to a post on Edutopia about Formative Assessment (AFL). I found it to be an excellent post and worth reading, so I left a comment stating this. Because I left a comment I then received an email every time someone else posted a comment. One such comment made me realize that some people out there do not fully understand Formative Assessment or AFL.

Here was the comment:

Yes, I think formative assessment is important however it is not the only measure of a student's success. Unfortunately we are currently in an environment that places so much emphasis on formative and standardized testing. In my school, it seems as if the formal testing never ends. They are tested in September (a formative), October (SRI), January (formative), March (state test), April (SRI), and finally in May (formative) not to mention the unit test required by the district. The structure, lenght and environment that is created around these test are such that students become desensitised. In an effort to help make this over testing environment tolerable, I must come up with alternative ways of conducting my own assessments.

It has gotten to a point that the students moan when they are told that it's a testing day. Several pupils have even asked why there is so much testing. I candidly explained that testing won't go away and that even when you get older there are yet more test to come. (driver's test, SAT's, professional test, etc.) This explanation seemed to make it more palatable. In truth, I feel that these children are tested because of the demographics of the district and past performances. Neighboring counties within the same state don't administer nearly as many assessments.

This person has confused Formative Assessment with an official testing program. It's probably not this teacher's fault as it sounds as though the school district has bought into a specific benchmark assessment program and called it formative assessment. While benchmark tests and testing programs can be used as formative assessments, effective Formative Assessment is what occurs in a classroom each and everyday.

Formative Assessment is graded and it is ungraded. It is formal and it is informal. It is big and it is small. It is ANYTHING that provides the teacher with feedback on how well students are learning, and it is ANYTHING that provides students with feedback so they can guide their learning. It should not lead to students asking "why there is so much testing" or "moan[ing] when they are told that it's a test day." It should not be "the,,, measure of a student's success" but rather an indicator of how they are learning so that they can end up having success.

I'm glad that our school is encouraging teachers to view Formative Assessment as a tool/philosophy that can look different in each and every classroom.

Click here to read the entire post from Edutopia.
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New Terminology: Scoring v. Grading

After studying Assessment FOR Learning pretty intensely for the past few school years, I am now beginning to think that we might do ourselves a favor if we would change some of our terminology.  Specifically, I think it's time to stop using the words "grading" or "grade" as often as we do and replace them - at times - with "scoring" or "score".


You don't have to go very far down the AFL road to realize that traditional grading practices often get in the way of our attempts to use AFL strategies.  Traditional grade books and grading strategies typically average together all of a student's grades for the grading period to determine a final grade.  Therefore, practice assignments such as homework and classwork will have an impact on the student's grade.  Since the concept of assigning lots of practice so that students and teachers can receive the feedback necessary to increase learning is central to AFL (see Heart of AFL), averaging practice grades into a student's overall grade becomes obviously problematic.  What if the additional practice helps a student learn but also lowers the student's grade?  The natural reaction to this problem is for teachers to feel that they should not grade practice assignments.  For more on this topic see:

So the philosophy of AFL naturally leads to teachers feeling as though they should not grade practice assignments.  This is where Newton's third law of motion comes into play: "To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction."  When students realize that some things are graded and some things are not, they react by asking before most assignments, "Is this going to be graded?"  Implied in their question is the idea that if the answer is "Yes" then they will work harder than if the answer is "No".  As a result, teachers are reluctant to not grade assignments - even if they agree with the philosophy of practice assignments not lowering a grade - for fear that students won't work hard and, therefore, won't learn as much. 


So we're left with a quandary.  We don't want to let practice impact the student's final grade but we want students to work on each assignment as though their final grade depended on it.  Part of this quandary is of our own making.  As explored previously in What we WANT students to do v. What we TRAIN students to do, we wish that students worked for the love of learning but we then use points and grades as a Sea World trainer uses a fish.  It's difficult to argue that students should not be motivated by grades when we, in turn, use grades as motivators.  We have to find a new way.  Perhaps our new AFL philosophy requires some new terminology.


What would happen if we started "scoring" all assignments and "grading" only a few?  The term "grading" implies the following:

  1. The teacher will assess how well the student did on the assignment.
  2. The student will receive feedback on well they have mastered the content.
  3. The grade will go into the grade book to be used to help determine the student's final grade.
In most classrooms, "grading" is the only tool the teacher has - or uses - for providing feedback.  There is an old adage that describes this problem: "When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail."  


"Scoring" could be the new tool needed to help us out of our quandary.  The difference between scoring and grading is in implication #3 from the list above.  Both scoring and grading provide the teacher with feedback and both provide the student with feedback.  However, a score on an assignment may or may not be used by the teacher to determine the final grade.  Here's how I envision scoring working in a typical AFL classroom:

  1. The teacher assigns practice everyday.
  2. The teacher provides feedback on all practice.  While this feedback is often provided very informally, the majority of feedback given formally is in the form of a score.
  3. The score looks very similar to a grade.
  4. The score goes into the grade book.
  5. The students understand up front that the teacher will be looking over all of a student's scores - and grades - to determine what the appropriate final grade is for the student.  While graded assignments are the few that will definitely count toward the final grade, they will be much fewer in number than the scored assignments.  Rather than being tied down to averaging all graded assignments, the teacher who uses scoring will now be able to study the evidence and arrive at the most appropriate final grade.

The point here is that every score counts toward helping the teacher determine a grade.  When students ask, "Is this graded," what they really means is, "Does this count?"  With scoring, the answer to that question is:

"Yes, it counts.  Everything counts.  As the teacher, I will be analyzing ALL the evidence - just like a good detective - before arriving at a conclusion (your grade).  How it counts could be different for each of you, depending on how you perform, but ALL assignments count."

Scoring satisfies our desire to be AFL-ish:

  • teachers receive feedback
  • students receive feedback
  • practice doesn't have to lower - or overly inflate - the final grade

At the same time, scoring doesn't entice students to fall into the trap of only working "when it counts."


What do you think?


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When faced with a new concept it is natural and necessary to attach meaning to that concept. Sometimes when we find an understandable example of that concept we begin to confuse that idea for the concept itself. As Salem High School and the City of Salem Schools strive to master the concepts of Assessment FOR Learning, it is understandable that this will happen to some degree.

For example, earlier in the year we at SHS discussed a strategy of having a final test grade or portions of a final test grade replace the quiz grades that led up to that test. (Read about that here.) This method made the quizzes into practice assignments that prepared the student for the test. I began to receive some feedback from people saying that AFL wouldn't apply to their classes because this strategy for whatever reason did not fit into their classroom or teaching style. While this was a good example of AFL, it was just an example. AFL is bigger than any one practice, which led to this post on that topic.

Similar questions have arisen over time in regard to various other procedures that have been held up as examples of AFL. My post on philosophy v. procedures attempted to deal with the fact that AFL is much bigger than any one procedure.

Recently I have received feedback that shows that the practice of allowing students to retake tests and quizzes is being seen as the crux of AFL. While I have heard from many teachers who have used retakes as a way to allow students to learn from feedback, as was the case with tests replacing quizzes, AFL is bigger than retakes.

To help illustrate this I thought it might be useful to describe how AFL might have impacted my own classroom - if I hadn't left the classroom 6 years ago for the dark side of the force (administration)! :)

In my 9th Grade World History classroom my assessments and my grading were very closely related. While many of my graded assessments were AFL-ish (although I had never heard of AFL back then) I realize that I did not do enough assessing solely for the purpose of learning rather than grading. Here's how I assessed/graded:

1. Almost Daily Homework Assignments - 10 pts/assignment
Each assignment directly prepared students for the quiz the next day.

2. Almost Daily Quizzes - 30 pts/quiz
Often the same quiz was given several days in a row so that students could master the content.

3. Almost Weekly Tests - Range of 100 pts/test to 500 pts/test
Tests would build on themselves. A 100 pt test might cover Topic A. A 200 pt test might cover Topics A and B. A 300 pt test might cover Topics A, B, and C, and so on... By the time we got to the larger tests the students tended to have mastered the content because they had been quizzed and tested on it over and over - not to mention what we had done in class with notes, activities, videos, debates, etc.

So what would I do differently now that I have spent so much time grappling with AFL? Here are the changes:

1. Change in point values:
  • Homework would still be given but would either not count for points or all homework assignments would add up to one homework grade of approximately 30 points. Another idea I have contemplated would be that at the end of the grading period students with all homework completed would get a reward, perhaps a pizza party, while students with missing assignments would spend that time completing their work.
  • Quizzes would still be given almost daily but would now only count 10 or 15 points each. In addition, if a student's test grade was higher than the quizzes that led up to it I would excuse the quiz grades for that student.
  • Tests would count more. In the class I taught the tests were used as the ultimate gauge of mastery learning. The tests would continue to build on themselves but would probably start somewhere around 300 points and build up to around 800 points.
2. Change to How Quizzes are Viewed:
  • To build on the point I made above, the quizzes would be excused if the student's test grade was higher. The quizzes would be considered practice grades. Students would be trained to not fret about quizzes but to instead use them as ways to gauge their learning. I might even borrow Beth Moody's GPS idea occasionally and allow students to retake an occasional quiz; however, this would probably not be the case for most quizzes since whenever possible I would be repeating quizzes anyway.
  • The goal of quizzes would be to practice for the test. In the past I viewed the quizzes more as grades unto themselves. The problem with this, though, was that if I had four 30 pt quizzes before a 100 pt test, then the quizzes added up to more than the test. Adding in the four or five 10 point homework assignments further got in the way. Yes, they were assessments that helped the students learn, but they also had an inappropriate impact on the grade. They could help the student master the content as evidenced by the high test score while simultaneously lowering the student's grade.
3. Students Assessing Their Own Progress:
  • If I was in the classroom today I would add an entire new element of students assessing themselves. I would want students to take control of their own learning. and to know what they do and don't know. I would then want them to use that knowledge to guide their own studies.
  • One thing I would do would be to make sure that everyday (if possible) the students and I would both receive feedback. As I prepared my lessons I would ask myself the questions posed in this earlier post.
  • When I reviewed with students for tests I would change my method and adopt a strategy similar to this one used by Paola Brinkley and many other teachers in our building. (I would probably find a way to turn it into a game since I love playing games in class.)
  • At the beginning of each unit/topic I would give students a rubric like the one in this post. At some point during most class periods I would have the students use the rubric to assess themselves and see how well they are mastering content. They would then use the rubric as a study guide as described in the post.
  • I would also have students analyze their grades regularly so that they would know how well they needed to do on a test to reach their grade goal. (Implied in this is the fact that I first would have students regularly set goals.) I would use a strategy similar to this one used by Lewis Armistead.

Notice that my new plan for my classroom doesn't look incredibly different from my old one. I am assessing daily - which I was already doing - but I have changed my view on grading - it's no longer primary as it once was. Assessing is now different from and more important than grading. I have added more opportunities for students to assess themselves.

Notice that retaking tests was not a part of my AFL plan. Students are already taking multiple tests on the same content. Those tests are building in point value so that if you master it by the end that is outweighing your performance at the beginning. You are also being quizzed regularly and regularly assessing yourself. There really isn't a need for retaking the test. (Please realize that this does not mean that retaking tests should be frowned upon. It simply isn't the only way to use AFL.)

So does this mean that the plan I have outlined is how AFL should be done? NO NO NO NO NO! It's how AFL could be done. It is guided by AFL philosophies and ideas, but those same ideas could lead to very different procedures in other classrooms and with other content. AFL is big enough to go beyond certain practices and instead guide all good instructional practices.

Any thoughts?
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Members of this network may have noticed a video that seems out of place on an educational social network. The video is of a post-game interview with NBA player Allen Iverson. Why in the world is that on here?

Salem High School teachers on this Ning know the answer to that. When our school first started taking a serious look at AFL, we realized right away that how you chose to grade assessments could negate the learning that they generated. In other words, if you use AFL strategies well they will lead to an increase in learning. Students and teachers will be using feedback to guide learning and instruction. However, if we want the student's grade to reflect the learning that occurred, we must be very careful and deliberate about how we grade (or don't grade) the assessments we give. Allen Iverson - believe it or not - has something to say about that. Watch the video and then I'll explain.

(If the video on this post didn't load right away, try reloading the page.)

It's been awhile since I've seen that video. Could someone refresh my memory about what he was "talkin' 'bout"? Oh, that's right - PRACTICE!

First of all, my posting this video is not in ANY WAY making a point about the need to practice when you're on a team. I'm not AT ALL an Iverson fan. It's just posted because it gives us an image to which we can relate - We're Talkin' 'Bout Practice!

How does this relate to grading? Think about your grades and your assessments. How many of them are "practice"? In other words, how many of your assignments are intended to help students practice so that they can learn? I bet you that most of them are. Now let's think about grading. How many points to you assign to these assignments? What would happen to a student who mastered the content, as evidenced by your final graded assessment, but did poorly on the practice assignments?

Let's get more direct: How many students are failing your class because they either didn't do or did poorly on your practice assessments? Do you have students who can pass your tests - or whatever your final graded assessment is - but fail your class? Why is this? It's because their practice assignments - the ones that were supposed to help them learn - are counting against them. Never mind that they mastered the material - or at least learned it to a level above failing. Never mind that you taught them even though they didn't do all your assignments. Their practice is causing them to fail.

By the way - I'm not saying here that practice isn't important. I think students should practice everyday in class and every night at home. But should practice be graded in a way that allows a kid who learned the content to fail the class or receive a grade that does not represent learning?

The Winter Olympics just ended. Some gold medals were won by less than 1/10 of second. What if the practice runs were then averaged in causing the gold medal winner to get a silver? That would be ridiculous. Our goal is to get kids to be able to learn and perform. If they do this then it's because of the job we did. Why would we then take a bunch of practice assessments and average them in with the assessments that really counted?

If we use AFL to increase learning but then grade poorly, we can end up negating the achievement. Take a look at your grade book. Examine why some students are failing. Remember - WE'RE TALKIN' 'BOUT PRACTICE!
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AFL Presentation at VASSP Conference

If any members of this Ning are going to be attending the Virginia Association of Secondary School Principals annual conference this week in Williamsburg, I would invite you to attend my presentation on The Heart of AFL.  It will be on Tuesday, June 28 from 1:30-2:30 and will repeat from 2:45-3:45.  Here is a link to the handout for that presentation.


Hope to see some of you there!

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How do you really know if you taught "it"?

Note to teachers from Salem High School: This is a post about teaching, teachers, and students in general as opposed to a post about specific situations at Salem High School.

So after all the lesson plans have been created, all the class time has been spent, and all the papers have been graded, how do you really know if you've taught your content well?
I might get under some people's skin with this post, but I want to get us to really think about our profession and WHY we teach.
So what's the answer to the question of how we know if we have taught our content well? If we're really going to live up to our calling, we must answer it this way: We know we have taught our content well if all our students have learned it and their grades reflect this.
Let's clear up one misconception before it has a chance to grow - our job is not to make sure all students get good grades. Our job is, however, to make sure that all students learn our content. That's the whole point of being a teacher - to get students to learn. It's also our responsibility to grade in a way that reflects the amount of learning. So while good grades are not our focus, learning is. And when learning occurs, if we grade properly, good grades will follow.
Ok, let's clear up another misconception before we proceed - saying that it's our job to make sure that all our students have learned does not absolve students of their role in the learning process. Obviously poor decisions by our students will end up impacting the amount of learning that occurs. However, we cannot control their decision making. We can, though, control how we teach and how we grade. Therefore, if what we are doing is not leading to the mastery of content, and if our grades are not accurately reflecting the level of mastery reached by our students, then it is incumbent upon us to do something about it. There is no room in education for complacency. Our attitude must be that IF THEY HAVEN'T LEARNED IT, THEN WE HAVEN'T TAUGHT IT.
I remember taking Macro-economics in college. Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that while the professor may have "known his stuff", he was an absolutely lousy teacher. There must have been about 400 students in the class. I was only taking the class Pass/Fail. I really felt bad for my classmates as I looked at the posted grades after each test we took. I remember earning a 60 on the mid-term and having it curved to a B+. I really didn't care since it was Pass/Fail, but I remember thinking what a joke it was to say that this person was teaching. Obviously many of the students - myself included - were not putting the amount of effort into the class that we should, but how could that professor be satisfied with himself knowing that almost none of his 400 students were mastering the content in his course?
I envisioned this professor sitting with his colleagues in the departmental office complaining about "college students these days". While I wasn't around in his day, I really doubt there ever was a time when college students enjoyed boring lectures, no descriptive feedback, and undecipherable tests. We didn't learn it, and he didn't teach it.
So what is an appropriate level of failure for your students? Should you be satisfied if 70% master your content? 80%? 90%? While it's important to keep a certain level of reality mixed in with your idealism so that you don't go crazy, WE MUST HAVE THE ATTITUDE THAT WE ARE GOING TO STRIVE FOR 100% MASTERY. Notice I said strive. This means we will not be complacent. We will continue to tweak, change, try, experiment, etc. to always try and bring more students to mastery level.
This is where Assessment FOR Learning has it's greatest power. To some degree, it saddens me when teachers have difficulty incorporating - or worse, don't try to incorporate - an AFL philosophy into their teaching. The reason is because an AFL philosophy will lead to greater content mastery. To not incorporate AFL strategies into one's teaching is to be satisfied with the fact that you're not doing the best that you can to teach your students. Let me give an example of what I mean:
If you "teach" content and then give a summative assessment (a traditional test, for example) without lots of assessment along the way, you know what will happen. The students who are very dedicated workers and/or the students who can sit in class and "get it" will do very well on the test. The students who do little to no work outside of class or who can't just sit in class and "get it" will do very poorly. Another group of students will score somewhere in between. For years, teachers have satisfied themselves with this outcome by "blaming students". In other words, because some students almost always do well, the teacher convinces himself or herself that all students could have done well if they had either worked harder, paid more attention, or were more academically gifted. The teacher "knows" he or she taught the content because SOME students have mastered the content. This is a convenient defense strategy for teachers as it absolves teachers of the responsibility of making sure that students learn. YES, students have a role in it (as stated earlier), but we can't control all of their decisions. We CAN control how we teach, though.

The scenario in the above paragraph is very common in schools. Essentially, it is being satisfied with the bell curve of life. As educators, we have the privilege of smashing the bell curve. We have the opportunity to be the "difference-maker" in a kid's life. Too often this opportunity is squandered as we sell short our ability to alter the outcome of a student's learning. AFL - formative assessment - can be a powerful tool in our attempt to maximize that opportunity. And it really doesn't require much additional work on our part.
Take the example from 2 paragraphs above. If instead of "teaching" and then giving a summative assessment, the teacher would instead assess EVERYDAY, then an incredible difference could be made in the typical bell curve outcome. For example:
  • If everyday the students left class knowing what they know and being aware of what they have not yet mastered - this happens because of specific classroom assessment activities led by the teacher - then students will perform better on the summative assessment. Have you ever experienced a situation as a student where you thought you knew what was going on until you took the test? You studied, and you thought you understood the content. Then you took the test and realized you didn't know it at all. This is all too common - but it shouldn't be. If this is happening to students in your class then you need to apply more AFL strategies. This is a clear sign that you need to provide activities that require your students to assess themselves throughout the learning process so that they are acutely aware of how well they're doing and what they need to do to prepare for the summative test.
  • If students were quizzed/tested/assessed repeatedly leading up to the summative assessment, then the summative assessment would not catch them by surprise. Do you ever hear your students complain that they understood the content but were surprised by the types of questions on the summative test? Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence as well. It's a clear sign that a teacher has not employed an AFL philosophy. AFL is about using assessment FOR learning. Teaching and then giving a summative assessment only is AFG - Assessment FOR Grading. It's using assessment to find out how much people know. While this has to happen eventually - there is nothing wrong with a summative assessment - it does little to help the learning process. If students are assessed regularly - DAILY - then the feedback from the assessments will actually help them learn - thus the name, Assessment FOR Learning.
Let's clear up 2 more misconceptions:
  1. But what about students who still refuse to work? They could still come into class completely unprepared and fail the assessment? Of course. But they are also the outliers. Let's focus on the majority of students - the ones who do what we ask. Let's not lose a good strategy just because a few students continue to make bad decisions. HOWEVER, I would contend that those poor decision-making students would learn more if they were assessed daily and provided with opportunities to assess themselves - even if they didn't work hard outside of class.
  2. But what about rigor? Shouldn't a rigorous class by its very nature lead to a bell curve of sorts? The rigor in a class should not be demonstrated by the student grades that result. The rigor of the class is inherent in the difficulty of the content. However, assuming that the students who are in the class have been properly prepared and have academic strengths on par for the class, then there is no reason that students shouldn't enjoy great success in a rigorous course. Our job as teachers is to get students to learn. That is no less true in a rigorous class than it is in a "general level" course. Unfortunately, it is common for teachers in rigorous classes to feel that the rigor of the course justifies the lack of success of some students. Again - grades aren't the goal. Learning is. But if AFL strategies can lead to students in rigorous courses getting higher grades that are reflective of increased learning, then how could we not employ those strategies?
So, how do you know if you've taught your content? You know it if your students have learned it. And AFL strategies will help increase that learning - which is, after all, WHY we teach.
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I would imagine that many Physical Education teachers must feel as though much of the professional development activities and workshops in schools do not apply to them. Typically, discussions of state standards and NCLB expectations dominate these discussions. While these apply to PE, they apply in a different manner than they do in a core area classroom. And let’s face it, PE is a very different world from the typical classroom. PE teachers are dealing with a completely different environment than most other teachers. They are dealing with a different set of behavior issues, a different set of classroom expectations/procedures, and a different set of skills than other teachers are. One reason that I have become a big fan of Assessment FOR Learning is the fact AFL principles are universal. Even though a PE classroom differs greatly from a regular classroom, AFL ideas still apply and can still help students learn in such a setting. I have spoken with PE teachers who can see how AFL could be used in teaching and assessing certain skills in PE – such as foul shooting (I’ll share such an example in a moment). Along with AFL comes the importance of accurate grading practices – grading that reflects mastery of content and skills. However, the trend in PE these days is to move away from grading based on the mastery of skill acquisition in favor of participation and effort. Therefore, one could conclude that AFL would not be appropriate to use in the PE environment. The trick is to separate assessment from grading. The purpose of AFL is to assess in a way that helps students learn. The purpose is not to assess to get a grade. While a grade may be an outcome, it is not the primary goal. Therefore, one can assess a student (create feedback that can be used to guide learning) and still not grade based on those assessments. Let me explain. I regularly work out in our school’s weight room. When the football players are there lifting weights, they each carry around a piece of paper with a chart on it. They use this chart to keep track of their lifting. They each have goals that they would like to reach for various lifts. The coaches let them know how much they should be lifting each week if they are going to reach their goals by “max out” day. The players make sure that their progress is matching the path that leads to their goal. While perhaps no one has called it this before, I think that the weight lifters are participating in an AFL activity. They are part of a “planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by… students to adjust their current learning tactics.” (James Popham) They are taking ownership of their progress. They are aware of what they need to do to achieve a goal, they are constantly assessing how they are doing, and they are adjusting their lifting patterns to make sure they reach the goal. No one is grading them based on how much they lift. However, because of the feedback they are receiving and the way they have been trained to use that feedback they are getting stronger and stronger This is an example of how AFL can be used to teach an athletic skill. So let’s say that the skill being taught is shooting foul shots in a PE class. The students could take a pre-assessment by shooting 10 foul shots. They could then set a goal for improvement. Then the teacher could demonstrate/teach/instruct the students on the various sub-skills necessary to shoot a foul shot – proper foot placement, bending knees, holding the ball properly, where to aim, arm extension, wrist/hand motion, ball rotation, arc of the ball, and follow through. Students could learn a sub-skill, practice it, assess how well they are able to use the skill, and chart the impact that it has on their foul shooting as they repeatedly apply their new skills to the act of shooting 10 foul shots. They could work to assess/critique each other as well. As someone who has never taught PE, I’m sure that the model I just described has some flaws. I’m sure it could be tweaked to be made more practical for a PE setting. However, it is an example of AFL. AFL isn’t always teachers using assessment data. In fact, AFL is probably at its most powerful when students are using the data themselves to guide their own learning. In a skill-based class like PE this is definitely possible. Now, here’s the kicker: the result of the self-assessment – in other words, how well the student can shoot a foul shot when the unit is finished – does not have to have any impact whatsoever on the student’s grade. Instead, the grade the student earns could come from how diligently the student completed the self-assessment process. A daily grade could be earned based on how completely the chart was filled out each day. A final unit grade could be assigned based on the completed chart. This would be a more objective way to grade than a perceived level of participation or simply dressing out. It would be an accurate grade of effort and achievable for all students. (Of course, I realize that does not mean all students will decide to achieve a good grade.) But again, the point is that the Assessment FOR Learning practices are there to help the student learn the skill, and the grade does not have to be based on the mastery of the skill. Assessing and grading are two very different things. Assessment in AFL is all about getting students to learn.
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Assessment FOR Learning on the Football Field

Sometimes when you are trying to understand how an idea applies to a certain arena, it helps to have an example from a completely different arena. In that vein, here is an example of how AFL strategies have been used in high school football. Football? Yep.

The Salem Spartans Football Team has enjoyed great success for many years. People who watch Salem play often comment about how consistently excellent the Spartans are. Year after year they win games, often beating teams that appear to have much more talent. It’s easy to say that coaching is the reason (in fact, coaching is the only logical reason for the year-after-year success), but what does Salem’s coaching staff do that makes the difference? I think a few quotes from recent news articles will shed some light on this.

This quote was in the Roanoke Times and World News on September 12, 2009, after Salem defeated William Byrd:

"I think we're a successful team because we study film a lot and we know when they're running certain plays," [Seth] Fisher said. "We set up a blitz when they were running the quick pitch. I knew it was coming and expected to get the ball. I went for the ball instead of the tackle."

Notice what this player realized. He realized that by studying he could learn. He realized that by mastering the basics of content he could then apply his knowledge to new situations and make correct decisions. This doesn’t happen by studying just a little, and young people don't usually come to realizations like this accidentally. Obviously the coaches gave a lot of feedback and opportunity for practice. By doing so they made the complicated easy. How hard is to predict what someone else will do? Not that hard once you have studied their tendencies and practiced how to react to them.

This quote ran in the same article about the same game:

Salem, stifled on the ground last week in a 35-0 win at Lord Botetourt, got its running game off the ground. Coles scored on runs of 33 and 9 yards in the first half, and Daniel Dyer added a clinching 16-yarder with 11:13 to play. "We got together as a team this week," offensive lineman Kyle Wilson said. "We were more serious ... all of us."

These players (actually, these students) learned that if you get serious and work hard you can improve. First they needed to realize that they had a need to improve. The Salem coaches helped them understand that despite a 35-0 win the week before, these players had a lot of work ahead of them. They gave the players feedback and guided the players’ practice experience. The result was not only another win, but more importantly, the players believe even more in the coaching staff and understand that the feedback they receive from the coaches will help them succeed. They would not have figured this out on their own or solved the problem on their own. They needed the coaching staff to devote practice time to improving from last week.

After Salem beat Cave Spring, the following appeared in the Roanoke Times on October 11, 2009:

Salem defensive back Hunter Thompson intercepted a pass from Cave Spring's Josh Woodrum on the Knights' first play from scrimmage and returned it 44 yards to the 2-yard line. "We went over that route in practice the entire week," Thompson said. "He looked at the guy the entire time. I just ran to it and picked it off."

Similar to the quote from Fisher, Thompson discusses the importance of practice. You can just picture the coaches going over and over the Knights’ pass plays. I’m sure that Thompson didn’t get it right every time. However, the coaches’ gave feedback and taught him and the other players exactly what they needed to know. Come game time, Hunter was able to apply his knowledge to a new situation. The coaches again made the complex become simple.

This quote was in the same article:

"Every time I see one-on-one my eyes light up real big," McGarrell said. "I'm thinking touchdown every time." "Every time we read single coverage, we're on the same page every time," Barnette said.

Again, the complex becomes simple. The players study the opponent. They practice. They mess up. They receive feedback. They practice again. The work is hard. The reward is great.

So what would it look like if AFL strategies weren’t employed by coaches? Frankly it would be ridiculous to even imagine. Can you picture a team where the coach doesn’t give feedback? A team that doesn’t work toward a specific goal of beating the opponent? A coach that doesn’t have kids go over and over things until they get it right?

I doubt you will ever hear a coach say:
“I told them what to do; it’s their responsibility to do it. I’m not going to baby them by going over and over things. I’ve already played high school football successfully; it’s not my problem if they don’t get it right. Back when I was a kid football players weren’t coddled by coaches who guided their practice and worked side-by-side with players to help the team achieve its goals.”

AFL is inherent within coaching. Players constantly receive feedback. Repetition is the norm. Coaches study film, analyze practice, and watch players – also known as assessment – so that the coaches can know what they need to do better and emphasize more so that the team can reach its potential.

AFL strategies – repetition, lots of practice AND feedback, teachers USING feedback to guide instruction, and students USING feedback to guide learning – should be just as common in the classroom as they are on the field or court.
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AFL and Learning to Drive

Have you ever watched a teenager prepare for the DMV Learner's Permit test? If you have, then you'll know what I mean when I say that it is an excellent example of Assessment FOR Learning.

(As an aside, I'm having a hard time coming to grips with the fact that my oldest child is now learning to drive a car. Kaitlin is everything I could ask for in a daughter with one exception - she has moved beyond the age of 8!)

The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has what amounts to an online textbook. They also have online practice tests. Kaitlin began by studying the materials online and then quickly moved to the online practice tests. As soon as she finished each practice test she was immediately given her score. In the week leading up to her DMV visit, she must have taken 100 practice tests - each one slightly different than the one before. The big day finally arrived and her mother took her to the DMV where she passed her actual Learner's Permit test with a score of 100%. On the one hand I was proud of her, but on the other hand I was wishing she had failed so that I would have had a good excuse to not let her drive!

I hope that all readers of this are familiar enough with AFL to see right away the "AFL-ishness" of this example. I'll go ahead, though and highlight a few key points:

1. After each assessment (the online practice tests) Kaitlin received immediate descriptive feedback. This descriptive feedback from the teacher (the website in this case) was given for the purpose of helping her learn for the next attempt rather than simply describe what her grade was.

2. Kaitlin used the assessment-elicited feedback to alter/guide her learning. Over time (remember she took about 100 tests) she began to realize her strengths and weaknesses. This enabled her to study the online material more purposefully and, therefore, to learn better.

3. The more she was tested, the more she learned. This relates back to a recent post on this site called Test 'em more. That blog post referenced a study that was detailed in the NY Times. That study found that the act of taking a test - of being assessed - actually led to more learning. Therefore, many assessments/tests are better than fewer.

4. Finally, the end result, the grade that comes from the eventual summative assessment (the one taken at the DMV) truly reflected Kaitlin's level of mastery. The practice was not counted against her. The practice was important. In fact, it was essential. But in the end, it was just practice. Learning was what mattered most. Kaitlin passed with a 100%.

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6 Key AFL Ideas

The 2008-2009 school year was my school and school system's first year exploring Assessment FOR Learning/Formative Assessment. It was definitely a learning year for all of us.

Over the summer of 2009 I spent some time thinking back on what I had learned about AFL during the year. I thought about conversations that had occurred on our school's AFL Committee. I thought about time spent with individual teachers as we worked together to implement AFL practices into their classroom. I thought about articles and books I had read, videos I had watched, and many other AFL-related staff development opportunities in which I had participated.

The result was that I entered the 2009-2010 school year with a much greater appreciation for AFL. I had come to see how all-encompassing it really was - how it could truly impact our entire approach to instruction. I also realized that it was very easy to have misconceptions of exactly what AFL is all about.

All of that led to what I call my 6 Key AFL Ideas. When one understands and can apply these 6 ideas, AFL will have a positive impact on instruction and learning. However, when any of these ideas are missing or not understood, it seems to me that AFL loses its effectiveness or perhaps isn't even present.

6 Key AFL Ideas
1. Assessment and grading are not the same thing.
2. There aren’t AFL assignments and non-AFL assignments.
3. AFL provides a framework or reason for why we do what we do.
4. Assessment for LEARNING as opposed to Assessment for GRADING.
5. We learn from our mistakes.
6. Students need to know what they need to know so they can know if they know it.

Now let me explain in a little more detail what each of these ideas means:

1. Assessment and grading are not the same thing.
Try not to get into your mind that AFL means changing or altering the way you grade. AFL means assessing to help students learn. This can be done without grading. However, if you don’t grade well you can negate your AFL efforts. In other words, if you use all sorts of assessments to provide feedback to students and as a result your students learn, but then you grade in a way that causes their grades to not be reflective of their learning, then the AFL was negated by the grading practice. While assessment and grading are not the same thing, you must be willing to grow as needed in your grading practices as you grow in your assessment practices. But remember - when one speaks of assessing students it doesn't have to mean grading students.

2. There aren’t AFL assignments and non-AFL assignments.
AFL is HOW you USE assignments, not what assignments you use. Something has an AFL purpose if you
and/or the students use the feedback to further learning. All assessments can be used for an AFL purpose. AFL doesn't mean you will have to completely change the types of assessments you use. What it means is that you will be very cognizant of how frequently you assess so that you can provide very regular feedback to students.

3. AFL provides a framework or reason for why we do what we do.
AFL is a philosophy. When we attach a name or meaning to what we do, we are more likely to do it. A lot of people hear about an AFL strategy and say, "I already do that." But here's the thing - why do you do that? Education is not an exact science. Many of us stumble on certain activities or procedures that work. But do we understand why they work? If we have a governing philosophy for WHY we do things, then we are more likely to continue and even increase our doing them. Instead of doing something because we've always done it, we instead do it because it falls into our governing philosophy. This will most likely lead to that practice being enhanced and more practices like it being added to our toolbox.

4. Assessment for LEARNING as opposed to Assessment for GRADING.
Don’t be afraid to assess and not grade. Think of other ways to give feedback besides a traditional grade. Don’t get locked into the idea that you must average all feedback in order to determine a grade. Just because you give some sort of feedback doesn't mean the "grade" has to count into the whole. That is a box that educators find themselves in too often. It results in us grading student practice too much. The student ends up learning because of our teaching, but then gets a grade lower than their learning because of our grading. Assess for the purpose of learning.

5. We learn from our mistakes.
When a student makes a mistake in your classroom (does poorly on an assignment) can that mistake be used
for instruction and learning? Or does it always inherently lead to a lower grade and, therefore, discourage
learning? We all know that in life we usually learn the most from our mistakes. Too often in education students don't have the chance to demonstrate that or to erase their mistake. If students realize that they can learn from mistakes and then fix them then they will be more likely to take chances.

6. Students need to know what they need to know so they can know if they know it.
I have come to view this idea as perhaps AFL at its most potent form. If we use AFL properly we can empower students to take control of their learning. If students are regularly - preferable daily - given assessment feedback and then taught how to use it, they are more likely to grow into the types of learners we want them to be. They will gain skills that will carry them beyond us and into future learning experiences. Consider using rubrics on a regular basis. Let your students know your thoughts on AFL. Explicitly describe why you are assessing and doing what you do. Encourage/teach/require them to assess themselves.

I hope those 6 ideas make sense and that they help you out as you try to apply AFL to your classroom. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts.
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