Understandings of Assessment Must Be Formative

Submitted by Jimmy Pai – Secondary Teacher in Ottawa, Ontario

What does assessment mean to you?

Is it a test? A quiz? An interaction? A response? A student’s glare in a particular direction as she’s working on a problem? Or perhaps a teacher’s noticings of this glare and many moments?

This word, ‘assessment,’ can be a contentious one, depending on what our experiences have been with the word, and how we continue to define it.

For some of my colleagues, it doesn’t matter what colours we add to the word ‘assessment.’ Their negative experiences overshadow everything, rendering all terrain around the word infertile – an area of professional reflection where nothing grows.

For some of my colleagues, somehow the tone completely changes depending on what words or phrases we attach to this word ‘assessment’ – Formative assessment;  Summative assessment; Assessment of learning; Assessment for learning;  Assessment as learning – as if the qualifiers are puppet masters, and we are their strings that clutch onto completely segregated limbs of the same concept.

In a way, it’s kind of like water.  Our experiences may differ depending on what containers we see it in, what creatures lurk within, or whether it had drowned or sustained us in the past.  And so, what is the shape of your water?  Is it a book? An award winning film?  Or perhaps something that powers your coffee?

So what am I getting at?

Assessment is understood in different ways.  This is true for us teachers on the front lines, as well as in literature.

And that is fine.  Just like our learning journey, we are all at different places.  Just like our journey, there may not be a single destination that everyone is headed toward, but there may be more helpful and beautiful areas to explore (but then again, beauty is subjective as well).  Just like how we facilitate learning, we need to appreciate the fact that people are at different places.

And that’s really it.

We are standing on different roads and we are painted with different scenery: perhaps a forest, a city, or a beach.  Some of us may have recently stepped foot onto a meadow.  We may have been chased here by a pledge of wasps.  Or maybe we just woke up from a mid-autumn dream.  Or maybe we came specifically to claim the colours of the flowers as our own.

Appreciating the diversity of where we’re at is important.  But not nearly as important as recognizing that, like sharks, we will suffocate unless we swim.  However we have come to understand assessment, there is no moving our craft forward, unless we move with it.

In other words: our understandings of assessment must be formative.

No, I am not talking about the field of formative assessment that has exploded ever since Black and Wiliam (1998a, or 1998b) wrote about the insides of a black box.  I am referring to the idea that our understandings of assessment, if we were to maintain a position of learning, need to be malleable.

For example, within the past four years or so, I have been working on creating a thinking classroom (e.g. Liljedahl 2016).  In many ways, this completely shifted my interactions with the students, and students’ interactions with each other.  While I have always facilitated group activities and conversations in order to create a helpful learning environment, the elements of the thinking classroom has been transformative for my practice.  Some have misunderstood and reduced the tenets of Liljedahl’s work to simply having kids stand around and working on whiteboards, there’s truly many aspects to explore and consider within the framework.

Shifting my practice in this way was also consequential for my assessment practices.  And since definitions are only useful to me if they are functional, my definitions of assessment have also changed.

And this is what I mean.  As we learn more about learning and more about teaching, our assessments necessarily change.  As we respond to our students in different ways for their different needs, our assessments necessarily change.  As we converse and learn from colleagues about different tasks, activities, and ways of implementing tasks and activities, our assessments necessarily change.  And as we modify and fuel our assessments, our definitions are also evolving.

For me, assessment is not bound by paper.  It is not shackled by desks sorted neatly in rows and columns.  It is not defined by percentages or single letters.

For me, assessment lives and breathes through the conversations between students.  It powers and informs my decisions in the classroom.  It brings my attention to why one of my students have been quiet for days, and that the silence had less to do with the activities in my class, and more to do with the happenings at home.  It prompts me to support students with all the knowledge and experience I can muster.

My understandings of assessment are constantly evolving because I am constantly learning more about my students.  As I learn more about my students, I am constantly challenged to try different strategies of reaching out to them.  As I extend my hands, I am constantly imagining different ways of providing feedback based on what I am learning about them.

So the water flows constantly.

What is the shape of your water?

And, perhaps more importantly: what will you make with it?

The Landscape in Which You Live

Submitted by Lori Jeschke – Director of Education in Prairie Spirit School Division, Saskatchewan


“Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.”

Spanish Philosopher Ortega Y Gasset

What do we want to be known for in Prairie Spirit?

When I get to share about the work we are engaged as a School Division with other Divisions in our province and across Canada, I describe some of our Learning for Life stories, how they reflect our My Prairie Spirit Classroom (MPSC) document (#mpscpssd) and the learning leadership evident in our schools.

If we believe and practice the big ideas behind the statements in MPSC with adults, then I can confidently tell others that I believe our teachers, in turn, are practicing this with their students and that this cannot help but impact student achievement. Talking about this makes me reflect on our School Division’s mission: Learning without limits in a world of possibilities. Our vision is: Learners for Life.

Our work, our business, our moral imperative? LEARNING! If I’m looking for evidence to answer the question, ‘How do you know?’, then what does learning look like? Sound like? Feel like? As I get to share our MPSC document with others in more detail, a common question emerges: How do we know that this MPSC pedagogy/way of being and doing is impacting student achievement?

My first response – “Great question!” I would go on to describe that we believe in risk-taking. People are surprised when I tell them that we share “I Blew It” stories with our new teachers.

They can’t believe that we would have teachers trying something new and being terrified, yet looking forward to going back the next day to try it again because of how engaged their students were.

I tell them we believe in side by side learning. They are shocked that we would dare ask teachers and administrators to think about 80/20 in classrooms, staff meetings and PD.

I tell them that we believe in reflecting on our practice and again, they can’t believe that our principals and vice principals are willing to turn and talk about their thinking during our Administrative Leadership Team (ALT) meetings.

What do our learners look like? Sound like? In Prairie Spirit, our main response to these questions would be the tenets of My Prairie Spirit Classroom. This document is our anchor chart or learning focus and provides us with a common language and practice for all of our learning opportunities.

As a learning leader in Prairie Spirit School Division, I am always asking myself how I will approach every learning opportunity as a My Prairie Spirit Classroom?

Sandra Herbst reminds us that leading is a learning person’s job and asks the question: “What will other people learn because you were in the room?”

Einstein said: “I never teach pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” How will what you do and say at meetings, PD, interactions, provide the conditions for learning that reflect what you believe about learning or who you are as a learner? How will the landscape in which you live tell others about who you are?

“The critical skill of this century is NOT what you hold in your head, but your ability to tap into and access what other people know.” (Wiseman, 2014)

Our Learning for Life focus for this year involves a Question of Practice:

How do we know that the learning that we are focusing on—held in the statements within My Prairie Spirit Classroom—is impacting student achievement?

We are focused on three areas:

  1. Digging Deeper into our My Prairie Spirit Classroom document – to unpack, discover and reveal what lies within the statements… #relevance – what does that look/sound like? #mpscpssd, #mpsc, #allstudents, #sidebyside #relationships
  2. Feedback/Coaching – we began the work of mediative questioning with Sandra Herbst this past year. She modeled the practice of classroom visits, helped us to notice in relation to teacher set goals, and provided us with the opportunity to craft mediative questions to invite further thinking. This year, we want to dig deeper into providing feedback and enter into coaching conversations.
  3. Evidence of Learning – in order for us to answer the question of “how do we know?” we need to gather evidence to help us tell the story of what is happening in our classrooms, our schools, and in the Division. How will we be able to show what we know? In other words, if you are describing your school as a place where MPSC is actualized in everyone’s classrooms and the person you are telling responds with “show me”, what will they see, hear, experience that would help answer that question?

What evidence do we need to collect? What conversations do we need to have? What will we notice? What might be our first next steps?

I shared a TED talk called “Music is a Language” by a famous bass guitar player, Victor Wooten, with our Admin Council during our committed Learning Time at our weekly meeting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3yRMbH36HRE . The focus was on the importance of learning; he connected the process of learning to talk with learning to play music or an instrument.

He used the analogy that “as a baby, you were not sent to a room a few hours a week with other babies to learn how to talk… no, you were allowed to jam with professionals when you were learning to talk.” Jamming is not a performance, but it’s an interactive experience that can be deeply personal and emotional.

I had the opportunity to jam with some amazing learners at the CAfLN Conference and Symposium over the past four years. This opportunity to ‘jam’ continues via our Facebook group and also within posts on the CAfLN website.

We are looking forward to this year’s CAfLN Conference 2018 – Sailing Forward with Assessment for Learning – May 3-5 in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. The opening and closing sessions of the conference will feature live rehearsals with the Halifax All City Wind Ensemble conducted by Nathan Beeler and moderated by Lorna Earl featuring a guided discussion and discovery of the key “look-fors” present in high quality Assessment for Learning. Conversations will focus on how this transparent and engaging example represents and models the best practices associated with AFL and how this can transfer into the everyday classroom.

What might it be like for you to jam with other learners? What might you learn that you could take with you into the classrooms you engage with? How might those interactions add to our responses to the question “How do we know?”


A Winter Message

Contributions from Lorna Earl, Kent Brewer and Grant Page


Winter is still with us, so we need to be thinking about all of the things that give us pleasure, now and in the future – skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing, book reading, wine sipping, images of sun and hiking and picnics and cottages, and of course, planning a spring trip to Halifax/Dartmouth in May for the 5th Annual CAfLN Conference and Symposium. Information can be found on the opening session as well as breakout sessions with presenters from across the country. There is also a direct link to the Double Tree by Hilton, site of this year’s event.

So once you have searched the web for “things to do” in Halifax, register for the conference and symposium and join CAfLN members from across the country as we share our wisdom and experiences using AfL as an mechanism for teaching and learning.


Like our CAfLN Facebook Page and Join our Group!

The Canadian Assessment for Learning Network has gone social! We have added another aspect of Social Media with hopes of enhancing our networks web presence with our newly created Facebook Page. Additionally, educators that have a keen interest on deepening their understanding of AfL will have the opportunity to join the CAfLN Facebook Group. The newly created group is a great place for educators to collaborate and discuss the many facets of AfL and the related issues impacting learning in our Canadian schools. As we know, Assessment for Learning is very much a journey, and by utilizing the power of this digital space, we are very excited to be able to connect educators from coast to coast.

Like our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/CAfLN/ and join our group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/CAfLN/

Conference and Symposium News

CAfLN allocates a portion of membership fees to travel bursaries (flights and accommodations) which assist members with limited access to professional learning funds in attending our annual events. A member may apply for up to $750 to attend our Annual Conference and Symposium. To apply for a travel bursary, please send a brief e-mail to info@cafln.ca  by Friday February 16, 2018. Successful applicants will be informed by email shortly thereafter.

Our Network’s Purpose

As you know, one of CAfLN’s main purposes is to establish relationships that act as the ‘‘connective tissue’’ of Assessment for Learning across Canada. Through these relationships, CAfLN members work together, share knowledge and challenges, create a common language and a sense of shared responsibility, and provide channels for communicating and disseminating information to one another and beyond.  Most of our work happens in cyberspace but once a year we host a conference somewhere in the country to intentionally share our learning and our struggles with AfL with local educators.  We have been to Winnipeg, Nanaimo, Kingston and Saskatoon.  This year our fifth conference is in Halifax/Dartmouth.  The occasion of the conference allows CAfLN members to spend some additional time together in a more intimate members’ symposium.   In the symposium we go deeper into key AfL issues with examples from members and forge and strengthen relationships and projects that continue throughout the year.

Why AfL?

Why have we decided to focus on a particular innovation to support and promote across Canada?  Very simply, because teachers’ assessment practices profoundly influence student learning outcomes (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Hattie, 2009; Shepard, 2000).  Over and over again, research studies have demonstrated that, if learning is the goal, AfL is very powerful.


Recent reviews of more than 4000 research investigations show clearly that when [formative assessment] is well implemented in the classroom, it can essentially double the speed of student learning … it is clear that the process works, it can produce whopping gains in students’ achievement, and it is sufficiently robust so that different teachers can use it in diverse ways, yet still get great results with their students.                                          Popham, 2011: 35


Current educational policies in Canada have widely endorsed AfL as a core instructional strategy (See Assessment for Learning in Canada). But establishing AfL in classrooms is hard work.  As Tierney (2006) pointed out, AfL represents a complex competency involving teachers’ knowledge and skills in assessment as shaped by contextual factors including teacher professional learning, teaching context, and students’ learning needs. It requires dynamic classroom practice that involves linking assessment approaches (self-, peer-, and teacher assessments) with instruction and student learning goals to enhance education for all students. It involves using feedback-rich learning opportunities, setting and monitoring learning goals, and engaging in ongoing self-assessment tasks.

In our experience, there are teachers who are making and have made AfL central to their teaching practices, and there are researchers across Canada learning about how AfL works (See Assessment for Learning Research in Canada).  CAfLN is about linking these people together and creating new knowledge by sharing with and challenging one another.  Our hope is to continue to link these “early adopters” together and provide them with forums and support for their own practice as a model for others to follow.

Come to Halifax/Dartmouth and join the conversation.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D, (1998b) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. PHI Delta Kappan, 80(2)

Hattie, J. Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London ; New York : Routledge, 2009

Shepard, L. (2000) The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher.Volume: 29 issue: 7,:  https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X029007004

Tierney, R. (2006) Changing practices: Influences on classroom assessment. Assessment in Education. Vol. 13, No. 3, November 2006, pp. 239–264

Professional Growth Through AfL

Submitted by Grant Page

Teacher stories are opportunities to share insights and celebrate growth. They are reflections on strengths and weaknesses we all have as professionals. Here is part of my story, originally written in 2006 for Middle Ground, the magazine of Middle Level Education published by the National Middle School Association, now the AMLE – Association of Middle Level Educators:

Examining Your Practice: Feedback as Part of Assessment

My entire notion of assessment has changed in the past dozen years. Like most teachers, I began teaching without a true understanding of assessment and the role that it plays in the learning process. I relied on numbers to report progress to students and their parents.

I was wrong.

In 1992 I began a learning journey that has changed the way I assess students’ work, evaluate their progress, and work in a classroom. I moved to a new middle school whose staff decided to throw out traditional numerical/percentage report cards as a means of reporting to parents.  We had no idea what we were getting into at the time.

Staff discussions revolved around student portfolios and statements of growth with a more anecdotal, less numerical approach. As my paradigm shifted, I realized that not only would a traditional report card need to change, but my teaching strategies would also need to reflect that change. I discovered that just as I was on a learning journey with respect to assessment, so were my students on a similar journey each and every day. Throughout the beginning of the journey, numbers were not as important as learning and growth.

As I observed the learning in my classroom, I realized that, like me, the students had been programmed into a numerical system of assessment and evaluation. In fact, they relied on numbers to tell them how they were doing. Unfortunately, any reflection on learning was shallow, often immediately dismissed after it was imparted. The system was void of those precious moments in a classroom when as a teacher you see that the students really get it! The “A-ha!” moments and the processes that led to them were not sufficiently accounted for. In my eyes these “light bulb” moments were the most important learning experiences for my students. So I decided to focus on just that, the process of learning, hoping that there would be a positive effect on the product.

I look after the cooking in our household. It is more of a hobby than a chore to me and it continues to be a lifelong learning experience. When I make a dish for the first time, I ask my wife what she thinks. I am looking for feedback so that I can make a decision about whether to keep the recipe as is, modify it based on her suggestions, or just throw it away and try again with something else. Her actions, interactions, and transactions with me while sampling the dish are very important. Over time I have realized that there are similar actions, interactions, and transactions going on in my classroom between my students and me.

Feedback after all is just that: information that we “feed” back to someone after they have performed a task. This feedback should provide further direction for improvement. It may involve some problem solving, experimentation, modification, or even a complete overhaul, but it is intended to give direction and motivation to continue, not to stop learning. Feedback takes a variety of forms and is an integral part of the observations, processes, conversations, products, and reflections that occur in my classroom. It is an exchange of information, between students and me, between students and peers, and between a student and himself or herself that results in the renewed pursuit of a goal yet to be attained. Feedback contributes to the planning of ongoing instruction by providing clues as to what students still need to know and do to achieve their goals. My goal is to provide effective and timely feedback as often as possible so that my students become better problem solvers and assessors of their own work, at the same time recognizing that feedback also influences my practice, making me a better teacher.

When is feedback effective and timely? This may sound ridiculous coming from a teacher, but I hope my students make mistakes. Mistakes are essential because they give learners feedback, bringing them close, I hope, to knowing what will work. Mistakes are like gold and become the source of feedback used to adjust what they are doing. I try to encourage my students to take “necessary risks.” When they do something the second or third time, I see that my students are learning what they know and what they need to know. They then decide what to do next based on the feedback they just received. If feedback is limited to numbers and letter grades, students are less likely to know what to change or do differently the next time they perform a task. Providing effective and informative feedback is a large part of the assessment process: a means not an end that exists to improve learning and teaching. Let me take you through some of the ways that I use feedback in my classroom.

My students are asked to demonstrate their understanding of concepts and execution of skills as a measure of success. At the beginning of an assignment, I ask my students two questions:

  • Where are you going? (These are concepts or skills.)
  • How are you going to get there? (These are steps in the learning process.)

Not only does this exercise help my students focus on the task at hand, it provides me with feedback that I can use to assess use of new vocabulary and reinforce proper process as they prepare for their demonstration. Students also revisit this goal-setting exercise to see if they are on the right track, sometimes changing their priorities or procedures.

As the students prepare for their demonstrations, I try to provide them with as many avenues for feedback as possible. I emphasize to them that they can correct, model, modify, compare, contrast, listen, describe, and observe others. Each of these actions provides feedback. I encourage them to “borrow” what works for others or to teach one of their peers what they know. A quick assessment of a peer’s work or a comparison to a model can also provide feedback.

Shortly before their demonstrations, students complete a written reflection. I typically give the students sentence starters such as:

  • The most important skill I learned was…
  • I have improved at …
  • One problem I solved was…
  • My solution was…

I am continually amazed by what my students write in these reflections. They are usually able to pinpoint key skills and concepts as well as describe their learning process. These reflections are also feedback for me as a teacher, often revealing “gaps” in learning that I must then address. They also provide me with sometimes unique and innovative solutions to problems of process. These reflections and my responses to them are fed back and forth between my students and me and provide a basis for further interaction on subsequent assignments. They are far more enlightening than a final grade, be it a number or a letter, because they make my students better learners and they make me a better teacher.

Five important points should be made here:

  1. When I give feedback or model it for students, I focus on the actions or behavior, not the person. “What can you do next? Maybe you could think about…?”
  2. I always try to provide information so that behaviors can change. “I noticed that you were doing…. I think if you tried to … you may see different results.”
  3. I look for the teachable moment when my students are ready for feedback, not when I feel I want to give it. They will tell you when they want or need it!
  4. When there is a positive change in learning, I reinforce the change as soon as it is noticed, reminding them that they are on the right track. “I like the way you just did…”
  5. If the feedback I am giving is to correct a mistake or behavior, I wait until just before a student does that behavior. I often have to focus on observing my students and look for clues as to when the mistake or behavior may occur again.

In each of the points above there is action (the process of learning), interaction (student-to-teacher, student-to-student, or student-to-self) and transaction (an exchange of information). The process of learning is being modified to produce a better product.

As Rick Stiggins states in his book Student-Involved Classroom Assessment , “I want my students to get to a place where they no longer need me to tell them whether they have done well—to a place where they know in their minds and hearts how they have performed because they know the meaning of success” (p.17). Using effective and timely feedback can take my students to this place. On their learning journeys, my students have become better problem solvers and assessors of their work. In turn, they have provided me with a wealth of information about my teaching practice. They are more engaged in their learning and I am more engaged in my teaching. After 12 years, I do not see an end to these journeys. As they continue, I hope that my students and I will look for the feedback that will nourish us along the way.

CAfLN Conference 2017 – What I Learned

Submitted by Lori Jeschke, CAfLN Executive – Symposium Chair

A Reflection on CAfLN 2017 – What I learned because you (Damian, Ken and Lorna) were in the room.


Whenever I get to be in a place where I can learn from others’ practice, experience, and expertise, I am mindful of something that Sandra Herbst asks learning leaders to consider –   “What might someone have learned because you were in the room today? …the question itself presumes a stance of positive presupposition and a sense of community. It suggests that we are all responsible for the learning in the room” (2016).


As I reflect on this past year’s CAfLN conference in Saskatoon, I want to highlight what I learned about learning and servant leadership because Damian Cooper, Ken O’Connor, and Lorna Earl were in the room. For most us, the mere fact that we get to be in the same room as leaders such as these is both humbling and exciting! What we see very quickly from each of them is that they walk the walk and talk the talk of assessment for learning. These three leaders in the area of assessment live out their stance in their interactions with others, in the way they present what they are learning, and in how they lead.


When I picture the start of the conference on that beautiful day in May, the room was filled with student art work and abuzz with student music, conference participants finding their seats at tables, conversations filled with anticipation, and registrants making new connections or rekindling old ones. I remember looking around the room for the three founding members of CAfLN. They were not in the front of the room at a fancy table, nor were they in a side room waiting to be formally introduced. No – they were, as the Latin word asside suggests, side by side with the registrants, moving from table to table around the room, sometimes sitting beside someone for a bit, sometimes sharing a chat over a cup of coffee, but always connecting, recognizing, and celebrating. They were genuinely excited to see every person in the room and wanted to hear about who they were, what had brought each of them there on that day, and what their hopes were for going forward. What I learned was the importance of every learner in the room and how noticing people through conversation, a hello, sitting beside, and participating as a learner sends a powerful message.


I remember the ‘fireside chat’ that started the day. Damian, Ken, and Lorna were seated in chairs – not at the front of the room but on the side. Conference participants had the opportunity to ask a question or pose a thought and each one of them were eagerly awaiting the conversation. One of the first participants was one of the student conference attendees. I remember how the three of them leaned forward intently as the student talked. The message in how they listened and responded was one of affirmation for the student’s voice and thoughts. They addressed each of the participant queries with respect and delight. What I learned was the importance of every voice, of providing opportunities for those voices to be heard, and how we celebrate the messiness of what learning is all about.


I remember at the end of the conference day, we heard from teacher candidates about their internship experiences and in particular, what they had learned about assessment. There were three students sharing in three large circles. These students were vulnerable about their practice in front of educators from across Canada. I was watching the faces of Damian, Ken and Lorna as the stories were shared – they were leaning in, they were sitting amongst everyone else in the circle, and they were beaming. I remember one of the students asking a question and Damian responded. I thought to myself, does this student have any idea of what is happening here? She is getting to ask Damian Cooper questions about her practice of teaching and assessment! Who gets to do that as a teacher candidate? As I watched her face during his response and questions, I knew that she was aware of the gift that she was being given and I smiled to myself thinking how very wonderful that we get to have this student impacting learning of educators and students. The other people in the circles were also getting to learn from and with Damian, Ken and Lorna. What I learned was the importance of sitting in circles, of sharing about our practice of teaching and learning with fellow colleagues, of asking questions, and of learning from one another.


These are just a few snapshots from the past year’s conference that remind me of the authenticity of Damian, Ken and Lorna’s stance as learners and leaders of learning. They each bring a genuine curiosity and joy for learning. They continue to invite and engage as many educators as possible in the pursuit of what is best for all learners through assessment for, as, and of learning. I am reminded of a quote by Jason Silva (2016), “We have a responsibility to awe!” The CAfLN community is so fortunate to have opportunities to learn with and from Damian, Ken and Lorna in our own journey as educators! I am truly in awe of their work and their leadership, and grateful for every opportunity to learn alongside each one of them!

How Do I Assess Inquiry Based Learning?

Submitted by Damian Cooper, CAfLN Past President and Co-founder

No teacher today questions the importance of critical thinking as a focus for teaching.  Likewise, problem-solving.  No surprise then that problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning play an increasing role in the kinds of learning tasks that teachers set for their students.  Yet it is only a small minority of the teachers I meet who feel confident about how to assess learning in these contexts.  Why is this?

The answer, I believe, is related to issues of control and confidence.  The most fruitful inquiries will stem from students’ own questions, not questions posed by their teacher.  However, this immediately raises the oft-heard question, “How can I assess their learning if all my students are inquiring into different questions?”  The answer: assess the skills, not the content.

This highlights the importance of “backward design” as the only pedagogically sound way for teachers to approach program planning.  Backward design involves 3 questions:

  1. What essential learning must students acquire?
  2. What assessment evidence do I need to gather as proof that my students have acquired this learning?
  3. What instructional sequence will lead students to success on these assessments and, thereby, acquisition of the essential learning?

From a curriculum perspective, when a teacher engages her students in an inquiry, she is deciding that the skills of inquiry represent essential learning.  These skills include:

  • formulating a rich question
  • identifying multiple sources of information representing different perspectives
  • analyzing the quality and reliability of sources
  • formulating a position
  • communicating and defending a position
  • reflecting upon their learning

There may, of course, be specific content that is also “essential learning”.  For example, a teacher may want all of his students to acquire knowledge and understanding about the interdependence of plants and animals, as well as the fragility of the environments that support them.  And so, while each student in the class has selected his or her own inquiry focus, all students are exploring this same issue.

But in addition to skills and content outcomes, inquiry involves dispositions such as curiosity, flexibility, empathy, perseverance, scepticism.  These must be modelled and demonstrated by the teacher if they are to be acquired by her students.  Which leads again to the question, “How do I assess students’ dispositions?” The answer: talk to your students.

In fact, much of the learning that occurs as students engage in their own inquiries requires the teacher to observe and to listen.  So the need for the teacher to understand deeply the concept of triangulating her assessment is crucial.  While the finished product associated with a student’s inquiry may take the form of an oral presentation accompanied by a visual display, or a typed report, the more useful evidence from a teaching and learning perspective needs to be gathered during the inquiry process.  Hence the need for the teacher to be skilled in observing students and engaging them in conversation as they are working.  Smartphones and tablets are invaluable tools to capture such learning “in the moment”.

So let’s walk through the various assessment opportunities that present themselves during an inquiry.  And for each opportunity, the teacher needs to ask the following questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this assessment?
  2. Who is the primary user of the information being gathered?
  3. What kind of information is required, given the purpose and primary user?

Jennifer is teaching science.  She wants her students to pose their own inquiry questions to guide their individual inquiries so she employs the “INTU” model. (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1999)  Students will learn how to formulate their own questions using the stem, “I need to understand …” Jennifer provides a set of examples of INTU questions (see 2 of these below) and, through an informal class discussion, assesses the extent to which her students understand the criteria that must be met in order to formulate a question that is rich enough to sustain in-depth inquiry.

Topic Sample INTU…
Seasonal Change I need to understand why it’s cold in Canada in winter, but much warmer in Florida.
Climate Change I need to understand whether climate change is really happening


Criteria to be met for INTU Questions:

  • Is the question open-ended, with no simple, correct answer?
  • Does the question allow for multiple perspectives?
  • Is the question relevant to the student and to the topic?

Jennifer may simply make anecdotal notes as she listens to and observes the discussion.  Or she may record the discussion using a tablet.  Either way, she is capturing vital diagnostic assessment evidence that will enable her to answer the following kinds of instructional questions:

  • Which students are ready to forge ahead, having already demonstrated their understanding of what an INTU question needs to be?
  • Which students will benefit from working with a peer to help them improve their initial INTU questions?
  • Which students do not presently understand the criteria for formulating a rich inquiry question and need to work with me in a small group?

The first “product” that Jennifer assesses will be students’ final versions of their INTU questions.  She will differentiate her instruction as necessary until all students have produced a question that meets the basic requirements since, without a workable question, students will not be able to pursue their inquiries.  In this respect, she is assessing for mastery.

Over the next few days, Jennifer introduces, models, and has students practice the skills and strategies associated with locating sources of information, deciding which sources are relevant to their own INTU, and then extracting that information in ways that avoid the plagiarism trap.  Her assessment throughout this stage of the inquiry process is formative.  i.e. her purpose is to improve each student’s learning, NOT to measure it.  Hence, she provides descriptive feedback, pointing out what students are doing well, where students are having difficulty, and how to improve their work.  Depending on the maturity and skill levels demonstrated by her students, some or much of this formative assessment may be undertaken by students themselves as they work in pairs.  However, this demands sophisticated skills of classroom management, as well as plenty of “frontloading” so that students are clear about behavioural norms and expectations!

Jennifer continues working through each of the stages in the inquiry process with her students. Having initially taught them how to focus their inquiry using an INTU question, she teaches them how to locate sources, and how to decide what information is pertinent to their inquiry.  She models how to analyze information, how to communicate their conclusions, and finally, how to reflect upon their learning.  At each stage, she follows a learning cycle model:

  • teach and model
  • check for student understanding
  • practice with support
  • assess & provide feedback
  • practice independently
  • assess

Because Jennifer believes that a primary purpose of assessment is to enable students to gradually become reliable, independent monitors and assessors of their own work, she involves them directly in assessing their own learning by constantly requiring them to reflect on the work they are doing, determining where they are successful, where they are struggling, and what they need to do to improve their work.  In other words, she believes profoundly in the power of assessment for and as learning.

In my own teaching through inquiry, I always required students to keep a daily learning log in which they answered 3 questions daily:

  1. What work did I complete today on my INTU?
  2. What did I learn to help answer my INTU?
  3. What am I struggling with on my INTU?

In order to develop their metacognitive skills, I taught students to refer to their log each time we had a conversation about their progress.  I also collected their logs at the end of the inquiry as a “product” that detailed the learning “process”.  Notice how the 3 methods of assessing learning – observations, conversations, and products – weave seamlessly throughout the entire inquiry-learning process.

Once students have completed their INTU inquiries, they usually can’t wait to share their findings and conclusions with their teacher and classmates.  This, then, is the summative assessment component in which the “presentation” of their findings and conclusions represents the “final product”.  These may involve a student-led seminar, a more formal oral presentation, or some other mode of sharing their work.  I recommend allowing students the choice of the format they use to share their findings.  Once again, however, while the nature of the final products will vary from student to student, the criteria that are assessed remain consistent.  These include:

  • sources represent multiple perspectives
  • clarity of student’s conclusions
  • acknowledgement of counter arguments
  • ability to respond to questions
  • quality of supporting materials (slides, display, etc.)
  • conventions (spelling, grammar)


It is essential that summative assessment of students’ inquiries reflects the learning outcomes that were identified at the start.  The sharing and communication of findings and conclusions should not in any way penalize students who lack confidence or public speaking skills.  During my own classroom teaching, I often had students present their findings and conclusions to me, alone.

INTU projects and other forms of inquiry are engaging for students of all ages.  They present the opportunity for students to immerse themselves in work that is truly their own – not something they do for their teacher.  It is my hope that my comments have clarified some of the perplexing assessment questions that often deter teachers from using this powerful approach to teaching and learning.


This post originally appeared on Fresh Grade‘s blog

Grading For Learning

Guest Blogger – Ken O’Connor

CAfLN is a network that is “dedicated to nurturing and sustaining Assessment for Learning (AfL) . . . across Canada,” but given that every province and territory (unfortunately) requires % grades, at least for grades 9-12, we need not only to “assess for learning,” but we must also “grade for learning.”

Yes, Yes, Yes we can grade for learning and despite what Alfie Kohn’s says “grading for learning” is not like “bombing for peace.” (O’Connor, 2018, 304) Determining summary grades for standards or subjects doesn’t automatically promote a culture of grading as grading for learning can create a culture of learning in schools.

A grade is the symbol (number or letter) reported at the end of a period of time as a summary of student achievement.

A mark/score is the symbol (number or letter) recorded for any single student test or performance.

Traditional grading includes scores for (almost) everything students do regardless of purpose and whether students exhibit the behavior teachers like (compliance), with those scores averaged to several decimal places regardless of when the assessment or behavior took place during the school year. The result of this approach is that school becomes a game where students try to accumulate as many points as they can to obtain the highest possible grade, which may have little or no relationship to what a student actually learned.

So how the do we grade for learning? There are a number of critical aspects as follows:

  1. Clarity and transparency about the primary purpose for grades –communicating student achievement of the learning goals at a point in time in summary format;
  2. Clarity about the primary purpose of classroom assessment – gathering information that leads to actions by students – and teachers – to improve learning and teaching;
  3. Elimination of behavior/compliance/penalties/attendance from grades;
  4. Ensuring that students understand that learning is a process in which it is acceptable to lack understanding/make errors early in the learning process by eliminating evidence from formative assessments in the determination of grades and only including evidence from summative assessments i.e., the assessments that take place toward the end of learning sequences;
  5. Ensuring that students understand also that learning is a process by emphasizing more recent evidence in the determination of grades; and
  6. Involving students in the assessment process through self-assessment, reflection, and goal setting so that they can always answer the learning questions – Where am I going? Where am I now? and How can I close the gap (improve)? (Chappuis, J. 2012, 27)

These are the sine qua non of grading for learning and they require the elimination of common practices such as averaging to calculate grades and the inclusion of homework in grades. There are also other actions that schools and teachers should take that emphasize learning and provide information that supports learning such as:

  1. Collecting evidence of student achievement based on learning goals not methods of assessment;
  2. Using performance standards that clearly describe proficiency and a limited number of levels above and below proficiency; and
  3. Ensuring that every assessment meets standards of quality so that the inferences that students and teachers make as a result of the assessments are most likely to be accurate.

A case can be made that in a perfect world we wouldn’t have grades at all but in Canada they are required by provincial policies (however misguided those policies may be) so we have a responsibility to make the assessment and grading process support learning by moving away from traditional grading toward the procedures described above. If we do that our graduates will be self-directed, independent, lifelong learners who will be likely to be successful in whatever they do after their years in K-12 schools.


Chappuis, J. et al. 2012. Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right, Using It Well. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ

O’Connor, K. 2018 How to Grade for Learning, Fourth Edition. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA.

A Message from CAfLN’s President, Lorna Earl

It is hard to believe that CAfLN is four years old and five years since Damian, Ken and I first met to talk about a cross-Canada network that connected educators who believe in assessment for learning.  Our enthusiasm for CAfLN was fueled by the powerful practices that we were seeing and hearing about in classrooms and schools in small towns, cities, on the Prairies, on our coastlines, in kindergartens, art classes and calculus classes, in initial teacher education, and on and on.  But we realized that we had a unique vantage point because we worked in all of these places.  Although we saw the amazing assessment practices that people like you are engaged in, we were aware that you didn’t know one another and often heard about how lonely it was for individuals and groups as they carried on each day trying to make AfL work.

At this point, we are delighted with the progress and influence of CAfLN.  We have met in central Canada (Winnipeg), the far west (Nanaimo), eastern Ontario (Kingston) and the Prairies (Saskatoon) so far.  In May, we are coming together again, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.  People are connecting and sharing practices and insights about policy, practices, resources and strategies.

CAfLN is a not-for-profit organization.  All of the Board members are volunteers, and many of them fund their own travel to attend CAfLN events.  We do not pay speakers.  The presenters are generally CAfLN members whose travel and accommodation are covered for the conference.  Even more importantly, any funds generated by CAfLN are used to support CAfLN members attendance at annual conferences and to facilitate networking among CAfLN members across the country.

So, start planning now for our 5th Conference and Symposium Sailing Forward with Assessment for Learning in Dartmouth on May 4th-5th, 2018. Registration will open on November 1st. Apply for a travel scholarship and join us there. It should be a great event, with an emphasis on stories and presentations from your colleagues around the country, talking about the challenges and the innovative practices that are transforming assessment in Canadian schools.


But you don’t need to wait until May.  CAfLN is a network, not a club or an organization or an institute.  Why?  Because we know from research that:

networks can create the conditions to support individual and collective learning through intentionally fostering and developing the opportunities for members to examine their existing beliefs, and to challenge what they do – against new ideas, new knowledge, new skills, and even new dispositions (Stoll, Fink and Earl, 2003).

This is what we aspire to in CAfLN.  Networks of educators across the country who are focused on learning and on how assessment can be the catalyst and provide the support mechanisms to enhance learning for all students.  Educators who are committed to AfL are always learning, always intentionally seeking out and/or supporting activities, people and opportunities that push beyond the status quo.  Think about it.  Do you have an idea (or many ideas) to enhance CAfLN networks?  Share it. Suggest it.  Start it.  CAFLN, as a network, is us.  Together, we can make the difference.

Reflections on My Experience with Assessment Practice

Submitted by Beate Planche ED.D.

In considering what the influences have been on my own understanding of sound assessment practice, I think first of my experiences years ago with YRDSB’s assessment literacy project. As a team, with members across areas and schools, we put our understandings on the table – and supported each other’s thinking as we questioned long standing practices which were heavily influenced by percentages, grades, evaluation and school standings. We moved forward quickly and Assessment for Learning quickly became our collective learning goal and the underpinning of changed practice. It took us a while to truly unpack what Assessment as Learning really meant and there was no getting away from the pressure to have documentation for Assessment of Learning, that sleeping giant awakened at least three times a year at report card time in the lives of educators.

Here are a few of my personal discoveries:

Structure drives behavior:

The way we organize ourselves makes a difference to our professional behavior. System leaders who model a co-learning stance build credibility and commitment (Sharratt & Planche, 2016, p. 67). This was really driven home for me as principals, teachers, curriculum consultants and SO’s sat together to unpack classroom assessment practice. Good assessment practice takes time and it becomes dynamic when we can learn together or what now call co-learn. Making time for educators to work together is not a simple thing but a crucial ingredient to building capacity across classrooms and schools.

Some structures can drive learning:

Learning communities or learning networks can be effective when there is a clear goal that is understood and everyone is involved in defining what the criteria of success should be. The “what” needs to be followed by the “how” and the “when”.  It is the actions of the learning structure that make the difference for building capacity and improving instruction and assessment practice. Without accountable actions and monitoring, we might have wonderful professional conversations and not make a difference at all. What is hopeful is that using protocols for learning can focus the learning and mitigate the tendency of groups to spend a lot of time talking with not enough focused decision making and action.

There are pitfalls to consider:

We always have to consider the impact of any practice – instructional or assessment-based through the eyes of those who will be impacted by it. Students need to be a part of norm setting, creating success criteria and reinforcing goals if we want them to have ownership of their learning. As educators, we often control a great deal of the learning process to the detriment of student empowerment. We have to discuss more often what assessment looks like in an environment where we are gradually but intentionally trying to release responsibility. A case management approach can be highly effective for students who struggle (Sharratt & Fullan, 2012). It can make personalization very relevant for all the staff who are engaging with a student or group of students. This is not just a strategy for special education or ESL students. Assessment is a first step but the next steps are the most important ones. What will we feedback to the student is important and what will we feed forward for instructional purposes? A case management approach builds a team approach to serving students if everyone takes responsibility for their part of the “case”. Moderation of student work is one of the best ways to build trust and professionalism if it is facilitated well. There are skills sets involved in moderation that we need time to develop and practice. But this is so worth it! This is one of the foundations of collaborative learning that can make a significant difference.

What I am still wondering about:

Teaching through strengths is in its infancy in assessment practice from my experience.  We assess children and find out their gaps.  Do we talk enough about teaching through their strengths?  Do we value strengths enough to build assessments around them so that students can be as successful as possible or are there still underlying issues of what “fairness” looks like?  If a child has a modification to allow an area of strength to lead, is this truly seen as a levelling the playing field?  Lots to think about!   And thus, at this stage of my career where I have moved from public education to graduate education, I am left with one enduring truth. Learning is the work! Assessment practice needs to be primarily about learning!