Putting the Student Back in Assessment

“If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere”

– Henry Kissinger


A common thread connecting this week’s readings and lecture, I think, is the importance of involving students in the entire assessment process.

This seems almost contradictory.  Doesn’t assessment, by nature, involve students?  After all, the whole point of the assessment process is to gauge students’ learning.  But that is when assessment is done right.  In reality, aside from participating in the summative evaluation component of assessment, arguably the least important part, students are rarely involved in the assessment process.

Contrary to what some may think, the assessment process does not begin when the teacher hands out the test.  Rather, the assessment process begins with curricular outcomes and knowing exactly what students are expected to learn. However, it is all too often that the only person who knows what needs to be learned is the teacher.  This is what Canady and Hotchkiss (1989) call “gotcha teaching”––a practice in which teachers conceal curricular learning outcomes like a secret rather than communicating them with students.  According to Canady and Hotchkiss, “gotcha teaching” is one of the 12 grading practices that inhibit student learning.  If students do not know what they are expected to learn, then grades become a way “of finding out how well students [can] read the teacher’s mind” (1989, p. 70) rather than an assessment of student learning.  This doesn’t make sense to me.  Students are the ones doing the learning; therefore, students need to know what it is they are expected to learn in order to prepare.  Davies (2011) offers an analogy to support this point: “When golfers swing their golf clubs, they know where to aim––toward the flag marking the next hole” (p. 25).  As teachers, we need to provide students with an end goal, or a “learning destination” (Davies, 2011, p. 28), so they can gear their learning accordingly, much like how a golfer aims their club.

So how do we involve students in the assessment process? Well, we can start by openly sharing curricular outcomes with students.  However, that is not enough.  Sometimes curricular outcomes are tricky for teachers to decipher, let alone students.  Therefore, I believe part of involving students in the assessment process is translating and summarizing confusing, jargon-filled curricular outcomes into simple, student-friendly language.  Doing this provides students with a clear picture of where they need to take their learning.

Once students understand what it is they are expected to learn, they need to understand how to show their learning.  This can be difficult because curricular outcomes “often define what students need to learn and be able to do without showing what it looks like when they do” (Davies, 2011, p. 33).  Therefore, another part of involving students in the assessment process is demonstrating to students what their learning should look like according to the curricular outcomes.  Davies (2011) mentions that one effective way to do this is by using samples or exemplars, either from past students or ones that have been created by the teacher.  As a student, I always appreciated it when my teachers provided samples of work because it gave me a starting point to work from and illustrated the learning expectations.  Essentially, exemplars helped guide my learning because they showed me the end-point that I needed to reach.

Although it was not discussed in this week’s readings or lecture, I believe another (crucial) way to involve students in the assessment process is by allowing them to show their learning in multiple of ways.  Not all students learn in the same way, so relying on one form of assessment (like a unit test) to tell you what students have learned is not a good approach. Rather, in order to truly and accurately gauge student learning, I strongly believe that students need to be assessed multiple times in multiple ways.  Furthermore, I believe students should have some freedom to decide how they want to demonstrate their learning based on how they learn best. For some this may be a oral presentation; for others, a musical composition.

This week we had a guest speaker come talk to our class: Tim Caleval from the Ministry of Education.  In his lecture, Tim discussed the importance of involving students in the assessment process from the Ministry’s point of view.  It is no secret that there is an education gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students in terms of academic performance and graduation rates.  Tim addressed the education gap in his lecture, noting that the on-time graduation rate for Aboriginal students is only 40% compared to the 75% for non-Aboriginal students.  As a way to combat the education gap in Saskatchewan, the Ministry implemented the “Following Their Voices” initiative.  Essentially, the program was a diagnostic assessment in which Aboriginal students across the province were asked what they needed (i.e. resources, supports, etc.) in order to be successful in school.  Tim explained that it was important for the “Following Their Voices” initiative to be student-centered because the Ministry wanted input directly from Aboriginal students as how to improve their education experience.  From what I know about “Following Their Voices”, I think it is a step in the right direction towards closing the education gap, but I also think it is long overdue.  In my opinion, policies and practices informing Aboriginal education should not be the responsibility of non-Aboriginal people.  To me, it only makes sense that the voices of Aboriginal students guide policy-making.

Ultimately, when students are involved in the assessment process it is beneficial to both students and teachers.  When involved in the assessment process and provided with a learning destination, students are able to guide their learning from where they are to where they need to be.  When excluded from the assessment process however, assessment becomes more of a guessing game rather than a true indication of student learning. As for teachers, when students are involved in the assessment process, it helps inform and guide their practice because it provides a clear, accurate picture of student learning.  Seems like something I can get behind.


Canady, R. L., & Hotchkiss, P. R. (1989). It’s a good score! Just a bad grade. Phi Delta Kappan, 71(1), 68.

Davies, A. (2011). Making Classroom Assessment Work (3rd ed.). Courtenay, BC: Duncan Holdings Inc.




One thought on “Putting the Student Back in Assessment

  1. ingram2e says:

    Love this post! I believe that a major theme in schools today is that they keep students in the dark when it comes to assessment and evaluation. Firstly, students do not even know the difference between assessment and evaluation. Clueing students in on what you mean when you say assessment or how you will be evaluating them is key. This can then help them to understand when and why we assess and evaluate.
    I agree that we should share outcomes with out students so that they can see the endpoint. I love the idea of creating “I believe” statements with students so that they can understand what they need to know in more common language. This idea will be making it into my classroom. Are their other ways in which we can get students to understand the outcomes? Have you ever used this in your teachings before?

    I like that you mentioned that students learn in different ways. This is part of my teaching philosophy and I hope that all teachers have it in theirs as well. As we have heard multiple times this semester, We teach students, not subjects. For the first time in any of my classes in my entire school career, one of my professors gave us the option of how we would like to present our lesson. This is both sad and amazing. Sad because it is only happening for the first time; Amazing because it opens me up to possibilities.
    Tim’s presentation was amazing and I like how we all get something different out of it. I really enjoyed his discussion on the 47%. I especially like listening to other pre-service teachers voicing their opinions. It is always interesting to see other peoples’ views.


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