How to have a successful year of assessment

Aniela Zylinski

Aniela Zylinski is a freelance piano teacher, SLE music consultant, writer, and performer based in Wiltshire. Having taught Music for 15 years and a head of Music/Performing Arts/Humanities in local Secondary schools for the past 10 years, Aniela continues to be a keen and passionate collaborator, researcher and advocate of innovative and creative strategies in teaching, learning, and developing musicianship in a wide range of learning environments.

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When planning for assessment, these are arguably the top three priorities to consider - regardless of the subject/age/ability we teach:

  • Knowing the success criteria (students and teacher)
  • Keeping students engaged
  • Minimising teacher workload

Of course, it goes without saying that I’m not writing this to teach anyone to suck eggs, but this article is designed to serve as a supportive reminder of the basics of effective planning for effective assessment (both formative and summative) - when we might be feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by it all, even when the term has just started!

1. Knowing the success criteria: KIS(s) = Keep It Simple!

It sounds very obvious, but the students need to be totally clear on what the success criteria actually is. In order for them to understand it, make sure you know what it is too. The ‘best’ success criteria are:

  • Clearly and concisely communicated both in written and verbal form, using student-friendly language (use verbs from Bloom’s Taxonomy that relate to skills rather than just limiting the criteria to “know” or to “understand”).
  • 2-3 focus points (you don’t want to overload the students).
  • Differentiated - so everyone can access the task(s) and no-one is ever without challenge.

What might this look like?

Don’t forget the difference between WALT & WILF:

WALT: We Are Learning To = learning objective, based on the skill being learnt.

WILF: What I Am Looking For = success criteria: what are your expectations for methodology/approach? What does a successful end product/result/piece of work look like?

And remember to check with the students that they understand the success criteria. The best/quickest way? Ask them! However, do bear in mind that asking an open-ended question and getting students to write/talk amongst themselves may well get you a more accurate view of their understanding than a yes/no reply.

2. Keeping students engaged: autonomy, ownership, and independence

Again, another basic one, but as we all well know, it is paramount to get and keep students ‘on side’ and ensure momentum (pace) in our lessons. It involves having a wide range of assessment strategies in our repertoire or toolkit. Effective strategies include:

  • Use of technology - Students of all ages love getting their hands on technology, be it iPads, interactive whiteboard controllers, quiz buzzers with comical noises, or A/V recording equipment.
  • Group work/group presentations - giving students a sense of competition between groups is always a winner, especially amongst those boys who are hard to engage with!
  • Peer assessment - after modelling how you want the students to assess each other (assessing a past example, for example), getting students to mark each others’ work keeps everyone engaged and active throughout the lesson. They will then have a record in their books of what makes an effective piece of work, which in turn broadens and deepens their understanding of how they are going to approach improving the quality of their own work.

What might this look like?

With regard to format - it doesn’t have to be complicated, but the success criteria should be clearly implicit, the success measurable, and there needs to be sufficient space for the students to write in their feedback. Something like this would suffice:

Alternatively, why not get a small group of students to design a format themselves, as a form of differentiation? As long as it doesn’t interfere with their own learning, this is an effective way of giving students autonomy and ownership over the format of assessment. Using traffic light RAG rating works well for low-literacy students, as do smiley faces/sad faces for students to give their feedback. Remember too that some SEND students may have problems reading certain fonts / font sizes, so it’s important to ask them if they can read whatever you give them legibly.


Although the terms ‘starter’ and ‘plenary’ are slowly being phased out, it is still important to plan for short and snappy activities not only at the start/end of the lesson, but also a couple of times within the main part of the lesson itself. I call these points ‘progress checks’ whereby I check the progress of the learning/understanding. This can easily be done simply with a show of hands, or perhaps by enlisting the help of a student who could count up the numbers of students who have reached different points in their progress, and then keep a tally on the board. Other ideas could include the use of Post-it notes, traffic light flashcards, smiley/sad faces, mini-whiteboards. Why not get the students to choose the method of feeding back to you?

Having a wide variety of assessment strategies which are used very regularly is crucial in encouraging a classroom culture in which assessment is ‘the norm’. Often, the ideal assessment is done when the students don’t realise they are being assessed at all (formative assessment; thereby giving you, the teacher, a realistic view of where the students are at in their learning) - I like to call this ‘stealth assessment’! Experiment with avoiding the use of terminology such as ‘test’, ‘assessment’, or ‘exam’ for a few lessons and see what the impact is. Perhaps use the phrase ‘feedback on learning’ or ‘seeing where you’re at’ instead. This is supportive especially for students who suffer anxiety surrounding tests and exams.

3. Top tips for facilitating effective learning whilst minimising your own workload:

  • Any resources you create - make them easy to adapt to a range of situations, abilities, age ranges.
  • Sharing good practice: As teachers, share resources with each other. Go and watch each other teach, even if it’s just for the first or last 10 minutes of a lesson. It’s always a revelation to students when they work out that us teachers do actually speak to each other. Swap templates/checklist formats with another subject area and see how they can be used in your lessons. Encouraging the sharing of good practice amongst colleagues, departments, and schools in your network is a great way to keep our approaches to planning and delivery fresh and innovative. There are some great resources available online - I particularly like Pinterest for ideas on wording and format.
  • Delegate as much as possible! There is a saying that the teacher should never have to work harder than the students. So: incorporate activities where students are encouraged to take ownership of and responsibility for their own learning. Learning that has been facilitated via a range of activities is a key method in ensuring ‘stickability’: embedding the understanding followed by opportunities to really hone in and reflect on their own learning.

What might this look like?

  • Groups of students each take a topic to research and plan, and feedback/present to the class.
  • Carousel style lessons: for example, each group spends 10 minutes at a different ‘station’ where they create a mind map a particular topic, before moving around the room to the next mind map work well to encourage reflection and analysis of each other's input.

Essentially, these tips and ideas serve as a reminder to us all about how much we really need to have clear, and effective, formative assessment / Assessment for Learning strategies at the forefront of our minds when planning teaching and learning. Summative assessment has its place, of course, but in order to be raising standards of attainment, we need to be placing much more consistent emphasis on the role formative assessment / Assessment for Learning has in schools in a holistic and supportive way.

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