5 ways to make assessment effective and manageable

Tom Wallace

Former deputy headteacher Tom Wallace is an assessment SLE and the cofounder of Balance. He is passionate about using technology to enhance classroom practice. Over the years, Tom has developed a variety of innovative approaches, both in the classroom and with leadership teams with which he has worked. Through his use of coaching and technology he has developed some exciting approaches and systems to managing and improving behaviour and assessment within a school setting.

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Image credit: Team Sky // Sky Sports. Image credit: Team Sky // Sky Sports.

Over the past five years, I have had some big changes in my life: I became a dad for the first time; I left my position as a Primary school deputy headteacher; I became an SLE in formative assessment; I set up my own education company with my headteacher... These changes were all massive, but the thing that has made them manageable for me was the smaller, more marginal changes I could make, all of which which contributed to the bigger picture.

As well as my passion for assessment, I started to find myself reading a lot of books and articles about how to make success out of change. The story that helped me to break these changes down into manageable, digestible portions was the story of David Brailsford.

David Brailsford, for those who don’t know, took over as the general manager and performance director for Team Sky (Great Britain’s professional cycling team) in 2010. No British cyclist had ever won the Tour de France, “I would stick Post-its of the common misconceptions onto book piles.”but using Brailsford’s “aggregation of marginal gains” approach, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win in 2012. Brailsford believes that there is a 1 percent margin for improvement in everything that you do. I started thinking about what 1 percent margins I had in my classroom as a teacher, and how I could help others teachers to realise their margins.

So here goes… my top five ways to make assessment effective and manageable:

1. Little and often

Even if your school uses a tracker, which can mean that you wait to input assessment at the end of each term, you can still assess formatively in your classroom, and use this information to inform next steps.

As a teacher, I did this through live feedback, using visualisers for group marking, ABCD cards, exit questions, etc. I then took 10 minutes making piles of books at the end of the lesson. I would stick Post-its of the common misconceptions onto each of the piles. It wasn’t in a tracker, but it was a form of assessment which helped me to better pitch my lessons the following day.

Most importantly, I didn’t take all of the books home! I alternated the piles and misconceptions, and did a group feedback session with these children at the start of the next Lesson.

As the 2017 NAHT Redressing the Balance report states: “More detailed and nuanced information about each pupil’s learning profile is essential”. The only way to make this manageable is to make smaller, focused assessments of learning, and more often.

2. Classroom layout

Don’t underestimate this. Rather than having groups of desks, I began to lay my tables in an ‘L-shape’ or ‘horseshoe shape’. This not only enabled me to pull up a chair directly in front of an individual pupil to discuss their work, but it also helped to strengthen learning behaviours in the classroom.

Consequently, I was able to give verbal feedback to more pupils at point of learning, reducing my marking pile and informing me and the pupils of what their next steps should be.

3. Your pupils are your greatest teaching tool

Everyone talks about peer and self-assessment, but what do we as teachers actually do with the feedback that our pupils are providing for themselves or their peers? Self-assessment and peer assessment are such important parts of learning because they involve the learner, helping them to recall and embed their understanding/knowledge by explaining their thinking to others. As teachers, we want to ensure that it becomes a daily learning practice in which all pupils want to participate.

As a result, the teacher talks less (as Isabella Wallace and Leah Kirkman discuss in their book ‘Talk-Less Teaching: Practice, Participation and Progress’) and listens more, which enables us to plan our most effective learning partners and objectives for the next lesson.

4. Give at least one group verbal feedback per lesson

Linked to point #2, if you can take a group of six pupils each lesson and ensure that you provide verbal feedback to those pupils, that is 6 x 5 minutes per book (at least) of marking which you have reduced AND your feedback has more of a chance of having an impact…that’s at least 30 minutes you have won back for yourself tonight!

Incrementally, you will gain confidence in providing verbal feedback to more and more pupils each lesson and as we found in our school, you may stop taking any marking home at all. Bliss.

5. Question why you are doing everything you do

One of the biggest barriers to change is habitual learning. We are all creatures of habit, but the only person in control of changing your habits it you. Schools are institutions with so many rules and regulations. Therefore, it is understandable that we fall into the trap of working in an institutionalised way (that is not a negative… it’s a personal reflection on how I know my own practice became!).

When you sit down to plan your lessons, ask yourself: is what I am doing / the way I am doing this getting the best outcome for all children? When you sit down to mark books, ask yourself: what impact will this have on children’s attainment? “Ask yourself: what impact will this have on children’s attainment?”When you find yourself, your TA or pupils sticking worksheets / success criteria / objectives into books, ask yourself: what could I be doing now instead of this to make a bigger difference to my pupils’ learning? Each question you ask yourself may highlight a margin for improvement!

I’ve been lucky to work in a school where the leadership team was supportive of trying new things, in a climate of an Ofsted chief inspector who had started to dispel the myths of old about what their inspectors would be looking for. Just this April, Sean Harford of Ofsted published a blog where he explicitly states:

I reiterate: inspectors do not need to see quantities of data, spreadsheets, graphs and charts on how children are performing. We don’t want to see a specific amount, frequency or type of marking.

Wow! [Pause for effect].

This is gold dust, but still I hear of friends and colleagues who are continuing to work in the same way they always have. Many school leaders and teachers still think that Ofsted are looking at marking in books, when they just want to see that you know your pupils and that your pupils’ work meets your description of them. Be liberated by the fact that there is no formal, national requirement or even evidence of the impact of written feedback. The main barrier to change is often personal habit.

Having said this, I understand that in many cases, there may be big changes that need to be made on a school-level in policy. However, with some of the classroom practices discussed above, there are 1 percent margins to improve something in everything that we do. If you can take five minutes each day to consider and question something which you do on autopilot, then you could save yourself 10 times that just by changing 1 percent of a task or action.

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