Monday 05 Dec 2022

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Rethinking the Relationship Between Learning and Assessment

By Karen Taylor, PhD., Director of Education and of the Institute of Learning and Teaching, Ecole Internationale de Genève

Assessment as the bridge between teaching and learning - Dylan Wiliam*

On a recent professional learning day I had the good fortune to sit with colleagues in a session about assessment by Stuart Kime of Evidence Based Education. If you know Stuart, you know all the reasons why I felt lucky to be there. He is not only an expert in the research on assessment but also a very engaging speaker. Every time I hear him, I feel like I am learning something new or being reminded of something important about the relationship between learning and assessment that I had let slip to the back of my mind. There were two things in particular that struck me during that workshop. The first was a comment by a colleague who said “We did this course in 2018!” The other was the way in which Stuart prompted me to rethink the relationship between assessment practices and metacognition.

In recent years educators have been exposed time and again to theories about quality assessment and effective feedback to support student learning. Despite the world of high-stakes assessments in which systems of education unfortunately continue to function, many of us refer to assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning and we do our best to emphasise the importance of formative over summative assessment in our practice. We frequently cite Dylan Wiliam and John Hattie**. It’s almost a given. I believe that most of us try to develop assessments for our students that are well-designed and intended to demonstrate where children are in relation to a given learning aim. So my colleague who said we’ve already done this was right, partially. She admitted that she had chosen to attend this session because she wanted a refresher, just like I did. She also pushed us to think about the degree to which our daily practice is aligned with some of the basic principles of assessment outlined in our school policy: 

  • Assessment is continual.
  • Assessment is by design.
  • Assessment draws from a range of approaches: it is formative and summative, comprehensive and differentiated.
  • Assessment promotes metacognitive awareness, self-reflection and student agency
  • The impact of assessment is evaluated and appropriately informs pedagogical practice.
  • Assessment allows for meaningful conversations about student learning.

What I took away from this session was a sort of re-centering of my thinking about assessment as a generative and meaningful process that ideally leads to developmental conversations with students about their learning, about something concrete whether that be an algebraic function, a lesson on figurative language, or theories of motion. For those developmental conversations to take place, there needs to be a relationship of trust between student and teacher and a belief on the part of the student that there will be no holistic judgement of their value as a human being based on their understanding of content. 

Ideally, any assessment we create should contribute to students becoming more independent as learners. This is where the metacognitive awareness comes into play. If we are explicit about our practice (why we do what we do), we can help students to develop strategies for learning that reflect our understanding of human cognition. What if a student in secondary school were, on their own, to space out their review of material prior to an assessment rather than staying up late the night before? The spaced repetition we build into our lessons could have been explicitly addressed and could, thus, become a part of their practice. 

There are many conversations these days about radically changing our approach to high stakes assessment such as the Coalition to Honour All Learning that seek to develop systems for evaluating students as learners more holistically. Until we can change the game entirely, we can at least remind ourselves that a test is just an event, a snapshot at a moment in time that may or may not reveal a student’s knowledge and understanding. To make our work and our students’ experience more meaningful, perhaps we should focus on the value of creating an open, collaborative conversation with our students about how human beings learn, about the relationship between working memory and long-term memory, and about the need for rest and relaxation in order to have the powers of concentration we need when we are seeking to recall information and to use knowledge in new ways. 


*Wiliam, Dylan. (2013). Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning. Voices from the Middle. 21. 15-20. 

**Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers. London and New York: Routledge.