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More than marking: what is ‘assessment literacy’?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 April 2016

Gwyneth Hughes
Nobody would dispute that teachers should have a high level of literacy and be able to read and write well. But what about ‘assessment literacy’?
It is well known that assessment is a tricky business. But being able to mark students’ work fairly and accurately – in other words knowing the rules – is not enough; assessors must also ensure that students learn from assessment. Being able to give students helpful feedback and making sure that they make good use of it is as essential to assessment literacy (or assessment know-how) as spelling and grammar are to writing.
Research at the UCL Institute of Education in the Assessment Careers project showed, surprisingly, that even experienced postgraduate students merely read their feedback and probably forget it. Only a minority systematically put the feedback to good use to learn to do better next time. So students also need to understand that assessment means more than looking at your marks or grades, but is about learning from the experience by acting on feedback.
But what is good feedback practice? How can we tell when good feedback practice occurs? The problem is that feedback may not be scrutinised to the same degree as marking and grading which are checked and monitored for reliability. So views on what makes feedback helpful may vary widely between teachers, between teachers and students and between the students themselves. The idea of assessment literacy can be useful to get some consistency and agreement.
Assessment literacy for a teacher might mean understanding what type of feedback will work with particular students. Our research suggested that praising students was very common, but praise encourages complacency and may not help students learn. Harsh critique can be demoralising for some who are feeling a bit delicate or insecure. However, encouraging students to think about the next steps they can take is helpful. Timing of feedback is crucial; feedback after the event with no opportunity to put things right is guaranteed to be a flop.
But what if learners complain that the feedback is incomprehensible or unclear? That is not an excuse for taking no action. Students need to understand the ‘grammar’ and language of assessment and get inside the assessor’s mind to know what they are looking for – in other words to find out what counts as a good performance.
The best way to become proficient is to learn to speak the language of assessment by practising it and not by being passive. For example, students can learn to assess themselves and compare their self-assessment with teacher comments. Or learners can compare teacher comments with feedback from peers. Teachers can also analyse the feedback they produce and reflect on how the recipient might interpret it, and they can learn from reviewing the practices of colleagues. This all amounts to opening a feedback ‘black box’ so that teachers and learners alike have many conversations about feedback, its purposes and its interpretation.
Know-how about using feedback does not arise spontaneously. Both teachers and students need to find out for themselves what kind of feedback will have a positive effect on the next assignment or test.
But is this going on? To get some insight into practitioners’ experiences, teachers in schools and higher education have written about assessment literacy and how they have used the concept to work on their own practice for a special feature in the London Review of Education. In his foreword, Dylan Wiliam states that assessment literacy will have many meanings depending on a person’s role in the assessment process: ‘If we have a single definition of assessment literacy, then we make unreasonable demands on learners because they would need a level of technical skill that is normally expected only of assessment specialists.’ This range of expectations is demonstrated by the articles that follow. Ruth Dann discusses how teachers can have a dialogue with school students about feedback and Rizwana Nadeem shows how feedback can be ‘streamlined’ by teachers to pick out the key points. Higher education lecturers Rebecca Lees and Deborah Anderson connect assessment literacy with teacher reflection on how to improve formative assessments while Rachel Forsyth and colleagues explore how an institutional change process promotes assessment literacy for both staff and students. From another angle, Emma Medland looks at another important group in the assessment process – external examiners – and discusses what assessment literacy might mean for them.
All contributors have found the term ‘literacy’ useful as it signals that developing assessment and feedback skills is a basic function of teaching and learning and that all those taking part need to be able to practise and refine these skills.

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