December 17th, 2018

Assessment for Learning: It Just Makes Sense


formative assessment - deep learning

Assessment for Learning (AfL), sometimes referred to as “formative assessment” has become part of the educational landscape in the U.S. and is heralded to significantly raise student achievement, yet we are often uncertain what it is and what it looks like in practice in higher education. To clarify, AfL includes the formal and informal processes that faculty and students use during instruction to gather evidence for the purpose of improving learning. The aim of AfL is to improve students’ mastery of the content and to equip and empower them as self-regulated, life-long learners.

There are many strategies that serve the purposes of AfL, commonly centered around three questions: 1) Where am I going? 2) Where am I now? and 3) How can I close the gap? (Chappuis, 2015; Sadler, 1989; Wiliam, 2011). This process represents a natural progression from the beginning of a lesson to closing the learning gaps at the end and provides a recursive loop when necessary. The following narrative describes two AfL strategies that I have found work extremely well in my courses, resulting in higher quality work, leaving me time to provide feedback on the more challenging aspects of the assignment. These strategies fall under the question “Where am I going?” and are true to the tenets of AfL, having a significant impact on learning and putting students squarely in the driver’s seat.

Strategy 1: Using examples of strong and weak work

This powerful strategy exposes students to quality work and strengthens their evaluative thinking by letting them practice making judgments about accuracy or level of quality with carefully chosen assessment items or examples (Chappuis, 2015, p. 71). The classroom discourse that ensues as a result of this activity is extremely valuable and teases out some of the misconceptions or misunderstandings that may exist.


  1. Distribute a student-friendly rubric and an anonymous example of strong work to each student and ask them to use the rubric to independently score the example you provided. After they have had the opportunity to settle on a score individually, ask them to work in small groups to discuss their scoring and rationale, using the language of the rubric. The purpose of the activity is for students to learn from each other as they deepen their understanding of the criteria for quality work. As they discuss, walk around the room reinforcing students’ use of the rubric’s language and criteria to support their judgments.
  2. Next, ask student groups to share their scores and justify any point deductions, and record their scores and significant comments on the board.
  3. After all groups have spoken, share the score that you would give and justify your rating.
  4. Complete the process again with an anonymous example of weak work.
  5. Now students are ready to complete the assignment for your class on their own, using the rubric as a guide.

Strategy 2: TSAR – Think, Share, Advise, Revise

TSAR is a peer tutoring strategy created by BSCS (Biological Sciences Curriculum Study) that helps students serve as resources for one another as they gain a deep understanding of the concept at hand. Talking about what they read helps students understand because reading involves input, and speaking involves generating, hallmarks of information processing. When students generate sentences in speech, they reconfigure knowledge based on its meaning to them. As other people listen to what is said and provide feedback on whether the explanations make sense, the feedback reveals concepts that may need to be reconsidered. This back-and-forth process is essential to constructing understanding.


  1. Ask students to bring a hard copy of their assignment to class.
  2. Think: Students spend time using the rubric to independently assess their own work. As this occurs, they may discover problems, mistakes, or shortcomings, and you will encourage them to correct problems before moving to the next step.
  3. Share: Students share their work with a partner and describe or discuss each feature. It is important to model for your students how and what you expect them to share. They should sit shoulder to shoulder in pairs. Student A puts their paper aside and uses the rubric (if applicable) as a guide. Student A listens to Student B read their work aloud—word for word, and/or describe their work if it is something other than a narrative text.
  1. Advise: Students B asks for advice on how to improve. Student A gives feedback, using the language of the rubric when appropriate.
  2. Revise: If Student B agrees with the advice they received, they revise their work accordingly.
  3. Switch roles and let the other student be the one to share, get advice, and revise their work.
  4. I suggest that you require students to turn in both copies, the rough draft and the revised version, so that you can follow the progression of their thinking.

These strategies take time, but the investment is justified by the return—learning is enhanced and achievement improves while students hone their metacognitive skills. Most definitely a win-win.

Chappuis, J. (2015). Seven strategies of assessment for learning (2nd ed.). Hoboken, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.

Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18, 119-144.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Dr. Cathy Box is the Director for Teaching and Learning at Lubbock Christian University where she also serves as the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) Director and the Program Coordinator for the Curriculum and Instruction Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Education. She has been at LCU since the fall of 2008. Dr. Box’s research focuses on formative assessment and its effect on learning and the learning environment.

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