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Autopsies or Physicals: Linking Assessment with Teaching and Learning

October 18, 2014

Lately I have thought a great deal about the link between assessment, teaching and learning. I must admit, early in my career I did not always consider the link between these three constructs. There were times, when assessment did not guide my teaching practice. It was during these times that I was not an effective teacher. I did not consider the needs of my students and carried on in the class in a direction that I thought was best, rather than using assessment data to drive my teaching practice. However, in the last few years I really worked at using assessment data to drive everything I did in the classroom. This leaves me wondering how we all can help each other use assessment in such a way to both inform our teaching practice and promote student learning.

What is Assessment?

At the most basic level, assessment is a judgement of something. Traditionally, assessment in school was an evaluation of student performance relative to a specific task. Students took a test and we assessed their performance. Students wrote an essay and we assessed their proficiency in written expression. I would argue that the majority of assessments conducted for the past 200 years in schools were summative. In other words, they were an autopsy. They assessed things students did when they were “finished.” Just as, at times, a corner will assess a human life when it is “finished.” For the individual laying on the corner’s table, the information gleaned from the autopsy is of no use. They cannot use it to make changes in their lives to prevent them from ending up on the table. If, however, they received feedback prior to ending up on the table, maybe they could have chosen a different direction, made different choices, or at least had a picture of their health. The same can be said for the information gleaned from an academic autopsy. If the student cannot use that information to make changes to their direction, the data is useless.  In addition, if a teacher does not use the information gleaned from assessments to make changes to their direction as the instructor, the data is useless.

An Autopsy or a Physical?

There is a great deal of discussion in Alberta currently on “back to basics” instruction and assessment and the validity of standardized testing. But, what seems to be missing from this discussion is the diagnostic value of assessment. The focus is just on the autopsy of learning and, by extension on teacher performance. I am not suggesting that we remove summative assessment from our classrooms. I am suggesting that we look at the route we take to these summative assessments in a different way. In 2012, the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education stated: “the effective interconnectedness of assessment, teaching, and learning affords all learners pathways toward the best attachment of information and the most effective ways to use it relative to their context.” We need to work with our students to connect assessment to learning. We also need to work to connect assessment to our teaching. In addition we need to include the students in our assessment constructs. Self reporting and self assessment need to find their way into our classrooms. The focus in this environment is not on the end result but on the process of arriving at the end. In essence, it creates a continual feedback loop where the teacher and the student are both informed by and make decisions based on assessment information.

The Journey

I named this blog “The Journey is the Goal” for a very clear reason. I do not believe that we ever arrive at our final destination. Consider this: when you come home from a trip, how many of you immediately begin planning your next adventure? And, how many of you use the lessons you learned along the way to construct your next adventure? Our journeys, adventures and learning are continuous feedback loops. So, are you conducting autopsies or physicals?

Thanks for reading! Have a wonderful day,



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