An introduction to mastering the essentials of understanding and using assessment in your practice

A illustration of a teacher examining a test through a kaleidoscope

Source: © Claudia Flandoli

Focus in on assessment and read up on the concept of assessment literacy

You may have heard of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), that is a teacher’s professional knowledge. PCK is the combination of your subject knowledge and the knowledge and skills you use to teach that subject. In this article, the first of a series, I will explore an often underemphasised part of PCK: teachers’ understanding and application of assessment through the concept of ‘assessment literacy’.

Assessment literacy can be defined as: ‘knowledge about how to assess what students know and can do, interpret the results of those assessments, and apply the results to improve student learning and program effectiveness.’ Rick Stiggins coined the term in 1991 and since then there has been a steady flow of research in this area, particularly in the teaching of English as a foreign language (TEFL). Through working with trainee and practising science teachers, I have found that assessment literacy is a key part of supporting student progress.

I have identified six elements of assessment literacy that experienced teachers have, all of which you can learn and develop through continued professional development.

1. Classroom assessment skills

These are the assessment skills employed in the everyday classroom. You need to be able to recognise where a student’s current knowledge and understanding is, where the student needs to get to and how to get there. You should also develop a ‘mental map’ of your subject where, for each concept, you understand what has come before (prior knowledge required), where it will lead (future applications and development of the concept) and where it fits into the curriculum.

2. Knowledge of misconceptions and mistakes

Part of your mental map of the subject should be knowledge of the common errors, misconceptions and mistakes that students can make in a concept: what is difficult to learn, what has common misconceptions associated with it. These can be thought of as a type of terrain on the mental map: I imagine them as the slopes of hills, or particularly difficult mountains, while other teachers have described them as holes, craters or pitfalls. These areas need a particular skill set to challenge and correct.

3. Interpretation and intervention skills

Once your mental map of the subject has an established sequence of concept development and you have an understanding of the terrain, you will be able to notice when students make mistakes or hold misconceptions, interpret why this has happened and choose an appropriate intervention. These skills are an essential aspect of assessment literacy that can improve student progress.

4. Knowledge of exam system

Knowing what is assessed, how it is assessed and when it is assessed is an important part of assessment literacy. Although teaching and learning should focus on the subject, you should also know and understand the formal assessment systems that exist. This can be considered as knowledge of assessment policy that includes informal assessments in the form of tests (how regular and in what format) and the qualifications that students are studying for (eg GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland; Highers in Scotland; Leaving cert in ROI).

5. Exam technique

Your understanding of exam technique is crucial in preparing students for exams and qualifications. This includes the types of questions asked in examinations, the types of responses required by the examiner, common mistakes made by learners and techniques that can gain credit or marks from examiners. Teachers often expose their students to a variety of past exam questions to improve success in actual examinations. How often and when you introduce these is part of this element of assessment literacy.

6. Critical understanding of assessment

Teachers with good assessment literacy understand the appropriate uses of different assessment types, along with their application, benefits and limitations. This element is made up of a knowledge of types of assessment (including summative and formative approaches), approaches to assessment (multiple choice, short answer, long answer, practical), the reliability of an assessment and the validity of inferences from that assessment. Improving your understanding of these areas can improve the use and quality of assessment in your lessons.

Improving assessment literacy

Assessment literacy is more than just ensuring students can pass exams, it is about developing your professional understanding of the subject through knowledge and skills. Each of the six elements can be developed by focusing on three strands: knowledge, application and critical understanding.

  • Knowledge: For each element of assessment literacy, you can develop the structure of your subject knowledge and the knowledge of that aspect of assessment. This includes knowing how learners develop their knowledge of concepts, noticing where they are in their learning, identifying common misconceptions and selecting appropriate interventions. Alongside this is knowing about qualification systems and how students can succeed in them.
  • Application: You need to be able to apply the elements of assessment literacy to real-life situations. For example, knowledge of common misconceptions itself is not enough. How you apply that knowledge in planning and teaching lessons is important too. You need to be able to notice when a learner does not understand a concept, then apply your knowledge of appropriate interventions and learning strategies.
  • Critical understanding: Applying assessment strategies successfully relies on an understanding of their benefits and limitations. A critical understanding of your own subject knowledge terrain, of assessment approaches and of qualification structures (linear, modular, question types) will enhance your ability to teach, make professional judgements and support your students’ progress.

This article was developed from a presentation Andy Chandler-Grevatt gave at the National Convention of Chemistry Teachers 2020, India. In turn it was based on part 3 of Andy’s book, How to teach for progress (OUP).

Andy Chandler-Grevatt is the assessment editor for Oxford University Press Activate, trains teachers at the University of Brighton, and is the author of the book, Oxford Teaching Guides: How to assess your students. 

This article was developed from a presentation Andy gave at the National Convention of Chemistry Teachers 2020, India, which was in turn based on his book, How to teach for progress.