What is the relationship between learning and assessment?

Adult Literacy and Numeracy (ALN) Curriculum for Scotlandprinciples

Part One: Principles
5. What is the relationship between learning and assessment? 
Assessment is a process that helps learners to identify their current skills and knowledge, to plan their future learning and to know how well they are doing in achieving their own learning needs and goals. It identifies, describes and demonstrates evidence of a person's current skills and knowledge. It can also be used to recognise and record learners' achievements and to assist in identifying how teaching and learning processes can be improved. Assessment is usually focused on particular areas - it doesn't tell us everything that someone can do, only what we ask about. It is also time-bound: it tells us what someone knows and is able to do at a given point of time (Stites, 2002).
The term "assessment" may, in the mind of the learner, be associated with examinations and certification. In using the term, therefore, tutors should be sensitive to these associations and their potentially negative connotations, making clear that assessment is simply part of the learning process.
There are six broad purposes for assessment:
  • identifying the existence of a general learning need (alerting)
  • identifying the broad level at which a learner should be working (placing)
  • identifying learning needs (diagnostic assessment)
  • supporting and managing the process of learning and teaching (formative assessment)
  • recognising or certificating learner achievement (summative assessment) and
  • identifying the strengths and weaknesses of learning processes or programmes (evaluation).
These are distinctive purposes, but not necessarily distinct activities. A particular tool or assessment activity may be used for more than one of these purposes. Also, it is unlikely that any learning programme would try (or need) to address all of these purposes. Some purposes may be more suitable in one sector (eg FE) than another (eg community learning and development).
  • Alerting tools are very simple instruments designed either to help identify whether someone might have a literacy or numeracy learning need or to enable someone to raise the subject of their literacy or numeracy needs. They are particularly useful in contexts such as Job Centres or the Prison Service, where staff have to deal with large numbers of clients and the time available does not permit an in-depth assessment of needs. Where a general learning need is identified, the learner should then have an opportunity to take part in a more detailed assessment of needs.
  • Placing tools give an indication to learners and tutors of the level of literacy or numeracy class that would be most appropriate for the individual learner. Placing tools are useful in contexts such as FE colleges in determining in which class a learner should be placed. A more detailed assessment of needs may then be undertaken in conjunction with the class tutor. Placing tools are often computerised and generally do not provide detailed feedback to learners on their learning needs. These computerised tools would generally not be found useful in contexts such as community learning and development where the tutor is more likely to engage directly with the individual learner at the initial assessment stage.
  • Diagnostic assessment assists learners and tutors to develop an individual learning plan by identifying the skills and knowledge already possessed by the learner and, by implication, areas of learning that the learner might wish to focus on. Diagnostic assessment may be conducted as a one-to-one process with the support of paper-based materials. However, computerised diagnostic assessment tools are also now available. Diagnostic assessment is central to the initial assessment process. Alerting and placing may aid learners in getting to the starting point of a new learning experience but diagnostic assessment is essential in helping them to plan the learning experience they want and need.
These first three purposes may be referred to collectively as initial assessment.
  • Formative assessment includes helping learners and tutors to monitor their learning progress. All learners and tutors should be involved in this kind of assessment. Results are needed quickly in order to be useful, and they must be detailed enough to help tutors and learners plan teaching to meet individual learner needs. Formative assessment must be based closely on the learner's identified goals or outcomes. Formative assessment is simply an integral part of effective learning and teaching.
  • The purpose of summative assessment is to show that learners have met their learning goals or completed a course of study and reached a certain standard of performance. It should be for the learner to decide whether she or he wishes to be summatively assessed and if so what form the summative assessment should take. This question can be kept under review throughout the learning process. Where summative assessment is being used for certification, objective external judgements are required and any assessments made by the tutor and learner will be moderated by others. The assessment will relate to agreed national standards, so there will be a need to relate the individual's learning goals to these standards. Where the aim is to recognise the attainment of learning goals more informally, summative assessment can be a joint activity between learner and tutor. An independent learner should have the skills to decide that his/her goal has been met and the learning is complete.
  • Evaluation is a process of assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the learning process or programme. All those that are involved - learners, tutors, managers - should play a part in the evaluation. It may be a relatively informal process that has the aim of helping tutors and learners to identify how they might improve the process or programme next time. In this case there should always be an opportunity for learners to comment on how they felt about the programme and how it helped them to achieve their own goals. It can be more formal, for example, when information on learners, their learning hours and the learning outcomes may need to be submitted to the organisation. Where evaluation is to meet the requirements of public accountability, a disinterested evaluation of the programme as a whole is required. Judgements must follow agreed and consistent criteria, and must allow aggregation of results for reporting purposes. This form of assessment does not need to be done frequently, and there is no need for quick results. Nor do all learners need to take part - a properly drawn representative sample will suffice.
In ALN the results of learning that matter most are applications of knowledge, understanding and skills in the real life situations of private, family, community and working life. Recent studies in adult learner "persistence" (retention in teaching-learning) suggest that learners are more likely to persist and more likely to achieve in an assessment they see is closely related to their learning and life goals (Comings et al, 1999; 2000). This means that all assessments should try to reflect the context in which the knowledge or skills are actually applied. This research provides the basis for the following principles of assessment:
1.      Assessment should be closely integrated with teaching and learning activities. Learners can learn from their assessment experiences.
2.      Having set their own learning goals, learners should regularly review their own progress.
3.      Assessment should be challenging for learners and involve creativity, strategic thinking and problem-solving.
4.      Assessment should allow learners to see the connections between what they are learning and the real-life applications of that learning.
5.      Everyone (tutors, learners, programme co-ordinators) should see clearly what is being assessed, how it is being assessed, and what the results of the assessment imply for planning future learning and teaching.
6.      Wherever possible, activities used for assessment should be chosen or designed by learners.
7.      The methods used can include portfolios of work, problem-solving scenarios, performances and computer simulations as ways of modelling the learners' realities.
And, particularly where assessment is for certification purposes:
8.      Assessments should be valid so they are appropriate to their purpose, provide adequate coverage of all the elements of learning and are accessible to all.
9.      Assessments should be fair so that they provide results that are accurate for all types of learners in the system (especially in the case of summative assessment leading to certification).
10.  Assessments should be practical and not too costly, too time-consuming, or too difficult to implement with the human and material resources available.
These principles are generally applicable to initial and formative assessment (where the purpose is to assist the process of learning) and summative assessment (where the purpose is recognition or certification of learner achievements). However, because of the need to ensure that summative assessment for certification is based on the authentic unaided work of the learner, it is not always possible to integrate the assessment into ongoing learning activities. It is also necessary to ensure that the assessment task is consistent with the assessment criteria of the awarding body and this may place some constraints on the design of the task. In most other respects, however, summative assessment tasks can be just as learner-centred as those used for formative assessment. 

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