An instrument to evaluate Assessment for Learning

A&EinHE now has an impact factor

Assessment for Learning (AfL) has been a key notion in recent curriculum developments in both secondary and tertiary education (see this link for previous left-handed biochemist posts on AfL).

The December 2011 edition of Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education featured a paper Does assessment for learning make a difference? The development of a questionnaire to explore the student response by Liz McDowell and colleagues from the recently-closed AfL CETL in Northumbria. Quoting AfL guru Paul Black, the authors point out that the definition of Assessment for Learning has become overly flexible, “a free brand name to attach to any practice,” before clarifying that for them AfL must encompass six dimensions:

  • Formal feedback – e.g. from tutor comments or self-assessment
  • Informal feedback – e.g. from peer interaction or dialogue with staff
  • Practice – opportunity to try out skills and rehearse understanding
  • Authenticity – assessment tasks must have real-life relevance
  • Autonomy – activities must help students develop independence
  • Summative/Formative balance – involves an appropriate mix of both tasks that are “for marks” and those that are not

The bulk of the paper describes the development and testing of a questionnaire used for evaluation of students’ experience of a module. The questionnaire, which can be downloaded from the AfL CETL website, could be used to provide evidence to justify curriculum change and/or to support the case for quality enhancement. Each of the questions maps to at least one of the six key dimensions.

In analysing the use of this research instrument to evaluate modules at their own institution, the authors highlighted three principal factors distinguishing AfL and non-AfL courses: staff support and module design; engagement with subject matter; and the role played by peer support. Overall they suggest that the student experience was more positive in modules where AfL approaches were employed.

Marking, remarking and meaningful learning

“Marking, remarking and meaningful learning: an assessment and feedback seminar” was held at the University of Leicester on April 4th 2008.  The event was organised by the Assessment and Feedback Working party of the University’s Student Experience Enhancement Committee and was attended by about 60 members of the academic community. The following are personal reflections and things that I took from the day.


The first presentation was given by Jon Scott, Director of Studies in Biological Sciences at the University. Jon’s cryptic title “How the baby got the Smartie” actually drew analogies between his research work on development of motor coordination skills and effective use of feedback. The ability of a baby to pick up a smartie from a flat surface is apparently a developmental landmark (presumably there are healthy options now available for choco-phobic parents). Research on brain activity whilst learning this task has shown that neurons are fired by failure to achieve the task, i.e. whilst the infant is self-feedbacking (is that a word?) . It knows what it is expecting (bright, interesting-looking object in mouth) and feedback modifies performance until it gets it. Once the task has been mastered, apparently, the relevant neurons go silent.

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Assessment and Learning – getting to know ELLI?

In preparation for a recent meeting of our School of Biological Sciences Pedagogic Research group, I’ve been reading a number of articles in the Assessment for Learning genre. My attention was particularly drawn to accounts of ELLI – the Evaluating Lifelong Learning Inventory – project.  ELLI has been developed by Ruth Deakin Crick and colleagues at the University of Bristol and is an instrument for the diagnosis and development of an individual’s learning power.  As Deakin Crick and colleagues point out in their 2004 paper (Assessment in Education 11:247-272), existing assessments tend to be focused on measuring either intelligence or educational achievement, whereas the measurement of a person’s learning power, that is their capacity for lifelong learning, may actually be the most valuable quality to assess.  “There is“, she notes in her 2007 paper (The Curriculum Journal 18:135-153), “an urgent need for our education system to foster flexible, creative, self-aware and dynamic learners who have the capacity to apply and adapt what is learned to their own lives, embedded in their local and global communities, and who can extend their learning and understanding into spheres of thought and action which demand intelligent behaviour in the real world” (p.137).

Having extensively piloted versions of the assessment instrument in a variety of Schools, the ELLI team have presently settled on a 72-item questionnaire that is used to probe students’ self-perception of their relative strengths and weaknesses in the seven core dimensions of learning power. These are: changing and learning; critical curiosity; meaning-making; dependence and fragility; creativity; relationships/interdependence; and strategic awareness.  Positive and negative manifestations of these dimensions are summarised as part of the slideshow below, along with an overview of the findings of ELLI so far.


I must admit the ability to have a handle on the learning potential of our students is an attractive proposition; it might also be illuminating to take the test myself and see what it showed about my own strengths and weaknesses in this regard! There would definitely be value, even if it was just as a one-off diagnostic.  Clearly, however, the most merit comes from being able to combine the diagnostic with a programme of activities that develop and enhance the learning power of the students, in a targeted and individualised way, combined with a reappraisal of their learning power at a later stage. 

This is a big ask and one which, with the best will in the world, is going to be tricky to fulfil in the Higher Education sector.  All sorts of problems stand in the way – the large cohort sizes; the fact that an individual student is receiving input and instruction from a broad range of colleagues rather than one staff member for a significant time; the impact of the secondary sector, where persistent summative assessment has led students to be entirely goal-driven and only engage if there are marks up for grabs. 

The balance between skill development and acquisition of factual knowledge is a recurring tension in HE, but I’d love to be able to utilise an instrument such as ELLI in order to shift the balance more towards learner enhancement and less on information regurgitation.