It’s time to embrace assessment empowerment

I don’t know about you, but I was never taught how to partner with my students to operate as an effective learning team. I just followed what I had experienced as a student: Rules and responsibilities were given to us and we were expected to comply. In other words, when I began teaching, I used a learner-manager frame of mind, which impacted how I structured the conditions needed for formative assessment practices, such as peer feedback.

My guidance for peer feedback in particular used to look something like this: “Students, pass your paragraph to the person to the left. Once you receive the paragraph, give your classmate feedback. Be respectful!” As you can imagine, my students were not engaged and the feedback was not robust. I spent too much time addressing off-task and disrespectful behaviors. I was overwhelmed and frustrated. I thought, “Peer feedback just doesn’t work. Everyone says it’s a high-impact formative assessment practice, but I don’t see how that’s possible!”

My journey to student empowerment

Over time, I learned more from mentors, resources, and professional development experiences. Part of my learning journey included recognizing that I was stuck in a learner-manager way of thinking about assessment and the collaborative conditions needed to make assessment processes successful. My understanding of assessment processes, purpose, beliefs, roles, and motivators fell on the left-hand side of the chart below.

Spectrum of the learner manager and learner empowerer mindsets. The learner manager mindset is applied to learners and is on the left end of the spectrum. The learner empowerer mindset is applied with learners and is on the right end of the spectrum. Being a learner manager can interfere with learning and can contribute to disparity and trauma. Being a learner empowerer fuels learning and can alleviate the effects of disparity and trauma.
Table showing the differences between a learner manager and a learner empowerer. The differences are categorized by process, purpose, beliefs, roles, and motivators.

As I began to learn more about the research behind student-involved assessment and trauma-informed practices, I realized I had opportunities to better serve my students. When I understood the learner- and learning-affirming intent of assessment literacy and formative assessment scholarship, I made a choice to start shifting my thinking and language, which also affected my day-to-day structures and practices.

One big change I made was beginning to use the term “assessment empowerment.” That helped me think about the systems and actions needed to move beyond managing learners to empowering the use of assessment processes in ways that affirm authentic learning and self-determination. Another big change was embracing assessment processes and tools as essential and integrated components of responsive teaching and learning cycles, not separate instructional events. One way I put this new learning into action: I used words of partnership with my students—words that supported their individuality and reflected my belief in them—to build and strengthen our relationships. I intentionally co-crafted learning-team tools, such as class constitutions or social contracts, with students, which set up success with later responsive teaching and learning practices, such as peer feedback and self-assessment. The tools and processes leveraged students’ context (their strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs) to nurture a safe environment and respectful relationships.

Eventually, when it came time to engage in collaborative responsive teaching and learning exercises such as peer feedback, guidance looked more like this: “Before you exchange paragraphs with a partner for peer feedback, remind each other about the purpose for your time together and how we will use the learning-team expectations in our class constitution to be successful with this process and our learning goal.” The difference with students was impossible to ignore. They genuinely engaged in giving feedback, which meant I spent less energy on behavior redirection. The feedback was also far more robust, which saved me from being the sole source of support. Students built self-efficacy skills in tandem with content skills, too, which led to far greater success as learners and, more importantly, human beings.

How you can make the empowerment shift, too

My lack of preparation and slow evolution to becoming a learner empowerer is not unique, and I want to change that. There are still far too many students experiencing learner-manager systems and practices, which can add to educational disparity as well as toxic stress and trauma. There are also far too many educators who feel overwhelmed and frustrated with formative assessment structures and practices, like I did.

Where are you in your empowerment journey? Our assessment empowerment discussion prompts worksheet can help you understand where you’re starting from. Our Teach. Learn. Grow. blog will also be exploring ways to focus on empowerment in the coming months. The assessment-empowerment frame advances existing scholarship, including updating the five keys of assessment literacy and the formative assessment cycle, to ensure that the empowering intent of responsive teaching and learning remains front and center as systems and practices are created and used. I will focus on digging deep into each of these principles and giving you pragmatic advice for how to bring them to life in your classroom through a series of posts.

  1. Leverage learner context: All assessment structures, practices, and tools are informed by and responsive to learners’ personal and local context. (Context includes strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, identities, and needs.)
  2. Nurture learning environments and relationships: There is a deliberate, collaborative attention to fostering a diverse, equitable, inclusive, and accessible culture of learning.
  3. Attend to purpose: There are balanced, coherent, and articulated assessment processes and practices that match the learner context and learning goals.
  4. Engage in responsive learning cycles: High-quality, human-centered, learning goal–driven processes, practices, and tools fuel agency and success for all students.
  5. Exchange learning information: Details on assessment processes, practices, results, and use of results are communicated in ways that are inclusive, accessible, and meaningful.

Ready to get started? Check out my post on the first principle of assessment empowerment, how to leverage learner context. Then read about principle #2, learning environments and relationships; principle #3, knowing your purpose; principle #4, responsive learning cycles; and principle #5, communication.

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