5 Point Free Assessment Strategies


Shared on Flickr by ys

If we view assessment as a way for the learner to forge a pathway forward, towards commonly held and co-constructed expectations, we need a way to guide the learner along their learning pathway, a guide wire of sorts. Assessments have a longstanding tradition of being more about mark generation. Slowly there is a growing voice and collective understanding of assessment as a means to provide useful, timely and relevant information about learning….to the learner, so they can guide themselves, towards their expectations.

Think of the mountain climber trying to make the first ascent up a certain mountain, when the first attempt does not work she will have to revise and plan a new route. Moreover one pathway might be successful for one mountaineer but not the next, it depends on the conditions, the mountaineer and their equipment. Make no mistake; every mountaineer will set out with some form of equipment to receive regular and ongoing feedback about where they are going.

How might we provide such feedback for our students on their learning journey without tainting it with points?
Below are 5 point free assessment strategies. Maybe you have some to add!

1. Hot Seat or Interview: To create a community of learners we need to have ongoing and regular conversations about learning. If learning is important let’s talk about it! To have meaningful conversations we need a commonly held lexicon of learning (don’t you love how that sounds?).  Students need the time, space and opportunity to discuss the nuances of their learning journey. Instead of points being the language of learning we need to work consistently to create words to give life to how learning looks and feels for the learner to use (as opposed for the teacher to use about the learner).

Setting aside a regular time for these conversations to occur embeds it in the classroom routine and signals to students that talking about learning is valuable. A formal conversation also gets the ball rolling for having continuous, ongoing casual conversations with students and between students. Students would often conference with each other before sitting down with me.

I had “Hot Seat” appointments with students the week before heading into a “test” (an opportunity to show their learning). If students weren’t ready, it allowed us to create a plan of action based on their specific situation. Alternatively if the student was feeling uncertain about certain topics this provided the student a chance to have one on one time with me to clarify. It also provided me the teacher, rich information about each learner and convinced me that students can self-assess with accuracy (more accurately than I could with points).

The information that came from Hot Seat indicated to both me and the student how the student would do on the upcoming test. Instead being a surprise, the test became validation of evidence we had already examined.

2. Test in advance: There is a belief that if we show students the test in advance then “it will be too easy” or somehow not fair. Nothing can be further than the truth! Even with test in hand, student still struggle to build schema around concepts and develop vocabulary to communicate their ideas fully. Learning is a process and we want students to be growing towards fixed targets rather than crashing into invisible ones.

3. Group Quizzes: Inviting students to writing quizzes as a learning opportunities rather than point collection opportunities for the teacher, changes the whole vibe of quiz writing.

“Yes please cheat!” “Please ask your table what they think the best answer to the question is!” “Please try to figure out the answer together!”

Quizzes are a great example of just in time learning (instead of just in case) and show clearly that students ARE motivated to learn, just maybe not be at the exact second we want them to. 🙂

4. Clear learning targets: When students are explicitly aware of the learning targets it becomes easier for them to hit them. Not only do I think so, but there is data to support this. Hattie calls this: Self-Reported grades, as he explains succinctly here.

But seeing believing and after watching student’s self-assess (based on standards that related specifically to the course, see examples here) I grew confident that they could accurately tell me how they were doing.

5. Learning Journals: As the mountaineer needs time to map out a new route, students need quiet time in and with their own thinking to map out their plan of action. Providing regular class time for reflection signals it is a valuable part of the learning cycle. I used in expensive copy books which stayed in the classroom.

The greatest effects on student learning occur when the teachers become learners
of their own teaching and ………when students become their own teachers.

                                                                                        John Hattie

When you lose your way…

There are times, there will be times, or maybe there have been times already…when you lose your way.

You may stumble and fall. Briefly. And be able to pick yourself right back up again.

There may be other times, when, seemingly out of the blue. You crack. The veneer you hold in place opens and you, raw sewage comes spewing out.

Today. I lost my way. I fell down and was not able to pick myself up.
I have been struggling with the transition to my new job. Trying to immerse myself with wholehearted commitment and unbridled abandon. I have been trying to find a pace to fall into. And to a certain extent this has worked.


I am having a hard letting go. Letting go and walking away. I know it is all very tangled up; the most tangled and entangled balls of wool, you probably would throw them away and start fresh. It would be easier. What is of my own making? What is simply my ego in need of validation? What is fear of not being needed? What is just normal transitional angst?  What is self perpetuated? I don’t know and I can’t really tell anymore. I just know today it all came pouring out, a deluge of grief for what I have left.


Luckily. I work with good people. Really, really good people, who you can crack in front off and they open up their arms.

When you lose your way, there is only one way to get found again.

And this is the hardest step.

You have to admit your lost.

Social uncertainty: What is the social netiquette?

Back in the day it was Ann Landers or Dear Abbey who vetted socially uncertain situations. Just as Mom dutifully made dinner, they made sense out of social norms and protocols appropriate to the time.

In the new social landscape we meet situations lacking precedence or comparison; new situations arise as we connect in new ways. Depending on your social circle you may or may not have peers (most of my IRL friends do not use Social Media beyond Facebook) to ask for opinions. The examples of the socially uncertain situations I have encountered in the last year highlight the merging of the facets of my life into one. I don’t have the right solution to any of them; these are new challenges we face as parents, friends, colleagues, social beings.

1. As a parent:

I have come across some of my daughter’s friends “saying things” on social media that concern me (none related to self-harm or violence). But I don’t know the context in which they say what they do. I recognize that they use social media is very different way than I do.

Do I talk to them directly? Do I talk to their parents? Do I say nothing and just continue to be watchful?

2. As a teacher:

I have observed several former and current students who post pictures of themselves under the influence and/or with alcohol. One former student in particular concerned me, so much so I asked my Twitter network for advice.

Do I contact the former student directly? Do I contact the parent? Should I un-friend them on Facebook so I don’t feel painfully uncomfortable?

3. As a colleague:

I have encountered several situations where one teacher has used another teacher’s work, with no mention or credit.
I have seen several other examples where there is slanderous information posted about a teacher.

Do you tell the offended teacher? Do you confront the offenders? Who do I tell?

4. As a female:

On Facebook I have connected with people from high school and beyond. Although it has been great to see these friends from long ago, it also has its complications. In one instance I had a friend who FB messaged me to ask if I would join him for a weekend in a hotel in Vancouver. Um, well for one I am married and for two, that is just rude. This made my interactions with the group we are both involved with extremely awkward and strained. Moreover it made me vacate Facebook as every time I was on-line, he would start a convo.

Do I call him out in public? Do I ignore him? Do I simply un-friend him and then have others ask me why?

These are the new social uncertainties for me.  I can only imagine how they are for our kids.

Can we quantify learning?

“The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road. Indeed, most of the scandals and misbehavior that have seemed endemic to modern life involve shortcuts.”
― Daniel H. PinkDrive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Last year I had 2 pivotal experiences: the first related to my own learning and the second to the learning of students I was working with.

In January 2013 I began, with 1000’s of other learners from around the world, #etmooc. I won’t call it a course because it wasn’t. It was a strange and fabulous journey. For a start, there were no specific goals to the event. Other people also thought it unusual as evidenced by this Tweet:

We were invited to create and declare publicly our own. Unusual (for me) but OK. I would give it a try and trust this seemingly ambiguous learning process. At the start, the wide open empty black space ahead gave me anxiety. Literally. I felt as a fish on the dock; floundering to survive in an unnatural environment. I floundered on and through.

There was no grand end or culminating moment of achievement. No certificate, no exam. In fact, it was…quiet.


Something happened, something shifted below and within. A massive boulder, that was lodged between me as a pseudo-learner (primed to follow instructions, take notes, please others, meet expectations) and the authentic learner from my childhood, moved. The trapped forgotten learner slowly but determinedly seeped out, as smoke might, through this narrow but open space. At first, she was faint, transparent and vacuous, not definable or consistent, a friendly ghost who haunted occasionally. Slowly, she grew bones, skin, a heart and became a fully embodied person…again. Re-connected to the flow of learning from long ago; joyful, no questions asked, intoxicatingly open…

The black faded to brilliant colours. The quiet tuned to a loud exuberant symphony. My fear devoured by a ferocious insatiable appetite.

Everything toppled upside down.

Simultaneously to this personal renaissance, I was working with a group of students in a non-traditional way. We meet when and how we could. It was sporadic. We spent a lot of time in conversation about learning. Again unusual, but…Ok. During times apart we Google doc-ed, texted and Facebook messaged in groups. And of course some students were more involved than others. But what emerged was a very peculiar thing; I saw students begin to take up topics and projects on their own and of their own choosing. I began to see them differentiate themselves for themselves. For example one group took it upon themselves to write a poem and turn it into a video…over the summer.  Another took it upon herself to raise funds and sign up for a 2 week leadership camp.  I saw students who wanted to continue to learn, continue to connect and continue to make meaning for themselves but together. Strange, strange, very strange. Over the summer students contacted me to ask if we could continue to work on our plans and projects yet “the course” had ended in June. This fall students asked if we could meet on Sundays to continue to co-construct our understanding around our work on digital leadership, citizenship and learning.



We rip learning, with its long rooted tendrils, still growing, tentative and twined, and clinically drop it on our stark metal scales to measure and quantify it without a glance upwards into the soul of who it belongs to.  We then haphazardly slap a number on it, as a bar of soap gets stickered with a price tag at the dollar store.  The heaving disembodied mound is returned to the owner: “Here, here, here is your learning, back.”


Do we really wonder why, then, the person who gave birth of themselves, of their humanness…do not want it back?

Do not rush to put this ripped, torn and damaged piece of them, back into to their own schema?

When we have the audacity (and I did) to tell students that this process will in fact help them in the future, but meanwhile, they see their souls leaking outwards, a visible puddle, on the floor. And they hear the crushing sound of their own curiosity being ground in gears of the system. Are we not telling them, don’t trust yourself, your inner voice, don’t listen to who you know you are and who you want to be. Instead rely on…us.
The boulder. Rolls into place. The passage closed and blocked. Slowly, we forget. Slowly the subterranean learner is asphyxiated and becomes comatose.


While it may be possible to quantify a course, a laundry list of items to “learn”, a finite set of skills, that end, are finite, are helpful externally to the person (like crutches may help you with a broken leg) to maneuver the system….

I wonder with increasing uncertainty and frequency: can quantify learning?

Instead learning:

  • Is created within space and the opportunity to choose.
  • Is something vital, integrated and contextualized within being human.
  • Is not just something reserved for “geeks” but as normal, essential and integral to life as breathing.
  • Is not containable to books, institutions, courses or academics.
  • Has a language that is owned and created by the learner.
  • Is vastly complicated and marbled throughout our humanness, connected and influenced by our emotions, our experiences, our dreams, beyond and outside of anything that can be quantified.


“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

                                                John Holt



How do you deliver your milk?


Shared on Flickr by ZachW.

Growing up milk was delivered to our front door every Friday morning. The milk came in glistening glass bottles with a small mouth capped with a paper lid you peeled back to reveal…lovely, white, cold milk  When the milkman delivered he would ring the doorbell and we would run to the door in excitement, perhaps for a chance to wave to him as he hopped back into his milk delivery truck.
Eventually the glass bottle disappeared and was replaced by plastic bags. Then the milk man disappeared completely.

Now our milk arrives like all groceries; unmarked by occasion or a doorbell chime.


“New” information used to enter our teaching world on a monthly basis when the Science teacher magazine showed up in our trays and slowly circulated through the department; there was no rush as we had 4 weeks before the next magazine showed up! Occasionally the principal or other admin might put a photocopied article in our trays. Information moved slowly and there was very little of it to manage. Once in a while someone at a staff meeting might share “a really good link” with the entire staff and we would all go “Ah! Wow!”

Today we live in an information saturated and highly distracted world. We may have the very best idea, innovation or event but it may get lost in the blizzard. We may be doing the most innovative and exemplary practices but if no one knows, does it matter? Will it make the difference we hope it will? How do we deliver our information so our audience hears the message in a clear and timely manner? How do we package it to best signify to the receiver that it is in fact quality and worth their time?

We can bottle our message without dilution or comprise. Committing time and brain power towards developing our message delivery does not lower the overall integrity of our message. Nor should it be beneath us to consider…if we really believe that our message, information or product has value.

We may have the very best milk but no milkman.

What happens when…


Shared on Flickr by Toni F. Mestres

Students come to school to check Facebook and go home to learn?

The structures meant to enable in fact block?

Students love to learn but hate being taught?

Twitter is a more responsive teacher?

The connections happen in spaces that are banned in school?

Students band together to write their own textbook in a Google doc, while the outdated textbook is used in class?

The mandated channels are empty and the flow is out in the open?

Students stay up late to work on their interests and come to school to rest?

Students see school as corrupt but are told to conform?

The top down is vapid and the flattened is full?

Students have much to say but no voice?

Activities that empower are seen as antisocial?

Students stop asking questions to buy right answers?

Talents are left to rot, while compliance is gilded?

Student confuse learning with hoop jumping?

Our informal learning becomes more vital than our formal?


What happens???

The purpose of classroom assessment: Do we know?

Mycelium is mass of fine, white interconnected fungal threads that grow through a substrate as they digest it. This process of digestion and absorption allows the fungus to spread as fruiting bodies appear atop the location where the mycelium lurks. The fruiting body is what you chop up to put on your pizza but it also holds spores which disperse and spread the fungus far and wide.

Assessment is an invisible, interconnected web of interactions that pervades education and digests learning as it grows. While it may hard to locate the mycelium, it is evidenced by the letter grades and accompanying percentages that appear, emerging from the subterranean assessment. Percentages and letter grades are the fruiting bodies that emerge out that allow the assessment to proliferate and spread. Assessment as mycelium is tangled throughout our institutions and begets assessments of the same sort, as spores produce fungus of the same sort.

Do we have a historical hangover from our greedy consumption of standardized tests in the name of fairness? Can we effectively remove the millions of innocuous threads that proliferate throughout the system? Can we recover a medium free of standardized assessment contamination (ones used to rank, sort, and compare)? Has the learning in education been consumed and ravaged by our obsessive and abusive love affair with data and the quantification of learning?

This weekend I had the opportunity to delve deeply into the varied functions, uses and abuses of assessment at all levels. #Mermforum2013 offered new insights and pushed my thinking around the purpose of classroom assessment.

While assessment at the federal, provincial or state level is beyond my direct control, I can as a classroom teacher clear the lens and clarify the purpose of assessment in the classroom.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment? Do we know?

If classroom assessment is in fact to inform learning, class assessment would in all instances:

1. Empower students to determine and locate their best talents and selves, as a compass helps us locate a desired location.

2. Act as a medium for growth and support as a tomato plant laden with fruit are supported with a tomato stake.

3. Focus on improving rather than proving. (Students would say: I know how to get better, I know where and how to get helpful and timely feedback related to my learning).

4. Help students understand themselves as people. Students would see learning as a human, integrated activity, connected wholly and fully to whom there are as a person.

5. Allow for feedfoward (not simply feedback) that would spotlight learning as a continuous ongoing process. There would be follow-up and follow through. We wouldn’t asses as an end point; we would access to begin, anew, again and again.

When we say assessment is for learning but are not consistent with this purpose…the mycellium…begins to grow. To say classroom assessment is in the service of learning then…we must, in every instance, say classroom assessment is NOT:

1. A way to generate percentages to serve the need of universities to filter students for entrance (whether it is in fact true teachers still service this belief).

2. A razor to make precise cuts to the .01% place to justify the awarding of monetary scholarships. If assessment is about learning, it cannot also be about this!

3. A method to rank students for awards such as top student and student of the year.

4. A way to control student behavior (get this done or I will take it in for marks).

5.  A means to justify low-level and non-learning or pseudo learning tasks (i.e. worksheets worth 125 points or bringing in a box of Kleenex).

6. As a way to generate a final letter grade or percent.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment?