Connecting Assessment and Learning

Alison MacDougall-Popke , SWST 2016

Engaging in Pedagogical Documentation

The 2016 SWS inquiry began with an exploration of pedagogical documentation as a method of uncovering student thinking and learning by the Student Work Study Teacher (SWST) and two grade 3 host teachers. The teachers adopted the idea of pedagogical documentation as a tool for ‘visible listening’ and used anecdotal notes, photos and video to make student thinking visible. The tension of learning to listen was evident initially but with practice and time, host teachers reflected about their shift from listening for the answer to listening to the process of learning (CBS Pedagogical Documentation Revisited, 2015).

Emerging Wonderings

The educators noted that some students were having difficulty connecting learning tasks to one another although the teachers were intentional in their instruction building upon their knowledge of student understanding, the curriculum and information gathered through assessment for learning practices. Further documentation of students in the process of learning, led to wonderings about whether or not students were aware of the thinking they engage in while learning each day and whether students were making effective use of the learning resources such as the teachers, peers, anchor charts, and success criteria to support their learning.

Theory of Action:

How might students progress in developing the habits of mind, and skills to monitor, challenge and revise their own thinking and learning?

Assessment as Learning

Assessment as learning focuses on the role of the student and is based on a belief that learning is an active process of making sense of new ideas, relating it to prior knowledge, and constructing new knowledge (Earl, 2013). It is characterized by students reflecting on their own learning and emphasizes assessment as a process of metacognition and metalearning, where learners are responsible for their learning and for determining how to move forward in their learning (Watkins, 2001). In assessment as learning, students are the critical connectors between assessment and learning .
Metacognition can be defined as ‘thinking about thinking’ or knowledge of one’s own thought processes. Metacognition is comprised of two components: 1- Knowledge of Cognition; 2- Regulation of Cognition. It involves a transfer of learning, the ability to use knowledge gained in one context and apply to another (Flavell, 1979), (Pintrich, 2002), (Earl, 2013).

Metalearning is defined as ‘learning about learning’ which is the act of making sense of the experience of learning. It is situated in a learning orientation that believes “learners as active and collaborative constructors of meaning with autonomy and self-direction can enhance performance” (Watkins, 2001).

The ultimate goal in assessment as learning is for students to acquire the skills and the habits of mind to be metacognitively aware with increasing independence. Lorna Earl Assessment As Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning (2013)

Analyzing the Components of a Learning Environment

The teachers critically examined their classroom environments in an effort to identify elements of learning environments that enhance metacognition in students and to identify elements that they felt were currently lacking. Revisiting the Capacity Building Series “The Third Teacher” monograph emphasized the importance of attending to both the physical environment and the social environment when imagining the ideal learning environment for today’s learner.

The host teachers were already quite attentive to creating a physical environment that fostered dialogue and collaboration calling on their knowledge and experience with the research of Lucy West (accountable talk), Jo Boaler (growth mindset in math), special education training and knowledge building.

The key social components for a rich learning environment as outlined in The Third Teacher monograph include:

  • Empower student learning through collaboration.

  • Give weight to student voice through dialogue.

  • Focus on student solutions and interpretations.

  • Encourage real-world problem solving.

  • Build self-efficacy.

The educators’ analysis of these elements found that when they adopted a lens of assessment, they could see some aspects of assessment as learning (metacognition and metalearning) embedded within each environmental component. However, overall there was ambiguity in how to shift from complying with the external actions that occur in collaboration, dialogue and sharing ideas to purposefully reflecting on the thinking that was occurring during the learning process and building capacity in metacognition.

Might well-intentioned educators implement their version of the social components that comprise a learning environment and unwittingly overlook the endeavor to have students learn about themselves as learners and reflect on how they can advocate for themselves as learners?

Creating a Thinking Environment

The SWST and host educators chose to take action and make changes to the current metacognitive orientation of their respective learning environments by focusing on how to draw students’ attention to their thinking about thinking and regulating their own learning. One host teacher focused on building a metacognitive orientation in writing while another host teacher focused on reorienting her math class. Changes in student metacognition and metalearning were observed through pedagogical documentation.

Dialogue about thinking was embedded in every lesson throughout the day in order to ensure that the self-assessments, the group discussions to share thinking, and the opportunities to reflect would achieve a thinking environment. The teachers hypothesized that by attending specifically to thinking and learning processes that they would see improvement in use of metacognitive and metalearning strategies to build knowledge and understanding. Both teachers also expressed making use of various thinking routines and practices in subject areas beyond their initial content focus as they began to see an improvement in how students articulated their own learning processes.

It is important to note that some of the learning tools and processes used by the teachers and students are not new concepts for educators. However, with a desire to support students in developing metacognition and metalearning strategies, the tools themselves evolved to draw out student thinking.


In recognizing that metacognition is an internal process, it can not be explicitly observed, so there remains a level of inference when discussing the presence of metacognition and metalearning strategies in students. The educators referenced teacher and SWST documentation, student reflections during conferencing, student self-assessments and responses on exit tickets to acquire validity of their interpretations about assessment as learning.

  • Those students that were already using assessment as learning strategies are now better able to articulate their thinking and share in building a collective knowledge amongst the students as evidenced in the class discussions that occurred towards the end of the inquiry and the monitoring processes some of these students independently implemented.

  • The educators feel that overall there was an increased understanding and usage of assessment as learning processes as evidenced by students monitoring their learning using feedback or referencing learning tools such as peers, the teacher, anchor charts, gallery walks and success criteria without student or teacher prompting; visibly revising their thinking as discussions in the classroom evolved into dialogue about learning; self-identifying growth in metacognition and metalearning processes; expressing a desire to improve their understanding and skills rather than reference marks; and engaging in more thoughtful questioning and responding.

  • The educators accede that there remain a few students that didn’t make as many gains in assessment as learning as their peers. Possible factors include a need to differentiate approaches to developing assessment as learning strategies, readiness to engage in reflective practice, and motivation.

  • The educators indicated that while working towards creating a thinking classroom environment, they attained a broader and deeper knowledge about assessment as learning processes themselves. The educators expressed that some of these strategies would have been overlooked previously in the interest of time, but both feel they have increased their own capacity in recognizing when students are making use of metacognition and metalearning.

Student identifies Writing Thief strategy used by a peer

Looking Backward, Moving Forward

Based on the action research conducted in each classroom, interrogation of research in this field, and educator reflections, the following components are recommended to create a Thinking Environment:

1- Utilize Assessment as Learning Language

  • Explicit labeling of metacognitive strategies as they occur - helps students connect the strategies to other knowledge they may already have about strategies in a particular subject area

  • Embedding discussion of metacognitive knowledge into daily discourse helps foster a language for students to talk about their own cognition and learning

2- Model Assessment as Learning Processes by Educators and Students

  • Modelling of metacognitive strategies by the educator through the use of think alouds that explain the strategy and the conditions that govern when and why to use different strategies

  • Provide exemplars and models of good practice and quality work that reflect curriculum outcomes

3- Practice Assessment as Learning

  • Daily opportunities to discuss metacognitive knowledge also allows learners to compare their own strategies for learning and thinking to their peers and make judgements about their effectiveness

  • Assist students in organizing and collecting evidence of learning through guided instruction and small group support

  • Guide students in setting goals and monitoring their progress toward them

  • Work with students to develop clear criteria of good practice and practice referring to the criteria

  • Provide opportunities for students to partake in more self-assessments to develop self-knowledge and make reliable interpretations of their learning

  • Guide students in developing internal feedback or self-monitoring mechanisms to affirm and question their own thinking

4- Monitor Assessment as Learning

  • Share responsibility with students in assessing growth of metacognitive knowledge

  • Monitor growth through observation and conversation as students discuss their own cognition and learning to determine the next steps in learning for both the class and the individual students

  • Provide opportunities for students to assess their own strengths and weaknesses to promote self-knowledge

  • Provide feedback which leads to students recognizing their next steps and how to take them

(Earl, 2013; Manitoba, 2006; Pintrich, 2002)

“Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” -Albert Einstein


Educational research states that learners with greater levels of metacognitive skills achieve higher academically than those learners with less developed metacognitive skills. Students who recognize their strengths and weaknesses are better able to regulate their own cognition and thinking to suit the learning situation while students who lack this self-knowledge will not recognize when to regulate their learning or recognize the applicability of a strategy in a different-looking context (Pintrich, 2002). The evidence shared in this inquiry indicates that it is possible to grow in these areas and that these processes are teachable and learnable.

Attending to thinking about thinking and learning about learning needs to be an explicit focus for every grade level and subject area to ensure that learners extend an understanding of their own learning processes in a range of situations in all realms of life. Educators must activate students as the owners of their learning.