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Why does teachers' assessment literacy matter?

Posted on: April 14, 2024

By Dennis Alonzo, School of Education, University of New South Wales Sydney

The role of assessment in improving student learning is widely argued in the literature (Alonzo, 2020; Hattie, 2008; Wiliam, 2017). Across many educational bureaucracies, there is strong pressure to implement reforms focused on using assessment to support learning and teaching whilst maintaining its accountability function. These reforms are based on solid theoretical and empirical support for assessment as the centrepiece of effective learning and teaching. Teachers in school and higher education contexts are under pressure to implement empirically supported assessment strategies, ranging from informal classroom assessment to the most formal summative assessment, including high-stake tests. However, their implementation often does not result in improved student outcomes. One contributing factor to this is the negative perceptions of students about assessment. The role of perception in influencing performance is widely argued in the literature. It was shown that people's actions are controlled by their perception towards a particular phenomenon. In the context of learning and teaching, the mediating effect of students' perceptions on the effectiveness of assessment strategies has been widely cited in the literature (Lizzio & Wilson, 2013). Students who perceive assessment as a tool to make them accountable for their learning (Brown & Hirschfeld, 2008), help them improve their learning (Hattie, 2008), and increase their motivation and engagement (Planas Lladó et al., 2014) have higher achievement than those who view assessment as irrelevant (Vaessen et al., 2017) too difficult (Drew, 2001) and for school accountability (Brown & Hirschfeld, 2008).

In addition, students' perceptions of assessment play a significant role in shaping their study behaviour. For example, if students perceive the assessment component of the course to be requiring an excessive workload, students may engage in shallow learning (Struyven et al., 2005). In contrast,  students tend to engage in assessments that they perceive to stimulate deep learning and higher-order thinking skills (Segers & Dochy, 2001). Students also perceive the purpose of assessment (Hirschfeld & Brown, 2009), the functions of assessment (Brown & Wang, 2013) and the emotional impact of assessment (Flores et al., 2015). All these perceptions may either positively or negatively impact their learning.

Moreover, students may perceive how assessment is used and implemented in the classroom and the relationships and academic trust built within the classroom. Students are aware of whether teachers regard their learning highly or if teachers are trying to develop a good working social environment within the classroom. These perceptions are critical for the effectiveness of assessment, mainly how students will subsequently act on their learning based on the initial feedback of their teachers (Davis & Dargusch, 2015).

As shown, students perceive various aspects of assessment (Brown et al., 2009), including purpose, effectiveness, adverse impact, relationships built, and others, and even younger students have valid perceptions of assessment (Remesal, 2009). The evidence discussed above links students' overall perception of assessment (Brown & Wang, 2013), specific assessment tasks (Gulikers et al., 2004), and assessment strategies (Flores et al., 2015) to their learning.

Since students are the key players in assessment, teachers’ assessment practices should include building students’ capacity to engage in assessment (Alonzo et al., 2023) and developing positive dispositions  (Hannigan et al., 2022). It is also important that teachers' assessment practices align with the current assessment conceptualisation. However, research shows that teachers' assessment literacy is relatively undeveloped across different contexts because of their (mis)understanding of the concept, purpose, design, process, and their actual implementation in the classroom. In addition, implementing assessment reform is often teacher-centric rather than being a shared responsibility of all stakeholders. Also, there are conflicting views on evaluating the impact of assessment on learning and teaching. These issues must be clarified to help teachers improve their assessment literacy to optimise students' learning.




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