A Gold Star for Assessment

When assessment gets a gold star.

Inspired by some of the posts and conversations on the Cooperative Catalyst I would like to look more closely at the issue of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations for learners and crucially, how these support, or damage, the process of effective assessment in our schools.

In 1983 I was in my third year at primary school and arrived home in floods of tears.  I was shaking with fear and shame as I admitted to my mum that I have received a red star that day.   I can still see that sticker chart today.  Each pupil’s name down the left, followed by a row of coloured stickers.  My shame that day was failing to attain my normal status of a metallic sticker.  We as pupils read the chart thus: Gold – excellent;  Silver – doing well; Bronze – hanging on in there; Non-metallic shades – oops!!   Looking back now, the question posed by my mum, as I sat sobbing, was to shape my practice as a teacher,  “And what was the star for dear?”

The truth was…I had no idea.  My daily routine was to skip home squealing proudly, “I got a gold sticker Mummy!”   However, never once had it been explained to me what I had done to merit this reward and so never once had I shared that day’s learning with my mum.  In essence, this sticker chart was a highly visible popularity contest.  Who knows the damage done to the child who only ever earned four brown stars that year with no idea of what he had done to merit them, or what he should do next to advance his learning?

As an extrinsic motivator this worked for me as I didn’t want teased for getting a self coloured star.  As an intrinsic motivator this routine spurred me on as I wanted my teacher to like me.  But at no time did the lure of this reward affect the progression of my learning. And if personal learning is not being promoted, challenged and progressed through our classroom environment then we should stop and change the methods we use.

That’s not to say that I never hand out stickers to my pupils. Children will be seen running to their parents with a new sticker which reads, “Ask me what I learned about decimals today”  or  “I know all about embedded clauses…Go on, ask me!”   The idea here is that by using a simple communication device like a sticker, parents are aware of what is happening in their child’s classroom and can engage their child in relevant conversation about their learning.  Children will always love getting a sticker, but they now know what it relates to.  It is an opportunity to share and extend their learning outwith the school, but is not a prize for doing well.  They know from assessment in class if they are doing well and what needs to be mastered next.

In one discussion within the co-op the issue of external feedback being an extrinsic motivator was raised.  I do not think there is a natural crossover between external feedback and traditional motivators like sticker charts.

In order to raise attainment and empower our pupils they need to know where they are at, where they are going, and how they will get there in our classroom.  High stakes testing will not provide this.  In our schools all classes use formative assessment techniques that engage the child.  Children are encouraged to discuss the intended learning outcomes of a lesson series and come to an agreement on what success would look like.  When the success criteria are designed by the child you can be sure they will be far more engaged and focussed on the learning at hand.   Children should be trained in effective peer assessment which will allow for open discussion between the children on how they are performing in relation to the agreed targets.  This is external feedback at is best – peer to peer dialogue where current success is celebrated and next steps in learning are identified.

Self assessment gives children the opportunity to reflect on their own learning and consider what they now understand and what they feel they need to develop further.

Pupil–teacher conferences then take this a step further and allow the child to explore how they will master the next phase of their learning.

This format of formative assessment is highly visible in class.  Pupils are engaged in discussions at their own level and are sharing their personal understanding while enhancing the knowledge of the group.  They know why they have learned particular skills and knowledge and most importantly, they understand where this will lead on to.

External, visible feedback is the most effective way to boost intrinsic motivation that I have come across to date.  If we can get children collaborating on their learning and highlighting the needs they have for their own development, then maybe we as educators will earn a gold star for assessment.

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