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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Using student assessment for professional learning


This article has been adapted from the paper Using student assessment for professional learning: focusing on student outcomes to identify teachers’ needs, commissioned and published by the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

The principles and practices of formative assessment are widely used to improve the learning outcomes of students. Students' learning may also be improved when these same principles and practices are used to guide their teachers' professional learning. This article summarises a recent paper which sets out a model for teacher professional learning, in which teachers conduct a cycle of inquiry that combines formative assessment of their students' work with the pursuit of their own professional development.

The model draws on two main sources. One was a synthesis of 97 studies of professional development that had led to improved outcomes for the students of the participating teachers. The synthesis was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, New Zealand, and conducted by Professor Helen Timperley and others from the University of Auckland (Timperley et al, 2008).

The other main source of evidence came from the Literacy Professional Development Project (LPDP), which has achieved consistent gains in student learning. This project provided staff from over 300 schools with onsite literacy professional development running over two years. The project involved professional learning communities comprised of school staff (including leaders), external facilitators who coach school staff, and a national team of regional leaders, project directors and project researchers. The project also conducted its own ongoing inquiry into its effectiveness.

From the synthesis of the evidence, Timperley and colleagues (2008) identified a cycle of inquiry, in which the learning of both students and teachers proceeds through successive, cumulative stages, or dimensions. The effectiveness of any formative assessment process depends on the learner being able to answer three questions, 'Where am I going?', 'How am I doing?' and 'Where to next?' (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Teachers' knowledge of students and how to teach them is systematically developed through the process of answering the three questions for their students and themselves.

Dimension 1: finding out about students' knowledge and skills

The cycle begins by identifying the knowledge and skills students need to close the gaps between what they know and can do, and what they need to know and do. The focus of this stage of the inquiry should be specific to a particular area. For example, if the focus is on writing, then the assessment information should profile student achievement on both surface features of spelling, punctuation and grammar; and deeper features of structure, vocabulary, content and audience.

Informal evidence collected by teachers as they observe students and mark their work can be just as powerful in this process as formal assessments. What is most important is that teachers know they are collecting it to identify their own professional learning needs.

Dimension 2: finding out about teachers' knowledge and skills

The second dimension of the cycle asks teachers to identify what they need to know and do to be more effective in the areas of student need. Given the likely complexity in arriving at the answers, teachers typically need expert support during this process.

One key role for experts is to bring forward research evidence to convince teachers of the power of quality teaching to overcome obstacles posed by some students' backgrounds, (DEECD, 2009a), challenging teachers' doubts on this issue, and helping them make the necessary changes.

Assessing teacher needs typically involves observations of classroom practice and discussions with the teachers themselves. Observations in the early stages are most effective when a standard rubric focused on a common student need is used, so that the data can be collated and the implications discussed with the teachers involved.

Tools organised along progressions, such as the e5 instructional model (DEECD, 2009b) and the Self-Assessment Tool for Assessment Professional Learning Modules (Department of Education and Training) in Victoria, can help teachers to understand their capabilities through more precise descriptions of what novice practice looks like and what it means to be expert.

Dimension 3: deepening professional knowledge and refining skills

This dimension of the cycle brings together evidence of student learning needs, evidence of teacher learning needs (from dimensions one and two) and the research evidence of what is most likely to meet those needs.

Professional learning approaches that focus primarily on building new knowledge and skills are suitable when they are congruent with teachers' existing understandings. But when teachers' personal theories about students, what is valued in the curriculum and effective teaching practices differ from those being promoted, such beliefs will need to be engaged and challenged. Otherwise, new practices are likely to be rejected, or adopted only superficially.

Dimension 4: engaging students in new learning experiences

The next stage calls for students to be engaged in new learning experiences, via new teaching practices. These practices are monitored by the teachers themselves, and by the experts assisting them. For this purpose, it is important that both teachers and those assisting them have sound approaches to looking at what is happening during day-to-day teaching in this dimension of the cycle.

Classroom observations by experts play an important role; however, problems arise if these observations are approached as issues of compliance. A compliance-based approach, necessarily based on a limited number of observations, does not allow for the fact that teaching practices vary over time. The problem is accentuated when teachers believe that they are being judged and so put on their best 'performance'.

These problems are largely overcome if a learning and problem-solving orientation is taken towards classroom observations. Within this orientation, teachers partner with those providing the professional learning to identify important practices to master, and recognise that learning how to enact them takes time and persistence.

Dimension 5: assessing impact of changed actions

The key question in the final dimension of the cycle is: 'How effective has what we have learned and done been in promoting our students' learning and wellbeing?' Underpinning this question is a vision of professional learning as a process of developing teachers' adaptive expertise. Adaptive experts know how to retrieve, organise and apply professional knowledge to specific teaching and learning problems. These experts have the capability to work out when known routines work and should be retained and when to seek new information because old problems persist or new challenges arise (Bransford et al., 2005).

The contextualised nature of teaching practice means there can be no guarantee that any specific practice will have the anticipated result. Unquestionably some practices are more likely to be effective than others but none can guarantee success. If there is a generic principle of practice, it is probably that teaching must be responsive to the specific needs of the students being taught. Assessing impact requires similar kinds of evidence as that used in the first dimension of the cycle. These include both informal and formal measures depending on the purpose. What typically happens, however, is that teachers develop greater depth of pedagogical content knowledge as a result of engaging in the inquiry cycle and so demand more specific and sophisticated assessment information in order to diagnose new areas of student need.

Re-engaging in the cycle

Assessing impact is not the end of the cycle. If assessing impact shows old problems persisting, then different approaches to professional learning may need to be taken. On the other hand, if progress towards goals for students is evident, then new cycles need to be identified because the demands of teaching are rarely static. Most important is to analyse if all students are benefiting. Usually these cycles become more and more focused as teachers' assessment and pedagogical content knowledge deepens.

The role of school leaders

School leaders have an important role to play in shaping the context of teachers' professional learning. Teachers cannot achieve the kinds of deep changes needed to address persistent problems of teaching and learning alone. Outside experts can achieve patches of brilliance in some classrooms as they work with the willing, but they cannot take responsibility for the unwilling and they cannot take responsibility for embedding the learning approaches that teachers take within a school's everyday practices.

Leadership engagement may involve challenging those teachers who would prefer not to engage by focusing on outcomes for students and helping these teachers to solve teaching and learning problems. On a deeper level, it means understanding the formative assessment underpinnings of the inquiry and knowledge-building cycle and ensuring their leadership practice is consistent with them. It also means ensuring that meaningful change actually happens.

Policy implications

A major challenge for policy makers is to ensure that pedagogically sound practices permeate the learning environments within their educational jurisdictions so that all students benefit from the instruction provided.

If policy makers wish to address entrenched problems of student learning and achievement, they must address entrenched problems of leader and teacher learning and development. Telling professionals in schools how to do things differently typically meets with limited success because it fails to engage teachers' existing theories about what constitutes an appropriate curriculum, how best to teach it and whether students are capable or not of learning it. Telling leaders how to run their schools also fails to engage their personal theories about how to lead effectively to bring about desired changes. On the other hand, approaches that engage them in a formative assessment process related to their own learning have greater demonstrated success. This approach requires policy makers to take a learning orientation and to monitor the effectiveness of their own efforts to bring about the changes they desire as they come to understand the mind-shifts required through the system layers.


Bransford, J., Derry, S., Berliner, D. & Hammerness, K. 2005, 'Theories of learning and their roles in teaching', in L. Darling-Hammond & J. Bransford (eds), Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, John Wiley & Sons, San Francisco.

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2009a, Signposts: Research Points to How Victorian Government Schools have Improved Student Performance, Melbourne. Available at:

Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2009b, The E5 Instructional Model, Melbourne.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. 2007, 'The power of feedback', Review of Educational Research, vol. 77, no. 1, pp. 81-112.

Timperley, H. 2008, Teacher Professional Learning and Development, Educational Practices Series-18, International Bureau of Education, UNESCO.

Timperley, H. 2010, 'Instructional leadership in action', Change Through Conversations: Instructional Leadership in Action, AERA, Denver.


Subject Headings

Teaching and learning
Professional development
Assessment for learning (formative assessment)