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Allowing students to make mistakes does not make one a bad teacher- understanding learning beyond grades

By Wendy Choi, Learning in Assessment Manager, International Baccalaureate Organization.

In a high school classroom where learning, assessment and feedback are developed with a fixed mindset, and in the context of a high-stakes assessment, we might occasionally come across a scenario like this:

Research in neuroscience and the psychology of learning in the last decades has persistently demonstrated the immense plasticity of the brain, the importance of the adolescent years for the development of higher order cognitive abilities and the inherent nature of practice and struggle for growth function (Hohnen & Murphy, 2016). So why do we still design assessment and learning or give feedback as if students’ abilities and intelligence were fixed? Why do we still construct learning environments where teachers and students are afraid to make mistakes and are embarrassed by setbacks in learning and assessments, instead of embracing challenges and seeing struggle as an inherent part of growth?

At the IB World Schools Conference held in Lublin, Poland in March, Heads of School and Diploma Programme (DP) coordinators from more than 40 IB World Schools gathered to discuss and share good practices on effective policies and positive learning environments to promote “Assessment for Growth”. Drawing from research on formative assessment and mindset in learning, the Assessment for Growth framework suggests that good formative assessment design and feedback need to  not only guide the next steps of learning and teaching, but also promote a growth mindset among students, teachers and parents.

What are some good practices and effective policies in Assessment for Growth in IB schools?

Here are some important insights shared by IB educators during the conference and gathered from IB World Schools taking part in our pilot study on “Formative Assessment in the IB Diploma”:

1. Cultivating a growth mindset

Growth mindset
  •  Teachers embracing their own identities as learners

– Professional Learning Communities

  • Use feedback to change perception about learning and grades

– Describe the quality using two or three words rather than just                    assigning a grade or mark

– Celebrate experimentation and failure, e.g. “my favourite                           mistakes”

Teacher Efficacy
  •  Autonomy and flexibility in designing school-based assessments

– Common standards, multiple representation of knowledge and                 skills

Student Agency
  •  Teachers providing choices in learning and assessment
  • Student directed peer and self-assessments
  • Students summarizing teachers’ feedback in their own words and formulating action items

2. Learning and assessment design for a growth mindset

Collaboration, planning and scheduling
  • Build-in time for collaboration and planning among teachers
  •  Appreciate the value of “slow learning” in the design of the school calendar and lesson time
Assessment design
  • Understand learning as a journey, and design assessment that reflect that interactive process

– Plans, journaling, note-taking, process portfolios etc.

  • The best formative assessment tasks do not necessarily have the same task design and success criteria as the summative tasks

– Multi-stage assignments

-Breaking down an extended task into various formative activities

  •  Assessments that help us identify the thinking process behind errors

  – Was an unexpected response due to a careless mistake, a gap                  in understanding, a significant misconception, or because a                    student was thinking out of the box?

3. Effective school policies and feedback practices

Feedback beyond test scores
  • Comments without a grade
  • Feedback in multi-stage assignments
  • Feedback first, and then a grade
  • Feedback and feed forward on the learning process and strategies
  • Designing report cards that reflect progress and a growth mindset


What are some challenges in promoting Assessment for Growth in the IB Diploma?

IB World Schools operate in rich and diverse educational and cultural contexts across the world. According to the IB educators at the conference, what makes formative assessment challenging is the need to tailor to the needs of students, parents and sometimes teachers who are accustomed to very different forms of learning and assessments. This requires helping them to understand students’ abilities beyond a fixed grade and moving beyond “learning to the test”.

Another issue discussed was how to create time and space for Assessment for Growth in a high-stakes assessment context. One conclusion drawn by the school leaders was that quality formative assessments do not take away from student performance in summative assessments. Quite the contrary, well-designed formative assessment and feedback that promote a growth mindset are found to enhance students’ interest, motivation and resilience in learning, as well as to improve academic achievement (Dweck, Walton & Cohen, 2014).

A further take-away is that school policies and teaching practices on formative assessment need to take into account the context and needs of individual schools. Yet one thing for sure was that the IB educators at the conference were exemplary in their growth mindsets, eager to take their schools to the next level in the development of formative assessment for growth.

Do you have any thoughts or good practices to share with us on using formative assessment to promote a growth mindset? Please share with us your thoughts below.