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When Assessment gets a Gold Star

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 had 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 out with 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 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.


10 thoughts on “When Assessment gets a Gold Star

  1. This post was a very interesting read. As a student teacher last spring I found myself thinking and thinking about this question of communicating the learning that took place in the classroom with parents. I enjoy your idea of the stars with prompts for parents to ask specific questions, it bridges to a lot of my work in creating a living learning community: A community in which learning is embraced as a process of life in myriad avenues. When the conversation of learning is constantly percolating, what takes place begins to build a life of it’s own, the applications of learning becomes visible and even ubiquitous. In time an organic alignment begins to take place in communities and the next arrow is shot from a community of students/teachers/parents and the next journey of learning begins to form.

    It seems to me that the alignment of intended learning and the results of learning experiences are particularly interesting and meaningful. Yet, it seems to me, that this is an incredibly complex process. How do we make learning goals as a community that honor each individual’s motivations, learning strengths and in the end what they select as significant learning? As teachers how do we describe learning at any kind of scale without collapsing the multi-faceted nature of learning that has resulted from rich experiential learning? As parents, how do we cope with the uncertainty that comes from not really knowing all the seemingly invisible experiences in a school day?

    It seems to me that in so many situations the question between when to invite natural complexity and when to simplify processes is left unasked. The question is off the table, the default answer is that we should simplify, when over and over again we can see that is is in the complexity of a meaningful struggle that we attain our higher levels of humanity transcending our biological drives. In schools, it seems that we need to embrace the complexity and uncertainty of learning because in doing so we invite so much life into our classrooms. When I say “to embrace uncertainty”, I don’t mean that we should accept that we will never know, but rather to approach it as inherently uncertain. One can learn more an more about what goes on in a school, a classroom or a person, but when we seek guarantees we misunderstand life.

    I appreciate the many ways that you seem to invite multiple perspectives, individualized goals, parental conversation and peer to peer feedback in your classroom. You say, “External feedback is the most effective way to boost intrinsic motivation that I have come across to date.” Would you agree that external feedback that aligns with the intrinsic motivation of an individual can only result from knowing your students deeply and committing yourself to their growth and development?

    Thank you for the conversation.

    Posted by Jeff Steele | December 28, 2010, 12:10 pm
    • Hi Jeff, thanks for adding to the discussion.
      You have raised many deeply enquiring questions which would make for an interesting collaborative dialogue.
      With regard to your closing questions I want to go back to your penultimate paragraph where you say that “it is in the complexity of a meaningful [discussion] that we attain our higher levels of humanity.” I have substituted discussion for struggle as I never want a child in my classes to feel that success is beyond them. Success, however, will be different for each person depending on their values and their where they begin on the current learning journey.

      So, if we are striving to create an ethos of meaningful dialogue with our pupils, then I do not believe that quality, affective external feedback will only come from an adult who knows the child in detail. The key caveats are that the feedback is authentic, the coach has taken time to listen to the child explain their learning, and the child values the comments of the other person.

      As a visitor to a class I cannot simply scan a child’s work and offer constructive and meaningful feedback. I need to know what the skill the lesson is targeting, what the child’s personal target is and how they perform on a typical day. Additionally I believe that I need to engage with the child to show them that I know what I am talking about – there is a far better chance that they will value my feedback if they can see that I am genuine and can add value to their learning.

      I would hope that as educators we have committed ourselves to advancing the growth and development of the children and young people we encounter. If we have, then we should already be on the road to providing the feedback that will better each child’s learning.

      Posted by jenmcnicol | December 29, 2010, 1:20 pm
  2. “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.” This quote from your post will should be displayed in every teacher’s classroom.

    As this school year began I struggled with how I could incorporate blogging into my lessons. You see I teach math and social studies, not language arts. I realized that if I set up their individual blogs to be a way for them to reflect on the learning that happens in their lessons in my classes, then I could definitely have them blog. I am happy to say that their use of their individual blogs has had a great impact on their intrinsic motivation. They are writing posts and comments on others’ blogs because they love getting comments from a global audience (Thanks to Will Richardson and #comments4kids). Not only is their writing improving, their attention to details that happen in class is improving. Definitely, their thinking about their learning is improving. They even go home and work on their blogs and leave comments for their classmates and other blogging buddies we have found.

    When I introduced Glogster to my students just before our Christmas holidays, I did a very brief introductory lesson on the site and then let them help each other discovery the many aspects of making a digital poster together. I let them design Glogsters about Christmas (or whatever holiday they celebrate). They worked quietly together and there was a excited buzz in the classroom as one usually shy student became the “go to person”, because she was the first one to figure out how to use the built in webcams on their laptops to “grab” video for her glog. When we return to school after the break I will ask them to create digital posters about things they are learning in our geometry unit in math. I know they will do great work because they will want to share their results on their blogs for their growing global audience to see and comment on.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us and getting us thinking. I’m going to continue working toward that gold star.

    Posted by Paula L. Naugle (@plnaugle) | December 28, 2010, 3:54 pm
    • Well done Paula for all your work with your classes. I love to hear that you are promoting deeper thinking alongside literacy skills while teaching your core subjects. I believe that it is when we move our subject skills outside of our own room/lab and into the wider learning experience that children really begin to get involved in their learning. Encouraging children to blog about their learning has caused them to focus more carefully on the detail of their lessons as they are being asked to share this with a wider audience. I am not surprised that their writing is improving – my writing is always more well considered if I know that it will be read by someone other than me.
      Keep up the good work – and please send me the link to your kids’ blog. I’d love to share with them in their experiences.

      Posted by jenmcnicol | December 29, 2010, 1:26 pm
  3. Hi Jen,
    The easiest way to to see my students’ blogs is to click on this link Thank you for your interest.

    Posted by Paula Naugle | December 29, 2010, 3:04 pm
  4. External feedback on work that a student intrinsically wants to do is most valuable, I’d wager, as well as most effective in improving that work. Feedback and motivation are not the same thing, and we should help students identify why they do what they do at school and in their lives. Kids should have the opportunity to do the work they want to do and to solve the problems they want to solve without worrying what an adult thinks of them for it, or else they’ll grow up looking for approval more than solutions.

    Great post and comment thread – thank you, Jen.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 29, 2010, 6:11 pm
  5. Jen,

    You hit the nail on the head about stars and stickers. My school uses a ‘traffic light’ system to control student behavior and it drives me crazy. Students will be in tears and often their ‘fits’ will escalate as a teacher threatens that their color will change further if they continue to have their ‘fit.’ Management systems like this take up a lot of time and often are more disruptive than (gasp) teaching students how and why to behave a certain way in school. I LOVE your stickers that say “ask me what I learned about decimals,” etc… I may suggest this to my admins after the break!

    Posted by marybethhertz | December 30, 2010, 11:45 am
    • Wow. Why do we escalate external consequences when kids are in crisis and most unable to hear anything we say, compassionate or not?

      Schooling should be in the anticipation and facilitation of relevant learning, not in the lag management and destruction by coercion of developmentally and humanly appropriate behavior.

      Keep up the kid-first work, MB –


      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 30, 2010, 12:42 pm
    • Marybeth, thanks for the comments. Scottish schools are very into using traffic lights as a behaviour management tool also, and you’re right, we need to be actively relating kids behaviour to the values we encourage in school rather that only issuing the thread of a colour change! Where kids behaviour is discussed (in a private place please, not infront of the class) and the child chooses to continue the negative behaviour then the traffic light sanction may have a use. I think it all becomes very messy though when teachers use traffic lights as a method of formative feedback. How confused do we want our kids to be?
      I hope the new sticker idea works for you. Jen

      Posted by jenmcnicol | December 30, 2010, 1:02 pm


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