'So broad, yet so narrow' - Exploring professional learning in assessment

by The Assessment Network, 26 August 2021
Teacher with group of students looking at an electric circuit

Gemma Escott is a Professional Development Manager for a group of 16 Higher Education Institutions. She is an educational specialist with academic interests in pedagogy, technology, and educational psychology. She has previously worked as a secondary English teacher in England and as Head of Assessment at the Ministry of Education in the United Arab Emirates. Here she talks to Cambridge Assessment Network about how becoming an assessment specialist 'just kind of happened', having to piecemeal together her early professional development and how A101: Introducing the Principles of Assessment allowed her to reflect on her practice amongst a diverse range of professionals.

Discovering academic passions

During my NQT (Newly Qualified Teacher) year I completed a Master’s level module covering pedagogy and educational psychology. They asked us to pick something we were very bad at which for me was questioning. So I did a mini action research piece looking at how to get better at it. That's when I found Dylan Wiliam for the first time, and Inside the Black Box and the research surrounding that. 

Things have come a long way since then but that's when I first discovered ideas of formative assessment in schools and that really piqued my interest. On my PGCE we never did anything assessment related apart from APP (Assessing Pupils’ Progress) and how to mark GCSEs. It was all very superficial, nothing like assessment as I understand it now. 

Gemma Escott - headshot - blog image

Once I decided I wanted to pursue my doctorate, I went to University in Southampton for one year full-time to complete the taught phase. I chose a professional doctorate, an EdD, instead of a PhD, as I wanted to remain a practitioner whist working towards it.

Whilst I ‘do’ a lot of assessment now, my actual academic areas of interest, what I’m passionate about, are pedagogy, technology, and educational psychology. Assessment just kind of happened! 

The focus for my doctorate was educational technology, but at the time tablet-based learning wasn't really a massive thing in the UK. My cousin happened to be working in the UAE for a school that had a 1:1 iPad education program and she said, ‘why don't you come here and do your research?’. So that’s what sparked the move.

An assessment learning curve

I had interviewed for a position to do e-learning, but when I arrived the Director asked me to take over the assessment. My first reaction was, assessment in what sense? Because coming from an English teaching background, we don't do assessment as such. 

That's when I started to learn about precision and construct and construct relevant variants. Because these students take summative high-stakes exams, the results of the exams aren’t just for the teachers, they actually matter, each and every one. So you have to make sure you are spot on with your constructs, otherwise it could hurt the chances of the students. 

After about 18 months our Director General was made the Minister of Education and he took a team of us over to the Ministry to start working on a reform project developing an enrichment program for English. That was a huge jump, from 6 or 7 vocational schools to a whole country. The things I had to take into consideration were vastly different and the level of responsibility was massive.

Because these subjects were newly being delivered in English we had to be very careful how we assessed them. It can be very hard to disaggregate language barriers from understanding or skills barriers.

Eventually I took on assessment for other subjects that were taught with English as the medium of instruction, and that was computer science, creative design, PE, life skills and things like that. 

Because these subjects were newly being delivered in English we had to be very careful how we assessed them. It can be very hard to disaggregate language barriers from understanding or skills barriers. For this reason we took a hybrid approach, taking aspects of vocational education and academic assessment and merging them into semi-applied vocational assessment. The activities were formative in nature and then we ‘back end’ graded them through rubrics. This allowed the students to apply their knowledge in a very low stress environment and then we would do their grades from there. 

A lot of our teachers were second language speakers themselves, so we also had to make sure the blueprints and other materials were accessible and there was no ambiguity. We provided two different types of training, the assessment as pedagogy training as well as information sessions where we introduced them to the new standardisation materials and things like that.

At the end of every term the research and development unit would send out a series of surveys to the teachers to understand the issues they were facing, that way we could monitor and improve our processes effectively.

The need for assessment literacy

I now oversee professional development and training in the Higher Education sector. I think there is just a general need for assessment literacy and it's not just in Higher Education, I think it's everywhere. 

People think assessment and they think examinations, they don't necessarily see this whole other side of assessment for, and as, learning.

There are people where I work who are phenomenal in assessment literacy and examination creation and item writing. But one of the first training sessions I did was on integrating Assessment for Learning and I would say around 80% of them had never heard of Assessment for Learning. 

It's just not in everybody's teaching and learning repertoire. People think assessment and they think examinations, they don't necessarily see this whole other side of assessment for, and as, learning.

One of the courses I developed recently was on learning intentions and success criteria, and the power of actually showing students what the end result should look. A lot of people say, 'wow, this is so simple but I haven't been doing it!' Because we are an applied university, a lot of faculty come from industry and this is brand new to them. We are there to help them develop their pedagogical skills to support the delivery of their subjects.

Taking it back to the principles

I was so pleased when I saw Cambridge had started doing their assessment courses. It shows that there is a recognition in our field that this is actually really important. If I’d had access to these courses earlier then my life would have been a thousand times easier, but instead I had to piecemeal together my own professional development!

As an educator I believe there is always something new to learn, and assessment is so broad yet so narrow at the same time. When I enrolled on A101: Introducing the Principles of Assessment I just wanted a refresher really. But once I was on the course I found there were some terms that were new to me.

I was so pleased when I saw Cambridge had started doing their assessment courses. It shows that there is a recognition in our field that this is actually really important.

I think one of the things I enjoyed most was being given the information and then being able to discuss it through with people and have their perspectives on it. Because how I feel about something is going to be very different to how somebody else feels about it. This is the first time I’ve really talked with people about assessment outside of the people I work with and it felt like a safe space for those discussions.

I’ve always said I wish that on my PGCE someone had told me about assessment literacy. So I support the agenda to put assessment literacy into initial teacher and for it to be a feature of education continuing professional development. Courses like A101 make for excellent CPD.

Taking a rounded, educational approach

I wouldn't describe myself as having a professional assessment identity as such. When I was working at the Ministry of Education I always described myself as an education specialist because that was my job title, even though I was heading up the whole assessment division.

I always wanted to present myself as having a rounded, educational approach to everything. I didn't want the negative connotation that can come from assessment and people just thinking of exams.

So I consider myself an educational specialist, but all of my passions revolve around and come together in the assessment work that I do. They all fit together under that assessment as a pedagogy banner I’ve referred to.

As I said, my main passions are pedagogical practice, technology and educational psychology. And one of the things that I really love about assessment is that they all come into it. You have assessment as pedagogy. Technology massively supports proper formative assessment, and actionable information exchange with students in the classroom. And you have the educational psychology aspect of assessment, like generative learning and retrieval practice.

They all go around this amazing thing called assessment, which doesn't get anywhere near as much press as it really should. Those are the areas of assessment I think we really need to focus on. It’s about how they all fit together, not just taking that exam.

So I consider myself an educational specialist, but all of my passions revolve around and come together in the assessment work that I do. They all fit together under that assessment as a pedagogy banner I’ve referred to. 

There’s so much work being done at the moment on the cognitive psychology side of things and you can see how it all fits together to make best practice in the classroom. But to really make the most of it you do need to understand how assessment works in all these different ways.

This is part of a new series of stories about our assessment practitioner community. Some of the themes here can be explored further in our assessment professional learning framework, a statement about what we think meaningful professional learning in assessment looks like and how it can be achieved. It provides a structure for thinking about how we can ensure positive impacts of professional learning and how they can be measured.

Something as important as assessment benefits from sharing perspectives, exchanging ideas and debating the latest thinking. As the Assessment Network, we want to bring assessment practitioners together to share greater understanding. Why not join us?

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