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Assessment That Makes Sense
May 23, 2013 | Volume 8 | Issue 17
Table of Contents 

Tools for Actively Engaging Students in Assessment Processes

Harvey F. Silver

We have seen the meaning of classroom assessment evolve in recent years. No longer a simple evaluation of student work, assessment is now better described as a continuous and collaborative journey—a learning process that has become an integral component of effective instruction. However, change is rarely easy, and it can be challenging for many teachers to shift away from old habits and attitudes toward assessment. From our study of current research and work in hundreds of schools throughout the country, we have identified five key assessment shifts that teachers need to make to enhance learning and increase student achievement:

Shift 1

Move from a teacher-directed assessment process to an assessment process in which students play an active role.

Shift 2

Move from a focus on facts and memorization to a focus on 21st century skills and the Common Core State Standards.

Shift 3

Move from assessment as evaluation to assessment as a means of advancing teaching and learning.

Shift 4

Move from one-size-fits-all assessment to differentiated assessment.

Shift 5

Move from assessment at the end of the line to assessment throughout the instructional process.

Here, we focus on Shift 1, moving from teacher-directed assessment to classroom assessment that invites students into the process. How do we make this move? To start, we need to ensure that the learning targets we're asking students to work toward are clear. But posting clear learning targets on the board isn't sufficient. Students must be given the opportunity to review the learning targets, figure out what the targets mean for themselves, and actively process what the targets are really asking them to do.

Backwards Learning

To better illustrate this important shift, let's take a closer look at one of the tools from Tools for Thoughtful Assessment: Classroom-Ready Techniques for Improving Teaching and Learning (Boutz, Silver, Jackson, & Perini, 2012) that teaches students how to analyze a task and its cognitive demands. This tool, called Backwards Learning, is typically used at the beginning of a lesson or unit and focuses students' thinking on the culminating task or assessment that they'll need to complete by the end of the learning sequence. Students clarify the task, identify goals, and develop a plan of action in their own words by responding to these prompts (typically within an organizer):

  • Assessment Task: At the end of this lesson or unit, what will I be asked to do or create?
  • Knowing Goals: What will I need to know and understand?
  • Doing Goals: What will I need to be able to do?
  • Action Plan: What is my plan for completing this task successfully? What steps will I take?

By using the Backwards Learning tool, teachers are doing much more than previewing the final task—they're actively engaging students in the assessment process and encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning. Through consistent use of Backwards Learning, students will understand learning goals more deeply, assign greater purpose and meaning to upcoming tasks, and develop the habit of analyzing tasks and setting their own goals for completing them. In other words, students will become independent, self-directed learners who exhibit the capacities of those ready for college and 21st century careers.

Of course, students will need some help and guidance as they learn to analyze tasks and plan for successful learning. To help students along, consider using examples to discuss the difference between knowing goals (declarative knowledge) and doing goals (procedural knowledge/skills), questions students should ask themselves when developing action plans (e.g., Where will I look for information?, How can I develop these skills/behaviors?), and completing a sample Backwards Learning organizer together as a class before students use the tool on their own.

Integrating New Tools with Existing Instruction

With any new initiative or approach, teachers instinctively wonder, "How does this fit with what I'm already doing? What will the impact be on my planning and classroom management?" A great benefit of approaching assessment as an ongoing learning process is that assessment can easily be woven throughout the design and delivery of any lesson or unit. To support and reinforce this integrated approach to assessment and instruction, all of the tools featured in Tools for Thoughtful Assessment (including Backwards Learning) have been designed to involve students in classroom assessment throughout all phases of the instructional sequence.

What's more, the tools were developed and refined with the help and insight of hundreds of teachers. It was teachers who generated the key challenges associated with an integrated approach to instruction and assessment and helped us identify and refine the best tools to respond to these challenges. It was teachers who inspired the simple, common design of each and every tool. And it was teachers who helped us connect the tools to the new demands of the Common Core standards. Thanks to the teachers we work with, we believe that these assessment tools can help every teacher on the journey of making assessment a more engaging, thoughtful, and student-driven part of classroom instruction.


Boutz, A. L., Silver, H. F., Jackson, J. W., & Perini, M. J. (2012). Tools for thoughtful assessment: Classroom-ready techniques for improving teaching and learning. Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Silver Strong & Associates. (

Harvey F. Silver is president of Silver Strong & Associates and Thoughtful Education Press. He was the principal consultant for the Georgia Critical Thinking Skills Program and the Kentucky Thoughtful Education Teacher Leadership Program. Silver is the coauthor of several best-selling ASCD titles, including The Strategic Teacher: Selecting the Right Research-Based Strategy for Every Lesson and So Each May Learn: Integrating Learning Styles and Multiple Intelligences. Visit his ASCD author page.


ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 17. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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