Learning is sometimes better after the fact

From the Director of Differentiated Studies

In most classes assessment for the term is now complete and all concerned (students, parents and teachers) are probably breathing a collective sigh of relief as those many stressful hours of preparation and study are now over… at least for a few weeks. Holidays await with the promise of opportunities to relax, to recharge and to forget, but is that what we really want to have happen? Learning does not end with the completion of a test or an assignment — in fact this is just the beginning. Where to from here?

One element of assessment is, of course, judgement of performance but, perhaps more importantly, it helps teachers to guide students, to shape planning of future units and to inform learning. At this critical point in the year, both teacher and student have an invaluable opportunity to review the outcomes of the term. There is time to reflect on what has been achieved, what worked and what did not.

Year 11 and 12 students had the opportunity of extended periods of free time for individual study with the provision of stand down. How effectively did this work? Now is the time for honest and critical self-reflection. Did these students use this time profitably? Did they employ effective strategies? If stand down was not as effective as it could have been, it is time to plan for change so that when similar opportunities occur at the end of the semester, benefits can be maximised.  These are life lessons: learning to take responsibility for themselves, their learning and their responses to feedback. They are skills that will contribute to success at university and in the world of work.

The longer than usual first term has provided a unique and timely opportunity for both teachers and students to put into practice lessons learned from assessment without the hiatus of the term break. The successful setting of specific new targets by both teachers and students and the development of strategies for reflection and evaluation of learning are vital aspects of an action plan. Through this process students acquire increased ownership of, and take greater responsibility for, their own learning.

When describing students who have effectively achieved this ownership, Tomlinson (2008) writes of learners who

know how to make sense of text, how to listen, how to ask questions. They know how to gauge their work based on criteria for success. They understand how to capitalize on their learning strengths and weaknesses. They know how to plan, follow through with plans, modify plans when necessary, and evaluate the effectiveness of their planning. Through those avenues, they come to believe that they are captains of their own fate as learners.
(p. 30)

This sense of control in learners contributes to the development of a student who is positive and looks for success – even out of failure.

Research conducted by Dweck and others (2010) suggests that individuals view learning and intelligence in one of two ways.

Individuals with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence is simply an inborn trait – they have a certain amount and that’s that. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset believe that they can develop their intelligence over time. (p. 16)

She suggests that these two mindsets lead to very different school behaviours. When teachers ask students to challenge themselves, those students who view intelligence as “fixed” may avoid taking risks because they do not want to perform badly or show deficiencies.  Those with a “growth mindset” see the same work as an opportunity to learn and grow. Dweck (2010) challenges teachers by suggesting that

meaningful learning tasks need to challenge every student in some way. It is crucial that no student be able to coast to success time after time; this experience can create the fixed-mindset belief that you are smart only if you can succeed without effort. (p. 19)

As students grow to understand themselves as unique learners, they become more capable of setting goals that are relevant and achievable but they also learn to push the boundaries, attempt new strategies and take risks. They begin to recognise the complications involved in managing timelines, juggling multiple commitments and programming in relaxation time within a finite week. Each student needs this engagement in her learning and she must learn to accept responsibility for the outcomes. Struggle is often a necessary part of this growth as maximising potential by acquiring more effective behaviours and more appropriate attitudes does not always come easily and students may feel stressed and anxious.

When students make mistakes, it should be seen as an opportunity to learn different strategies, strategies that will work more effectively than those used in the past. All students should be encouraged to feel proud of their efforts when they have done their best. The girls also need to know that their parents support them, even when they may not have achieved as well as everyone had expected. If we assume a “growth mindset” then this event on the learning journey becomes an opportunity for growth that can return wonderful dividends in the future. Indeed, Martin (2010) describes academic resilience as “students’ ability to deal effectively with academic setbacks, stress and study pressure”.

Teachers constantly endeavour to create opportunities that maximise the chances for effective learning and assessment is one of those opportunities. Assessment, both formative and summative, informs teaching. The idea that assessment is a two-way street is a concept many students have not considered but it is just as important for a teacher to receive feedback from a student as it is for a student to hear feedback from the teacher. At its most productive assessment provides a meaningful and ongoing basis for communication between student and teacher. Together teacher and student can reflect on results to determine future individualised learning pathways. What is important is that the student sees herself as part of this process. Research reported by Hattie (2009) highlighted the fact that “those students, regardless of prior ability, who used the classroom and its activities to further their own interests and purposes learned more than those who dutifully did what they were told but did not want or know how to create their own opportunities”. (p. 242)

Parents also have a role to play. Encourage your daughters to be active participants who assume responsibility for their learning through reflecting on assessment, discussing what they have learnt from it and developing strategies that will enable them to address any areas of concern in the future. Encourage your daughters to make concrete decisions about ways to improve their personal best. Encourage your daughters to speak to the teacher when experiencing concerns about learning so that something can be done about it.

Assessment is but one part of the learning journey, a vital part but not the most important. If it is grasped as an indicator and a guide, the students and their teachers embark on a process of self-reflection and self-evaluation that enables students to look forward with positivity and not backwards with dissatisfaction.

Dr A Farley


Dweck, C. S. (2010). Even Geniuses Work Hard. Educational Leadership. 68(1), 16-20.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Martin, A. J. (2010). Girls, Achievement Motivation, and the Glass Ceiling: Implications for Personal Potential. Summary of Keynote at The Alliance of Girls’ School Conference 2010. Retrieved January 17, 2010 from http://www.agsa.org.au/events.php?EventID=54&EPID=33

Tomlinson, C. A. (2008). The Goals of Differentiation. Educational Leadership. 66(3), 26-30.

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