There is a growing body of research that suggests poor academic performance and behavioural outcomes are associated with problems of student engagement in the academic and social experiences of schooling (Li-Grining, Votruba-Drzal, Maldonado-Carrefio, & Haas, 2010; Matthews & Kizzie, 2010; McClelland, Acock, Piccinin, Rhea, & Stallings, 2013). This paper explores research relevant to improving student engagement through formative assessment, which has been referred to as assessment for learning by scholars, such as Broadfoot (2008). Early assessment of student engagement provides critical information for teachers about how they can strategically adapt formative assessment strategies to further support academic achievement (Barghaus et al., 2017). Reviewing this literature is important, as McClelland et al. (2013) suggests a link between student engagement in early primary school and the trajectory for cultivating skills required for future success in educational outcomes.
Student engagement has primarily and historically focused on increasing achievement,
positive behaviours, and a sense of belonging in students so they might remain in school (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor, 2006). Historically, the focus was high school completion, research on student engagement mainly targeted students in primary and high school, where student engagement becomes a primary concern (Wiliams, Friesen, & Milton, 2009). Student engagement was a way to motivate or reclaim a minority of predominantly socio-economically disadvantaged students at risk of dropping out of high school (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). Eventually, student engagement strategies were further developed and implemented to manage classroom behaviours in the primary context. In recent times, student engagement has been built around the optimistic goal of enhancing all students’ abilities to learn or to become lifelong learners (Gilbert, 2007).
Engagement can be split into academic, social and behavioural. Academic engagement is defined by behaviours that directly influence the learning process, such as task persistence and attentiveness to completing academic activities (Finn & Zimmer, 2012). Social engagement reflects behaviours that moderate the influence of academic engagement on achievement, including following rules and appropriately interacting with teachers and other students (Finn & Zimmer, 2012). In contrast to cognitive engagement and emotional engagement, which focus on internal processes that are not readily observable, behavioural engagement focuses on manifest observable aspects of engagement (Finn & Zimmer, 2012).
Biggs and Tang (2007) suggests that students learn best when they are motivated to participate and engage in learning activities. Formative assessment plays an important role in measuring student achievement of intended learning outcomes and provides teachers and students opportunities for students and teachers to monitor the learning process (Jiao, 2015). Unlike summative assessment that is given to students at the end of learning, formative assessment is carried out during the learning process and intends to provide students with feedback that enables them to improve achievement on learning outcomes. Feedback is a primary component in formative assessment and one of the factors that have the strongest influence on achievement (Huhta, 2010). The literature suggests that formative assessment should provide qualitative feedback, however it was found that some students were disengaged in these forms of assessments because they were not worth marks (Huhta, 2010; Rust, Price, & O’Donovan, 2003). Furthermore, Jollands, McCallum, and Bondy (2009) studied students’ learning behaviour and discovered that students did not pay attention to feedback if they were not required to repeat the task and given an opportunity to corrects errors made. Ultimately, the literature suggests that when feedback is received, it may be too late for students to take on the feedback and to make a difference in their learning (Crisp, 2007).
Assessment for Learning
Assessment for learning (AFL) is a formative assessment practice that monitors student success, through an exchange of regular feedback with students about how they are learning. It is shown to increase student engagement, which is about ‘learning for further development’ and less about meeting learning outcomes (Taras, 2010). AFL can be split into four interventions: questioning, feedback, peer- and self-assessment and formative use of summative tests (Taras, 2010). Barrett (2005) provides research-based principles of AFL that aids in increasing student engagement. The principles recommend that:
- AFL should be included in any effective teaching plan
- AFL should concentration on student learning needs
- AFL should be centralised in classroom practice
- AFL should be sensitive to the learning needs of all students
- AFL should enhance student engagement and motivation
- AFL coincide with learning outcomes
- AFL foster self-reflection for teachers and students
- AFL should recognise the different learning needs of all students
- AFL should provide learners with constructive feedback (Barrett, 2005, p. 17).
Synthesis of Key Findings
A synthesis of the key findings found common strategies to improve student engagement in learning. For example, Windham (2005) recommends that to engage children in learning, education must provide students opportunities to interact and explore relevant and have multimedia embedded. Windham’s (2005) views presented by the literature are shared by Wiliams (2009), Claxton (2007), Dunleavy and Milton (2009) and OECD (2010). A synthesis of the readings reveal some key findings related to student engagement: (1) Interaction, (2) Exploration, (3) Relevancy, (4) Multimedia, (5) Instruction, and (6) Authentic Assessment.
Students are becoming increasingly social and interactive in recent times. Building respectful and interactive relationships with students are shown to improve student engagement (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). A survey conducted by Wiliams et al. (2009) frequently revealed that:
- Students want stronger relationships with their peers, teachers and community
- Students want their teachers to know how they learn and make it a consideration as part of their learning and assessment process
- Students what to learn in an environment that promotes interdependence between teachers and students (p.36).
Dunleavy and Milton (2009) also conducted a survey about the learning environment that would increase engagement for students and found three common criteria that connect to the concept of interaction:
- Learn from each other
- Connect with experts in the community
- Have more opportunities for discussion (p.10)
Authentic intellectual engagement requires a deeper exchange in the teaching-learning relationship where students’ engagement begins as they actively construct their learning, develop deep conceptual understanding and contribute to building new knowledge or devising assessment strategies (Dunleavy & Milton, 2009). Such teaching requires teachers to use assessment for learning as it contains more interaction, negotiation, and exploration among learners and teachers, who explore and discuss content together. Dunleavy and Milton (2009) describe the need for an open, caring and respectful relationship between teachers and learner to develop and support social and psychological engagement in learning.
Teachers also play an important role in shaping a teacher-student relation that supports the development of social and emotional skills. Despite the increasing challenges that face students as they progress through primary and secondary schools. Taylor and Parsons (2011) found that students thrived when students developed quality relationships with their teachers. Assessment for learning provide students with opportunities to connect with teachers who approach these relationships with care, empathy, respect and a desire to know students personally. Thus, building children into resilient young people full of confidence and adaptive learners (Dunleavy & Milton, 2009).
Inquiry-based, problem-based, and exploratory classroom practices has been reported to engage learnings (Barnes, Marateo, & Ferris, 2007; Wiliams et al., 2009), which is supported by longitudinal Alberta-based research (Parsons, McRae, & Taylor, 2006). Engaging students with classroom practices, including assessment for learning, that are inquiry-based, problem-based and exploratory provides students the opportunity to explore and find answers for themselves. Learning interactions that offer little contexts often fail to transfer knowledge (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). Students have often sought to explore past the classroom into the wider community. Providing students these providing engages them in learning that is far more authentic than reading about it in class.
One common prerequisite for engaging learners is “relevancy.” The literature reveals that today’s students are opposed to being theoretical and text-based and prefer learning that applies to real-life situations. Students want to undertake work that is relevant, meaningful authentic and related to community issues (Claxton, 2007; Dunleavy & Milton 2009; Wiliams, Friesen, & Milton, 2009). Therefore, to enhance student engagement assessment for learning must become intellectually engaging and relevant learners’ lives. Effective assessment can be designed with these features:
• The task requires and instills critical thinking
• The task connects to the real world
• The task has intellectual integrity
• The task involves deep conversation (Wiliams, Friesen, & Milton, 2009, p. 34)
Multimedia & Technology
Technology offers learners accessible and relevant information and access to experts in the field and is a tool for engaged learning on a global scale (Taylor & Parsons, 2011). Both students and teachers call for expanding beyond standard computer stations and overhead projectors to facilitate deeper research and learning and to build relationships among learners and experts (Parsons et al., 2006; Project Tomorrow, 2010). Multimedia and technology, such as cameras, video editing and SmartBoards, have demonstrated to be supportive in engaging students in learning about subjects, in discovering multiple interpretations and in helping students control their learning (Project Tomorrow, 2010; Wiliams et al., 2009).
Teachers report that technology increases factors of student engagement – including cognitive, affective, behavioural, academic, and social engagement (Project Tomorrow, 2010). Project Tomorrow (2010) found using technology in the classroom, students are more motivated to learn, apply their knowledge to practical problems, and take ownership of their learning. Incorporating formative assessments that develop 21st Century skills including creativity, collaboration, problem-solving and critical thinking with technology is a crucial factor of student engagement. Additionally, the learning experience becomes more meaningful for the student as teachers have greater control over differentiated instruction (Project Tomorrow, 2010, p. 2).
Some literature also reveals that not everyone agrees that incorporating digital technology in assessment is the best option for increasing student engagement. A study conducted by OECD (2008) suggested that some educators believe that formative assessments that are entrenched in technology can cause harm and be a distraction. However, a review also suggests that research is beginning to show positive correlations between technology and student engagement (Taylor & Parsons, 2011).
A synthesis of the literature reveals keys features of assessment for learning such as relevancy, exploration, multimedia and interaction is linked to a positive correlation to increasing student engagement. Although there is little scientific evidence in the literature to support that multimedia is linked to improved student engagement, anecdotal evidence provided by teachers in the OECD (2008) report that too much exposure to technology can have a negative effect. Further research regarding the link between technology and student engagement needs to be conducted to reduce the concerns of some teachers. In closing, the literature strongly supports the practice of formative assessments strategies to increase social, behavioural and academic engagement of students from the 21st century.
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