Invisible ties: Finding learning as it happens

This essay is available at ATLAANZ ( An excerpt:

My question is: how can we assess learning as it happens, to find the learning that goes on seemingly invisibly in the classroom? We teachers are past masters (and mistresses) at assessing learning in hindsight — through some sort of examination; assessing learning in action is new to us.

Why is finding the learning important? Because as teachers we can feel when a class is going well and think we can explain why: we’re getting our content across — and all (or enough) of it and in an order that makes sense; we’re making sense; we’re feeling in control or challenged, depending on our preferred style; we’ve plenty of questions or dialogue; we notice that the class is busy and noisy — or the opposite, depending on the discipline. If we feel that a class is going well, most of us would say that there must be learning going on. We don’t know, of course, because students might just be playing along or they might be good at pretending, that is, they might be playing at being good learners. It’s hard to know (most of us teachers are, of course, just playing at being good teachers; we’re just “muddling through,” as Stephen Brookfield (2006, p. 1) puts it. [1]

So, how to assess what’s going on in the learning situation is one problem.

Finding the learning is also important because we currently assess learning — in fact, we tend to define learning — in econometric terms.2 For example, what is considered best practice in assessment, namely, the “constructive alignment” of aims, objectives and outcomes theorised by Biggs (1996) in the ’nineties and now orthodox in higher education is often destructive because it is practiced less flexibly and educatively than it might be. (Biggs himself describes “trapp[ing]” learners in a teaching system as if this were a good thing [2003, p. 2]). [2] I call this end-stopped teaching and learning, or “teaching [and learning] to the test” (Sturm & Turner, 2011, p. 19). We decry this in schools (well, some of us do), while lauding it in universities. [3]

In other words, what to assess in the learning situation is another problem. Not only, then, does this kind of assessment fail to account adequately for learning, but it counts the wrong things (of course, whether we want to count to right things, if to count them is to control them, is questionable). [. . .]

It is through a formative assessment cycle of five actions: notice, recognise, respond, record, revisit (N4R), a.k.a. “planning on our feet,” that we can positively feed back on the learning attributes at work in students’ learning behaviours as they happen by prompting, acknowledging or rewarding them, and feed forward into their future learning. [4] [. . .] Through the heuristic of the formative assessment cycle, I notice learning happening, recognize it as an instance of learning, respond by acknowledging it and recording it (saying something affirmative and writing it down, for example) and revisit the moment in discussion (or writing) later.

Reference list

1. Brookfield, S. (2006). The skilful teacher: On technique, trust, and responsiveness in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

2. Biggs, J. (1996). Enhancing teaching through constructive alignment. Higher Education, 32, 1-18. Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. York: The Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from

3. Sturm, S., & Turner, S. (2011, April-May). The idea of the university. Arena, 111, 16-19. Retrieved from

4. I am indebted to Jacqui Sturm of the Education Leadership Project for alerting me to the idea of a “cycle of planning” and “planning on your feet” (see Ramsey, K., Breen, J., Sturm, J., Lee, W., & Carr, M. [2006]. Roskill South Kindergarten: Centre of Innovation 2003-2006. Hamilton, New Zealand: University of Waikato School of Education, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research).


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