Affirmative Assessment

People don’t like feeling threatened, so it’s no surprise that children look worried when I announce a no-notice assessment; tests are traditionally seen as threatening. Many of my lower school pupils have been doing their first round of ‘brain only’ tests, and the reactions continue to be interesting.

I’ve written about these before, but to summarise, they consist of a mind-map projected onto the board, with a few topic headings and sometimes some content hints but nothing else. The purpose is to put the onus 100% on the pupils to show what they know, without support of any kind. I refuse to give anything more away than clarification of the summary points, which forces pupils to make their own decisions about their knowledge and how to use it. I’ve been doing this for several years now, and a number of colleagues have also taken up the idea, which has the added benefit of being blissfully straightforward to implement.

The rationale, which I share with my pupils, is that things that have been properly learned should be ‘in there’ just waiting to pop back out; mugging for a test is inherently artificial, and prone to immediate forgetting once the ‘threat’ has passed. This way, they can’t do that; we are effectively testing long-term rather than short-term memory.

Judging from the initial reactions of those who have never done this before, the idea of relying entirely on their own cognitive resources is distinctly unfamiliar. I worry that so much teaching in the past decade has revolved around the idea of easy accessibility that we have scaffolded learning to the point where children themselves rarely have to break a sweat. Some seem unfamiliar with the concept of actually being expected to know anything long-term; when I mention the problem of leaving your learning at the lesson door, some (metaphorically) nod in recognition. This way plays to the ‘Quiet’ qualities of inner knowledge – and there is no escape.

So after a brief preamble, they are let loose and spend the remainder of the hour working on their mind maps. Pupils are given A3 paper on which to communicate their ideas as they decide. This format is helpful because it allows pupils to start writing at whatever point they feel they can. Getting started is often the most difficult part, after which everything does indeed just ‘pop back out’, with many writing at length. Credit is given for (correct) extra information that pupils can provide from their own knowledge.

I have refined the process over the years – I judge more carefully the point at which they are allowed to consult their books deferring it if it seems appropriate. This is a one-way decision of their own choosing, following which they notionally score marks at half the rate. They must write in a different colour from that point, for which we now use GREEN – the idea being that knowledge which requires book consultation is effectively that which needs further work.

I have used this across the ability range, with very little modification – the intention being for all to aim as high as they can. I  level the results broadly using KS3 levels, with five or above needing reasonable explanation and six or more needing analysis. Writing diagnostic comments is easy – and the scripts are relatively quick to mark.

But the best bit is that, once familiar with the process, many pupils say they like the format. Quite a few rise to my challenge not to need to open their books – and very many report being pleasantly surprised at how much they find they do know; that is very empowering. I find it rewarding, too, to observe the explicit effects of my teaching. There is ample scope for positive reinforcement, and it also forces a realisation upon those who struggle that maybe they do need to pay more attention. Over time, this procedure provides an incentive to try to retain what they learn in lessons, as they now know they will be expect to demonstrate it. We are talking about real learning here, not just short-term performance.

Progressive teachers may be nodding knowingly at this point – but I see little to contradict the traditionalist ethos either, in giving pupils what amounts to a half-termly exam in silence. The key thing is that the task is demanding but still affirmative. And it has an interesting effect on behaviour, which also makes me wonder what the pupils are experiencing across their education more generally as a result of the all-singing-all-dancing type of lesson they perhaps more frequently encounter.

For all that they often seem unable to focus for long, when given a challenging task of this sort for which they have no option but to concentrate on their own resources, many do seem perfectly capable of rising to the challenge. Last period on Friday, I had a sometimes-difficult low ability class writing in silence for an hour without any bidding from me. Now that has to be worth doing.


5 thoughts on “Affirmative Assessment

    • Please let me know how you get on – will be interesting to see if it will cross discipline boundaries. No reason why it shouldn’t.

  1. Hi,

    I jave just been reading this having completed a two year project looking at how this idea of concept mapping could be used in Science! I am relieved to hear someone else who also find this practice useful and finds it a useful device for really getting to the core of what students know. I tried in my project to steer away from graded feedback, instead focusing on showing students and myself what they really know. I loved the idea that you use of allowing them to later go to their books and continue their work in a different colour.
    I am really interestd in how you convinced other teachers to see the worth in the practice? In my experience, I have only found colleagues in History to be easy to convince as they could see how the demonstration of links between concepts as useful for them to assess. Have you also tried to evaluate how effective the strategy is at assessing student’s abilty to apply and use the knowledge? I do wonder if this form of assessment demonstrates the varietyof facts known by a student, rather than what they can do with them?



    • Hello Mike, thanks for your message. I had the feeling this is just too simple to be original!

      I find that this technique works on many levels. It seems to me to be the clearest way of finding out what the pupils have actually retained, though yes I agree maybe it places much emphasis on pure memory. Is that wrong? What is the distinction between Long-Term Memory and Knowledge? It can still be argued that the ultimate test of someone’s intellectual effectiveness is what they know/can do purely from their own resources. I think the mapping technique is essential as it removes the barriers to starting that a linear test might impose.

      I have found that despite initial groaning, by the end of their first test, there is often a real sense of achievement in the room and many pupils do agree that they are positively surprised by what they can write. My sense is that pupils feel they have had some real intellectual demands placed on them, and they actually quite like that – especially the autonomy to say what they want. In that sense, perhaps it gives them ‘ownership’ of the work they have just covered.

      I believe that it also serves as a useful revision/consolidation aid as well – along the line of desirable difficulties. I don’t necessarily make this explicit to the pupils – learning is IMO better done unconsciously. Making pupils reflect on their work and decide how the various parts integrate is very valuable, particularly in the humanities where an abstract overview of complex issues is what we work with.

      The green pen part of the process encourages pupils to look back through their work in a purposeful way, and it forces some to confront their deficiencies in that respect, too. Green pen reinforces the current message about improving one’s work through review of weaknesses.

      I think some form of graded assessment is needed because one needs to be able to respond to the somewhat unpredictable nature of what the pupils write. In my school we have retained levels, and used in a broad-brush way, they do help in identifying the quality of response. One does however have to be prepared for the outcomes to be lower than one might find in more scaffolded activities, but my gut feeling is that the results do reflect my perception of the pupils’ abilities.

      I’m not especially keen on the whole green pen/ target setting rigmarole, but I have found that applying it on the return of these tests does lend it some purpose.

      I’m not really able to answer your point about further application of knowledge, as that’s not been my focus. I suspect that it has helped when issues arise naturally in later lessons. I’m more interested in the longer term effect of the tests. I have a wider ability range this year, and I will be applying the tests more methodically, so I will be interested to see if there is a long term improvement in pupils’ performance and whether it has an effect on their ongoing focus in lessons.

      As for getting other colleagues interested, that has mostly happened by itself as they saw/heard what was going on; a few recently via the blog too. But it is mostly humanities and similar subjects rather than the science end. I suspect it works especially well for the kind of thinking we do in those subjects. But I most definitely use it for physical geography such as plate tectonics, and it works fine.

      The ‘brass’ at our school have seen it in operation, however, and don’t seem noticeably impressed.

      I hope that answers your questions. Please feel free to PM me at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s