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How can I effectively manage students’ learning take account of self-assessment within MFL?

Researcher: Karen Collins

Westwood St. Thomas School, Salisbury, Wiltshire
Educational Enquiry Assignment

Master's level programme,
The University of Bath

January 2003


“Why did I not get Level 5 like him? We did our work together”

“I wrote 5 more sentences than her, and I still only got a Level 4-even though there was only three mistakes in it. Why did I bother with all that effort?”
Comments from students within Year 9 (Spring 2002)

“One of the most frustrating things is when I do not get the chance to improve my work. It would be good if teachers could give us a clear idea and the time to do this”
Comment by Shane Garvin, Year 10 student at Westwood (November 2002)

It was the consistency of comments such as this from students, which showed me the inadequacy of my own classroom practice in relation to students’ awareness of their own progression. The perceived need for students within MFL to self-evaluate their own work, showing both comprehension of the process and its outcomes, had also previously been highlighted not only by subject staff, but also by three external influences. Firstly within the school’s last Ofsted report (1998) as an area for development, secondly within the school’s improvement plan 2001-2002 and thirdly as an area for improvement within the 2002 internally conducted Faculty review

“We are providing students with a student-friendly coursework mark scheme, in order to help them to see where they are in terms of GCSE Grades. This is problematic to say the least, as the only way this works is when the work is corrected first…Is this true self-assessment?” (Comment from MFL Head of Faculty during the assessment Teacher Training Day 14/10/2002)

Focusing on this area has combined strongly with my own teaching values, in the fact that students should be given the opportunity to develop self-awareness of their own progress and also have a clear idea of how to improve their own work. This is a value that has been highlighted by myself in previous research relating to awareness and autonomy within learning : Research undertaken within the Faculty has been divided into practice within Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4. Both of these have informed the other, which has led to a cycle of modification of the research objectives, changing the focus of the research in the light of work with students .
Black (1998) sees this process as a “black box”, whereby the process of input to output within the classroom is seen as paramount to success. Following a discussion with a student who had read my previous research, I began to see that the students within the classroom should consciously inform this process. As Whitehead (2002) states “This is the case where pupils are the experts. They are the ones who can really inform the process” I therefore wished to engage the students as central to the research, and utilise them as critical friends, capable of adding an internal perspective to the research process, which I believe, has better informed the practice taking place within the Faculty . This was the start of a great journey for me.

The process

Whitehead (2002) looked into the status of pupils within Educational Action Zone research. She states that “The use of pupil perspectives is recognised as significant in raising standards” and that educators should “recognise pupils’ social maturity and experience by giving them responsibilities and opportunities to share decision making”, further enhancing my own view that student involvement should be critical to the success of the research.
Over the course of the research, I therefore began to centralise the direction of the research not only on my own judgments in order to take the learning forward, but increasingly to engage students as to the level of influence they felt I was having upon the process of self-evaluation within their own learning .
It became immediately apparent to myself as teacher-researcher that there was a parallel issue present within the research, and that was of the quality of relationships within the classroom. Unless students felt secure to have their work scrutinised by peers, or felt safe to give opinions within the classroom context, then the process of the evaluation itself would be not only slowed but also would become artificial.

The first part of the process began in January 2002, when the MFL Department perceived the student need to understand Attainment Target Levels as the main form of summative assessment within Key Stage 3. As a consequence, in collaboration with Middle School colleagues, a “student friendly” list was compiled for each of the four Targets. This was also done in consultation with the History Department at Westwood, which similarly had devised a list of Key Stage 3 level descriptors in a series of “you can” statements . As this “student friendly” list sat laminated within my own classroom, similar to those of my colleagues, it soon became apparent that whilst I could tell students where to refer in order to better understand the summative and formative assessment that was being undertaken, they had little understanding how these 4-5 sentence descriptions related to their work .

It became clear, as a result of student comments and my own frustrations at having to explain the reasons for certain assessments time and time again, that I realised that not only did students need concrete examples of what the different Attainment Target Levels looked like, but that formative assessment alone was wholly inadequate at furthering students’ understanding if students did not understand the comments made. This combined with a need for students within Key Stage 4 to possess the skill of self-evaluation with a view to re-drafting coursework to improve standards. Black (1998:5) states that effective learning is an activity in which “students have to be actively involved” and that “what is needed is a culture of success, backed by a belief that all can succeed” I then began to term feedback as “focusing on the quality of work whilst giving advice on how to improve”. Utilising the students’ voice in order to devise a series of bullet points of ways in which to improve gave even low attainers the language they needed. By giving them ownership over what the bullet points should contain, in connection with a good understanding of the criteria for success, students were able to quickly establish “a criteria for success” list . This was made through construct-referenced criteria, which gave students examples of work at varying attainment target levels Black (1998:100) states “pupils should be trained in self-assessment so that they can understand the main points of learning and thereby grasp what they need to do to achieve”

The next stage of the process was to allow students to engage in peer assessment, in order to place the “criteria for success into practice” Before engaging the students in this process, I commented the following within my journal “Although this group are bright and capable of this, I still had my doubts about the maturity of some to aid their partners and also about the distinct split between student friendship groupings within the set. If some gave over their work for inspection, and this was returned with inappropriate or negative comments, then I felt the trust within the group would not allow this type of work to continue” (Comment from teacher-researcher journal September 2002)

Engaging the students in this process allows comparison with research conducted by Whitehead (2002) and by Nottinghamshire County Council (2001). In the research summary Whitehead states “There was therefore recognition of a shared responsibility, that of the teacher for establishing conditions conducive to learning and complementing this their own positive disposition to learn through their interaction with the teacher, their relationship with their peers and their own self discipline. What is interesting is that more students were prepared to see learning as their responsibility” Students within my own classroom appeared to recognise the responsibility that they had been given with this task, and during the assessment-peer feedback, all actively engaged with their partner in discussion at some level. Within Nottinghamshire’s document “Providing for Able Pupils” (2001) the following statement is included within the section entitled “a consumer audit”; “If we are serious about our desire to improve what happens within school and thereby raise standards, we have to ask the consumers what they feel about the learning environment…they often provide some telling and perceptive insights into what makes for effective learning”

I would push even further with regards to the level of insight provided by students, as I feel that we often undermine their capabilities and rational thought in relation to their own learning. It is only through allowing them the opportunity that this becomes so clear. Following the success of construct referenced criteria and peer assessment, my colleagues and I set about widening this process to all students within Key Stage 3. This involved explicitly teaching the criteria for success that was needed at different attainment target levels, as well as giving students time to self-assess pre-selected pieces of work that had previously assessed by subject staff. Feedback from colleagues was positive about this process; “They really enjoyed the opportunity to be the assessors themselves for a change. Really lively discussion took place within groups and there was a competitive element, as students tried to be the most accurate with their predicted Levels,” Comment from MFL Head of Faculty (October 2002)

“One of the hardest aspects for them to consider was the “worthiness” of the piece in terms of what level it was actually communicating. In discussion with colleagues this again came up. We are asking students to evaluate pieces in which it is hard to gauge the amount of errors and the level of syntax disruption. These students were however coping with this to a great extent, and were picking out the errors in terms of syntax and spelling. Perhaps we do not give our students enough credit at this level” (comment from teacher-researcher journal 08/11/2002)

This comment relates to the next stage of the process; relating the work taking place within Key Stage 3 to that within Key Stage 4 in preparation for written coursework. This presented itself with several problems, firstly that the current Key Stage 4 students have not had the opportunity to self-assess work, and secondly that they were often reliant on teacher direction to make improvements. We were now asking many to change their style of working after already having completing one or two written pieces. It also raised the considerable problem that the examination dictates, “feedback shall only be given by the official feedback form, no other guidance shall be given” In consultation with colleagues, we decided to insert a further stage into written coursework, allowing the students to self-assess and peer-assess at the end of their rough draft. By giving the students the opportunity to self-assess their work, we could not be penalised for giving additional feedback. Allowing students who were comfortable with the criteria for success to peer assess the students’ work in the role of “teacher” we hoped would allow a continual improvement of students’ understanding of the success criteria.

A draft form was compiled for this process (available as Appendix 4), which led students more succinctly through the process of coursework. For the first time, they were asked to consider the audience of their piece of work. They were also asked to reflect on their own learning by brainstorming keywords and phrases for the coursework topic, and to assess their coursework related to the “pupil speak” criteria of which each student was now in possession.
After one round of this type of self-assessment, I asked students in my own classes to suggest improvements to the form, and also to give comments on whether this form was really helping them to further their understanding .

Bruce et al (2000:256) support the idea of listening to learn through the following comments; “Teaching by listening showed how children were able to engage more deeply in the process of mathematical thinking when they were encouraged to articulate their own ideas and not just listen to the teacher. Through this telling, the children often revealed aspects of thinking about the teaching that could provide invaluable guidance to the teacher” they also note “It is noteworthy that supportive dialogue thus serves as a teaching approach, as a research tool, and as an essential element for collaboration” (2000:248) Supportive dialogue was not only considered useful, but essential to refining the research taking place within MFL. Other similar practice related to self-evaluation was taking place within the History Faculty at Key Stage 3, involving giving students a booklet based on defining the unit targets both for the unit itself and for the student within that unit . A common feature between the MFL and History examples was the “student friendly” attainment target levels . Other good practice was highlighted within Science via the development of a “traffic-light” system, whereby students prioritise their own learning needs by colour-coordination and also by practice within the school’s English Faculty. Simon Riding, Head of Faculty, states, “What influence have you had as a teacher in moving a student forward? I feel that I ineffectively use the feedback sheets for GCSE coursework…students never have the opportunity to really learn from my summative comments” (Assessment paper for discussion, September 2002, included as Appendix 5) The question which my colleague considers here is at the heart of what I am striving to achieve within MFL, and to relate this to my values both as a teacher-researcher and as a linguist .

The management of the process was also an element of the research that showed similarities between English and MFL. Within English, this process has been in a series of stages, beginning with a discussion paper bought up on the agenda at Faculty meetings and further discussion between colleagues working towards modifications of the process. The beginning stage for MFL came very much from the self, combined with recommendation of the need for this process within the Faculty to take place following the Faculty review. Involvement with colleagues has been through (similar to the English example) further discussion at Faculty meetings, following a trial of the process that we wished to collaboratively put into place.

Recommendations from colleagues have been central to the process of improvement that has taken place, both internally and externally through the initial involvement of the former MFL advisor for Dorset. In 2000, an initial meeting took place to look at student friendly Attainment Target Levels as a priority. By examining these with the feeder Middle Schools, it was hoped that transition for students would become more unified in terms of individuals understanding progression. This is similar to Everard & Morris’ comments (1996:176) that “Corporate planning can be adapted to education as to any other profession..providing a sound framework for thought, and discussion at meetings with staff and others”

The delegation which has taken place within the MFL team can be defined by Everard and Morris as “defining a meaningful goal”(1996:49), here recognised by the feedback from the Faculty review. The effective nature of implementing student self-evaluation at Key Stage 4 has been through listing clearly defined objectives with Faculty meetings identified in advance to review the process. During these meetings, the objectives were re-defined in light of evidence from subject staff, yet the decision on how to proceed was ultimately taken by the teacher-researcher who felt passionately about implementing this change. “Commitment based on the “my idea-it will work principle” becomes even stronger if we delegate as much as possible of the decision-making to the implementers…there is a review process, recognition of achievement automatically built into the process” (Everard et al 1996:49) The process at Key Stage 3 however still needed modification in terms of having clearly defined criteria and objectives with a timetable. The Faculty wishes this to be a more open-ended process, negotiated with students and the individual teacher. This is in-line with the current Faculty focus on raising results at Key Stage 4 due to underachievement by a significant majority of students within coursework in the 2002 examinations. I would however argue though that instilling this process of awareness in terms knowing what and how to improve already at Key Stage 3 will allow success at Key Stage 4 to be a follow-on process.

In looking into examples of good practice within other Faculties, and taking the elements of these into our own work a “collegiate culture” has been created, to the extent that colleagues were discussing and observing other colleagues’ work, and working with a common vision, but one which was directed towards a subject specialism. Fullan (2000:108) describes this as “a common collegiate technical culture or analytic orientation”. It was observed by several colleagues that we wished this process to become one of professional sharing, whereby positive elements of individual’s/team’s work is being shared, but not so much as there is a prescribed format for us to follow-which we felt would ultimately sacrifice the creativity of our work

It was at this stage that I proceeded to ask if teams of colleagues could work together with a common vision, could this not be true for teacher and pupil researchers in collaboration. Whilst interviewing Craig, Shane and Natasha about their thoughts on this type of collaboration, Craig replied “If students would be willing to get involved with the research, I think that, if only a few wished to help, teachers and students would need to have meetings to discuss their views and what they think should appear” Here, Craig appears to be defining collegiality, but in a different sense, whereby student and staff have equal ownership over the process.
Defining objectives at review meetings, as recognised by both Everard & Morris (1996) and McNiff et al (2000) above has here been recognised by a student who has formally not taken part in such a process. Craig’s level of insight here, appeared to myself to be at a level beyond his experience. Craig goes on to comment “With the possibility of teachers and students working as a group to produce the research it would raise future opportunities of more sessions for higher and less able students” Shane, another Year 10 student continues by asking “How can a better link be established between pupils and teachers?” Ruddock et al (2000) have pointed to the rich potential afforded by discovering about pupils’ perspectives of being learners, data that could be used to implement strategies to enhance their efforts and attainment.
The statements that both Craig and Shane have made also point to the results of research caries out by Whitehead into Educational Action Zones. She comments, “Our research provides a rich source of evidence derived from students’ experiences in a particular context of disadvantage and allows us to learn what they value, what they want to accomplish and be accomplished”(2002)


As I defined a need to research the self-evaluation of students within MFL, I began to plan for the methods and tools which I could use to help show evidence of this process in action, and to inform the process as it continued. During this planning stage, it could be noted that several aspects of my methodology closely related to choices made by myself in previous research. I proposed to evaluate the process of the research by using several methods, all aimed at creating triangulation and validity of the research.

The first method was to be via a journal created by myself as the participant-observer in the research and by a sample group of participant students in the programme, from which extracts are shown above. The journal served to highlight the personal record of events and thought processes by these two sets of participant. “Providing that accounts are authentic, it is argued, there is no reason why they should not be used as scientific tools in explaining people’s actions” (Cohen, Manion & Morrison 2001b: 294) .

My second method was to utilise both the research group at Westwood and a group of Year 10 students involved in the process as “critical friends” for my research . This was both on a group level, as well as on an individual level. In asking these “critical friends” to crosscheck my interpretation of the accounts, it was hoped that the validity of the process would be increased.

A third method was to interview the participants of the research, which divided into two categories. Firstly, asking a colleague from outside the school to interview a sample of the students from the control group, and secondly talking to colleagues within the MFL Faculty about their thoughts related to the process. In choosing an outside “lay” interviewer (namely a Middle School colleague) to conduct the research, I was opening myself to the limitations and advantages of this process. This colleague, not being involved with this process, was able to increase the reliability of the interview answers, in that she had no personal bias or previous knowledge about the research. The interview format took the form of a group interview, with the interviewer reading out a “synopsis” of the aims of the interview, before proceeding with a list of questions.

The interview was filmed by one of the student-participators, which I felt would make the interview into an ethnographic study, looking at the interview through literally, the eyes of the student . I also recognised that the sampling technique that I used had its limitations. I chose to interview using a “systematic sampling” system, in that I selected subjects from the control group’s register, inviting every fourth student to interview. Cohen and Manion (2001b:98) state that “the research will need to consider the extent in which it is important that the sample in fact recognises the whole population in question”. If I had the opportunity to conduct the interview again, I would wish to utilise a “stratified sampling” method, selecting students after stratifying the group into layers of gender, attainment and amount of involvement within the process.
Any sampling though, will already weaken the idea that the “all stakeholders” give a viewpoint to the process. In discussion with Jack Whitehead (11/2002), this issue was bought up. By only asking some students to give their viewpoint, the balance of the viewpoint expressed may already be removed from that of other stakeholders within the process. If conducting this research again, I would aim to pass the comment on to students who have not been involved in the discussions, so that they could annotate these in order that they could be further modified to express a more inclusive viewpoint.


Following discussion with Shane (a Year 10 student) that he had read some of the previous work conducted by teacher-researchers at Westwood, the research group felt that ethics of including student’s work, comments and visual image needed to be addressed at a higher level. Upon reading the research, Shane commented “I thought it was quite interesting to read things like this from the teacher’s point of view. She was talking about meetings that I had been to-I was amazed by how some of her opinions were to mine” and similarly ”Perhaps it would be really interesting to compare her journal to a pupil’s. I wonder how similar they would be?” Already Shane was considering student involvement as a useful and valid point of research, and I wished to involve students as named participants of the research, by explaining the process of involvement to them and by seeking parental consent as to individual’s involvement. This appeared to go against the view that “The obligation to protect the anonymity of research participants and to keep research data confidential is all-inclusive” (Frankfort, Nachmias & Nachmias 1992: 61). However, the process which I wished to include of informed consent “has been defined by Diener and Crandall (1978:57) as “the procedures in which individuals choose whether to participate in an investigation after being informed of facts that would be likely to affect their decisions”

In asking the students to be involved, I refer to the guidelines for reasonable informed consent as stated by Cohen and Manion (2001b:51). These state that participants should “expect an instruction to withdraw consent and to discontinue participation in the project at any time without prejudice to the participant”. This guideline raised the question that if one of the students decided after submission of this research material, to withdraw their consent, of whether I would then need to request the research back in order to make the necessary adjustments. I hoped however, that by using the system of access and acceptance, that I “could establish my own ethical position with respect to my research” (Cohen and Manion 2001b:53) I proceeded to seek the verbal permission of staff, whose comments have been included within the research. In order to maintain this position, I have submitted a copy of this research document to those staff involved, so as to check that the statements included are acceptable to them; stating that nil-returns would indicate acceptance of my claims. I have also met with the student-researchers who were heavily committed to the process, in order to check the validity of my claims .


This research, has bought together various good practice occurring within the school related to students evaluating their own work and further improving upon this. I would argue though that this model of professional sharing is at the extent of what is possible, without stifling the creativity occurring within individual Faculties. If a top-down decision as made to make this process a uniform one, whilst making the student’s experience a more succinct one, it would also curtail the process for which the original work was intended. By including the students’ voice within the research, this has allowed me insider knowledge into their perceptions of learning. This inclusion has allowed the research to be tailored towards the needs of the students, and has produced dialogue of an informative and insightful nature between teacher and student. I would credit the use of students as co researchers in any further research that I undertake with regards to my own education practice.
Following comments both by students and colleagues about this process, I can make recommendations about how the process should now proceed to further strengthen the work already carried out within the Faculty:

  • The Faculty concentrates upon the students’ experience at Key Stage 3, building in lessons aimed at evaluation of written work (both self- and peer-evaluation) into the existing Scheme of Work.
  • Review meetings continue about the process, with experiences shared amongst colleagues and recommendations made by the teacher-researcher.
  • An evaluation sheet is produced for Key Stage 3 written work, linked closely to the Key Stage 4 evaluation sheet. This will build in series of stepping-stones, whereby students achieving all; the objectives for one level will proceed to the next.
  • The use of student-researchers is further developed within the Faculty, setting up a student working party of interested students to work alongside teachers on developing self-evaluation. Review meetings take place of this process (asking students to attend part of the Faculty meetings with parental consent) and asking students involved to keep a journal of their thoughts on the continuing process.

I hope that by learning to work with students as equals within the research process, I will never again find myself in the embarrassing situation whereby students read research written about them, without having been asked their viewpoint upon the process. This has been an incredible journey of self.


Bruce, B. and Easley, N.(2000) Emerging communities of practise; collaboration and communication in action research. Educational Action Research Volume 8, Number 2, 117-119, Oxfordshire: Carfax,
Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the black box: Raising standard through classroom assessment London: King’s College School.
Brown, J. and Sime, J.D.(1981) A Methodology of Accounts. In M. Brenner (ed.) Social Method and Social Life. 159-88, London: Academic Press.
Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2001b) Research Methods in Education. 5th ed. New York: Routledge/Falmer.
Collins, K. (2002) How have my values as an educator been influenced by my role as A, G&T coordinator? Unpublished MA unit: University of Bath.
Diener, R. and Crandall, R. (1978) Ethics in Social and Behavioural research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Everard, K. & Morris, G. (1996) Effective School Mangement 3rd ed. London: Paul Chapman.
Frankfort-Nachmias, C. & Nachmias, D. (1992) Research Methods in the Social Sciences. London: Edward Arnold.
Fullan, M.G. (2000). The New Meaning of Educational Change. 8th ed. London:Continuum.
Leyden, S. (2002) Supporting the child of Exceptional ability at Home and School 3rd ed. Oxford: NACE. Nottinghamshire County Council Publication (2001) Able Pupils: Providing for able pupils and those with exceptional talent
Rudduck, J., Berry, M, Brown, N. and Frost, D. (2000) “Schools learning from schools” Research papers in Education 15(3), pp.259-274.
Whitehead, J McNiff, J. &Lomax, P. (2000) You and Your Action Research Project. 5th ed. New York: Routledge.
Whitehead, J. (2002) Pupils: the forgotten partner in EAZ partnerships Unpublished draft paper, University of the West of England.



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