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Discussions and observations

"Assessment for the purpose of improving student learning is best understood as an ongoing process that arises out of the interaction between teaching and learning. It involves the focused and timely gathering, analysis, interpretation, and use of information that can provide evidence of student progress. Much of this evidence is 'of the moment'. Analysis and interpretation often take place in the mind of the teacher, who then uses the insights gained to shape their actions as they continue to work with their students."

The New Zealand Curriculum, 2007, page 39

Making learning visible starts with you, the teacher, regarding all students as learners and asking, “What is each student in my class learning day by day?” and, “How do they learn best?” Your goal should be a shared understanding with each student about what they are learning, how they will know when they have learnt it, and what their next learning steps will then be.

The sections below discuss four examples of approaches that you can employ to ensure that every student takes ownership of their learning and their achievement is understood, shared, and celebrated:

  • teacher observations
  • learning conversations
  • self- and peer assessment
  • learning stories.

Teacher observations

Teachers’ and other team members’ observations of students are key to understanding where students are up to in their learning and what their next steps are. Observations range from everyday, informal "noticing" as you move about the classroom to more planned, structured observations. In all cases, effective observation is underpinned by a strong understanding of what achievement looks like in the relevant learning context and area:

"Good observation requires detailed knowledge of what you expect a student to need to be able to do in order to make progress. You then observe whether they can do this or not. If not, what do they do and what are the implications for what you need to do next?"

Absolum, 2006, page 111

Your observations of your students will therefore be informed by your knowledge of the expectations outlined in documents such as The New Zealand Curriculum, the Literacy Learning Progressions, and the English Language Learning Progressions (ELLP). They will also rely on your understanding of the learning goals that have been set by or for your students – for some students with additional learning needs, these will be detailed in individual education plans (IEPs).

Robinson and Lai (2006) distinguish between observations that explore what is happening versus those that check what is happening. Observations that explore what is happening tend to be more open-ended and informal. In order to obtain reliable information from them, you need to distinguish between what is happening and your inferences about what this means. Robinson and Lai suggest recording words and actions accurately and separating them from your inferences. The following example illustrates this, using a recording template they recommend:

Description of the incident




Bridget asks Israel, “Is there a better strategy you can use than ‘counting on’ to solve this problem?”
  • Israel thinks for a moment and then shrugs his shoulders.
  • Bridget writes down the first two numbers of a skip-counting sequence.
  • Israel smiles and completes the sequence to solve the problem.
Israel is open to coaching from his peers.

Observations that check what is happening require more precision in defining what to observe and how to observe. For example, if your syndicate or department wanted to observe how supportive students are of one another, you would need to agree on specific demonstrations of what such support looks like – for example, one demonstration might be "The student responds positively and promptly to a request for help from a peer".

Marko is a year 7 student who is non-verbal and enjoys baking at home with his family. He attends food technology classes with his peers and the support of Sam, his teacher aide. In today’s lesson, the class is learning to make pancakes. Sam sets up a visual schedule of the lesson structure, which is shared with the class. Marko’s learning goal is to be able to use visuals to select the right ingredients.

Miss Malcolm, the food technology teacher, models to Marko and two other students the order for the ingredients. She uses the expression “First we need flour, then we need …”, supported with visuals on the board. She then selects the cup measure and says “We need 1 cup of flour”, placing the cup visual beside the flour visual on the board. Following this demonstration, Sam supports Marko to select the ingredients for his pancakes from a range of ingredients.

Both Sam and Miss Malcolm observe Marko during the lesson, with Sam recording photos and anecdotal comments on an iPad. They notice that Marko is able to gather the right ingredients but needs support to identify the correct measuring receptacle for each item (for example, cup, teaspoon). He is also vocalising more then in the past as he puts each ingredient in the bowl. Sam captures this on video for Marko to share with his home-class teacher. The next learning step for Marko will be to identify the correct measuring receptacle for each ingredient.

Much of your understanding about your students’ learning comes from activities involving listening, discussing, conferencing, and questioning. Because observations often take place during such interactions with students, they also require you to be open to your students’ ways of seeing and making sense of the world and to draw on your knowledge of their interests, strengths, and cultural backgrounds. Marie Clay’s description of what is required to understand what a student brings to reading can be applied to most learning activities and experiences:

"[Observation] involves being a teacher who interacts with the child, who notices the child’s responses to the story, its language and its meanings, and who takes the time to gather evidence of how the child is working on print. The teacher must be reflective and responsive to the negotiations of the child."

Clay, 2005, page 1

As this quote shows, an effective observation will often reflect the "noticing, recognising, and responding" rubric that many New Zealand teachers are familiar with (Cowie, 2000). In the example below, the teacher notices what Michael is doing, recognises the learning that is occurring as a result, and responds by providing follow-up activities to extend Michael’s literacy development.

Michael is a year 2 student who likes ordering numbers and letters. His teacher, Mr Simpson, notices that Michael often listens to the song "Today is Monday" on the HelpKidzLearn website. He decides to try using the song and Michael’s love of ordering to help Michael and some other students learn the sequence for the days of the week. He makes cards with the days of the week and models the sequence for the students as they listen to the song. This quickly becomes a favourite independent activity for the small group.

On several occasions, Mr Simpson observes Michael during this activity and takes notes. He notices that Michael holds the cards, listens to the song, and puts out the matching card. He recognises that through these multiple interactions Michael is now self-regulating and correcting himself when sequencing the days of the week. He also notices that, when self-correcting, Michael doesn’t have to go back to the beginning and say the days in order. Mr Simpson uses the understandings he has gained from his observations to extend Michael and his peers’ engagement with literacy – he uses a different text and matching song on the days of the week; he creates a Clicker forced-order writing activity, using simple sentence starters with specific choices (Today is …, Tomorrow is …); and he adopts the technique of ordering with songs as a basis for literacy activities around months of the year and opposites.

Teacher observations of individuals or small groups form the basis of a number of the assessment approaches discussed later in this section (for example, learning stories). Formal diagnostic tools such as GloSS and running records provide a structured approach and set templates to use, but teachers, syndicates, and departments will also devise their own approaches and templates for their observations, based on their professional knowledge and particular contexts.

The role of learning conversations

Everyday conversations with your students about their learning are a key strategy for both strengthening teaching practice and improving learning outcomes. Feedback and feed-forward between yourself, other team members, your students, and their whānau help to clarify the learning purpose and learning expectations, and it can make visible the successes, small or large, that are occurring.

Feedback during a conversation is most effective when it is given at the time of learning, so students can make improvements as they proceed. Because you will frequently refer to artefacts (such as student work) during a conversation, you need to take into account that:

  • some students may have difficulty understanding and processing feedback; in these cases, using visual representations such as pictures, diagrams, and mind maps can be helpful
  • when students are presented with grades and comments, the grades can cancel the beneficial effects of the comments
  • teachers often give too much feedback, which students find overwhelming and difficult to understand.

Specific, descriptive feedback is necessary for improvement and success. Teachers who combine strong subject knowledge with effective feedback can offer students rich, focused information about their learning and how to improve it. 


More information on effective feedback is available on TKI.

Consider also the formats you use to support regular learning conversations in the learning environment. Every student needs to be able to give and receive feedback and to play an active role in the feedback process. A feedback conversation uses a shared language, which both parties need to understand. Approaches based on Universal Design for Learning will help to ensure this is the case. For example, formats such as plain language, audio, photos and videos, NZ sign language, and audio notes will support conversations with students, particularly those with additional needs. Feed forward strategies such as diaries, schedules, social stories, visual schedules, "I-am-learning-to …" goal cards, and videos can be used to remind students and yourself about the next learning tasks and steps. Regardless of the formats you draw on, learning conversations between you and your students are important and the responsibility for them primarily rests with you.

Self- and peer assessment

"[In effective assessment, students] discuss, clarify, and reflect on their goals, strategies, and progress with their teachers, their parents, and one another. This develops students’ capacity for self- and peer assessment, which lead in turn to increased self-direction."

The New Zealand Curriculum, page 40

Self-assessment makes learning visible because it involves students taking some responsibility for assessing themselves and their learning. They can only engage in this process effectively if they clearly understand their expected learning outcomes and why they are important. Therefore you need to support them to think about what they are trying to achieve, the process they are engaged in, and how they can strengthen their work. They can then take part meaningfully in determining their next learning steps.

There are two aspects of learning that have to be clear for students in self-assessment:

  • Firstly, they need to have a clear understanding of the task or activity and what success in it looks like. Working with you to establish learning intentions and success criteria is key to this for all students. You also need to provide access to examples that demonstrate what achieving the criteria can look like (Dixon, 2011).
  • Secondly, they need to have a clear understanding of what effective self-assessment looks like. Schools need to consider how they can best support their students’ understanding of self-assessment and provide models (assessment formats) to scaffold and build this understanding. These models need to be accessible and understood by all students. For students with additional needs, they may need to be adapted or simplified, and students may need additional opportunities to explore self-assessment so they can take part in a meaningful way. The principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can guide you in this work.

In Example 2, a year 4–5 teacher gives her students two options for self-assessment: to complete a self-evaluation sheet or to take part in a short video interview in which they show their work and answer questions on it.

Carla is a student who is non-verbal and in year 4. One of her goals is to interact more with her fellow students during learning. After a class music session, her teacher Mr Hasson shows her a video of her engagement with fellow students as they played along with a new song. He asks:

  • Did you like the song?
  • Did you work well with the other students?
  • Do you want to have another turn at playing along?
  • Are you ready to learn a new song?

Carla responds using her yes/no cards. Peter, a teacher aide, films the conversation and puts the video into Book Creator for sharing with Carla and discussing what they might do in the next music session.

Peer assessment helps make learning visible through students collaborating and sharing their learning. They learn how to make constructive comments and give meaningful feedback to one another. The collaborative nature of peer assessment offers students the opportunity to learn from, and with, their peers.

As with self-assessment, you have a responsibility to make the expected learning outcomes explicit.  And, again as with self-assessment, this involves supporting every student to understand what success looks like in both the particular task (or activity) they are engaging in and in peer assessment itself. Using success criteria, examples, and assessment models provides opportunities for students to practise skills and make sense of how both the task and peer assessment can be attempted and completed successfully. For example, you might provide some of the language and sentence starters your students will require as they feed back to one another. The "ladder of feedback" is a useful support in this regard.

Mr Anderson teaches a year 11 mixed-ability social science class. He has set up peer assessment processes to help all students to own their learning. After co-constructing success criteria and examining exemplars of what success looks like, students assess each other’s writing against the agreed criteria. They use two stars and a wish to feed back on what is successful and what needs to be developed further. Mr Anderson shares how this approach supported a student with ASD.

“Lara has a great sense of humour and has worked hard to develop positive relationships with her peer group. We talked about who would be best as her peer assessor. Lara selected Brenda, as she felt that Brenda would share feedback in a way that would support her to be able to improve her writing. Lara had to ensure this was okay with Brenda, and she approached her instead of me. From my observations, Lara and Brenda’s feedback session was very successful. I could hear Lara asking Brenda for suggestions on ways she could rephrase the paragraph that needed to be developed further. Lara came up to me after the session and said, ‘I know what to do now. Brenda has helped me write a plan. She is going to check in at the end of tomorrow’s session to see how I am going and read what I have changed. I think my writing is going to match those exemplars this time.’”


The section on self- and peer assessment on TKI contains useful links to resources that you and your students can use in the classroom. 

Using learning stories

"Assessment through learning stories is personal, meaningful, respectful, and directive – such a positive way to describe learning."

Teacher comment, Narrative Assessment, 2009, page 30

Sometimes, assessment challenges us to think about, and make changes to, the ways we work with students. You may recognise that a student is learning, but the assessments you are using don’t make this learning visible. Narrative assessment is one response to this dilemma. Narrative assessment recognises all students as learners. It supports you to recognise, respond to, and revisit student learning in ways that are meaningful for students, their whānau, and for you. It also supports your on-going reflection and thinking about next-step learning for your students.

Narrative assessment uses learning stories (narratives) to capture learning within a variety of contexts – the settings where a student works, plays, and lives. It can be used to capture stories of learning from a class, a small group, or an individual student. Learning stories have been used to make learning visible for students from early childhood settings, primary schools, and secondary schools. They have been used to support those students recognised as having additional learning needs (Ministry of Education, 2009) and those recognised as being gifted and talented (Margrain, 2012). When schools recognise that achievement can occur across a range of abilities and learning contexts, there are more opportunities for students to demonstrate competence and capability and to be seen as successful learners.

Narrative assessment is also an effective way of showing and sharing progress over time. Strings of learning stories over time, and in different contexts, can highlight student progress and achievement in relation to, for example, particular learning areas and key competencies. Linking learning episodes helps all involved to notice emerging learning. Learning stories alongside photographs, video clips and other learning artefacts can be annotated within a student’s learning portfolio (see below). Moments of progress may then form the basis for an accompanying longer summary story, that includes aspects of how the learning environment supported the learner. 


An example of a string of learning stories that include student, teacher, and specialist voices is available on TKI. 


In Example 12, students use Story Creator on the class iPad to create ‘photo stories’ about their creation of a new biscuit; the learning stories are then shared with their families via email.


Name / Ingoa: Jackson

Date / Te rā: 30.6.2014

Title / Taitara: Jackson makes conversation


He kupu whakataki

Jackson is a happy student with a passion for plants and animals. He is in a class of 24 years 5–6 children. He is on the autistic spectrum. Although many of the students attempt to draw Jackson into their circle of friends, he prefers the company of his brother at play times and adults during class.

Strategies to help the student

Ngā rautaki kia haere whakamua te akoranga

We have been seeking ways to help Jackson interact with other students in the classroom and to participate in classroom activities. The skills we have been working on across a range of learning areas include:

  • taking turns
  • looking at the speaker
  • waiting and responding to questions.

This strategy used by adults and peers include:

  • use of visual cues
  • modelled interactions
  • consistent verbal cues
  • turn taking in pairs.



This morning before school had started I noticed Jackson initiating a conversation with his classmates, something he has never done before because of his difficulties in expressing his ideas and thoughts. He asked students what they enjoyed most at camp and waited for their responses. At times he even provided a simple description of his favourite activity, speaking animatedly with a huge grin on his face.

Commentary on these observations

He kōrero mō te āhuatanga o tēnei mahi

Jackson is beginning to see himself as a member of our class community. His peers are responding to him and are keen to include him in their games on the playground and to support him with his learning in the classroom. They take turns at being his buddy and give him positive feedback when he is on task or completes an activity.  They are also keen to report back the positive changes in his behaviour to the teacher. In time we will aim for Jackson’s circle of friends to include children from neighbouring classrooms and, with the support of close friends, for him to participate at school-wide events such as assembly. 

Next steps in learning

Tātaritanga o tēnei akoranga hei tirohia ki te mahi kei mua i te aroaro

  • Use role play with the support of the teacher and Jackson’s peers, asking a greater variety of questions and modelling ways of responding. 
  • Take photos and display these on Jackson’s laptop, using the pictures to stimulate discussion with his peers. 
  • Increase Jackson’s level of participation through a range of activities that enable him to “experience” the learning and to tap into his interests – for example, ask him to be one of the monitors for our class garden, working with two other classmates to water, weed, and aerate the soil of the vege garden.

It is critical that the you use narrative assessment as one of a number of assessment approaches, and that you as the classroom teacher are involved in it; without this, it may fail to realise its benefits. A 2010 review of narrative assessment practices for students with additional learning needs in New Zealand showed that it often became the responsibility of the teacher’s aide to capture learning stories, rather than the classroom teacher. This impacted on what was identified as learning and compromised the potential usefulness of narrative assessment as an assessment process. In other examples, specialist teachers tended to use learning stories separately from classroom learning and teaching, rather than as a way of demonstrating progress and achievement within the classroom programme.

"The report recommends that narrative assessment has potential to enhance and support student learning but the implementation requires further refining in a school context, with classroom-based teachers actively participating in the process as part of their pedagogical repertoire, rather than handing it back to the teacher-aide or visiting specialist to undertake. More specifically, narrative assessment is of most use when linked explicitly to the curriculum and with clear identification of both student achievement [and the] need for further learning (i.e., goals)."

Bourke & Mentis, 2010, page 5

Narrative Assessment: A Guide for Teachers has further, detailed information on learning stories.


In pairs, look at the stories on the Through Different Eyes website. Think about the students in your class and some of their learning goals. Identify a story from the website that focuses on one or more similar goals.How has learning been observed? How does the assessment support others to recognise the student’s strengths, skills, and aspirations? How is the student’s learning made more visible?

As a group, discuss how learning stories might support the presence, participation, and achievement of students within your school. How would they help to make the learning of all students visible?

Next page – Tasks and artefacts

Published on: 20 Jun 2016