Allying formative assessment(s) with a growth mindset will aid post-pandemic learning recovery

The concept of ‘positive thinking’ has evaded its association with spiritual sects and astrological prediction and has landed at the centre of psychological, business and educational research.

Fact: the ways we choose to think and speak about education as a society of parents, pupils, educators and policymakers has a direct impact on student satisfaction and outcomes.

Adopting what is known as a ‘growth mindset’ as opposed to a ‘fixed mindset’ is one of many cognitive approaches to learning that has been investigated in recent decades, yielding impressive scientific returns and filtering its way into teacher training since Carol Dweck’s ground-breaking study on student attitudes towards failure 30 years ago

In 2021, the EEF included ‘social and emotional learning and ‘metacognition and self-regulation as two of the most impactful, evidence-based strategies for improving student outcomes in their Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Evidently, the way we think and talk about education is important.

How, then, does a growth mindset factor into ongoing debates about the value and purpose of assessment and the need to tackle pandemic-induced learning loss in classrooms with ever-widening attainment gaps?

‘Learning Loss’ not ‘Learning Lost’

There are a number of doom-and-gloom assumptions within educational circles that have been usefully countered by the events of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It has become apparent that the potential for learning is never irrevocably missed or lost. Moreover, individual students are never irreversibly at loggerheads with a curriculum that does not suit them.

In times of crisis, educators became more likely to dig deep into their reserves of optimism to find that every student can excel given the correct support, despite the impact of difficult and disruptive circumstances. The entrance of such positive pragmatism into the educational process is good news for the promotion of equity in education.   

That almost half of students in the US and UK experienced learning loss over the course of the pandemic – where their knowledge fails to grow or even erodes – has to do away with the fallacy that under-achieving students are innately less capable (the product of a ‘fixed mind-set’). Rather, we must proceed with the confidence that all students can improve their knowledge, provided that targeted measures are taken (the product of a ‘growth mindset’).

It is remarkable that when challenges become mainstream rather than the preserve of the minority, solutions-oriented and benefit-of-the-doubt thinking prevails. We must believe that innovative, individualised teaching can override genetic and circumstantial barriers to lead to student progress across a classroom at all times.

Embedding EdTech tools within classroom practice – that target gaps in learning with individualised instruction and alert teachers to difficulty at the moment of its inception – means that no child has to fall behind as a teacher progresses through the curriculum at a rate that suits the majority of the class.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment(s)

With exams cancelled, or sat in modified formats, across the globe, the pandemic also exploded the notion that summative assessments provide a reliable indicator of academic ability. Success or failure in singular, high-stakes examinations – a snapshot of a student’s attainment in a stressful moment – should not be used to define children’s educational futures, it has been widely claimed.  

But teacher-assigned grades suffered from bias and a lack of regulation, which subsequently led to calls for the re-instatement of such examinations.

We have argued before that multiple, formative (or continuous) assessments are likely to be the best tool to accelerate learning following the pandemic.

Formative assessments allow teachers to identify gaps in a student’s knowledge so as to target resources where they are needed with immediate effect to prevent barriers to a child’s learning.

This is important because learning poverty begins and ends with a failure to teach a child the basics of a subject; the principles of scaffolding lessons and following a mastery approach rely upon a similar understanding that teaching must begin with what a student already knows, or risk bulldozing someone with information that is inaccessible to them for term after term.   

Repeated, formative assessments, in their own right, inspire a growth mindset. Where summative assessments hold teachers to oppressive account for one-off outcomes, formative assessments help teachers to ‘course correct’ and to level teaching at the right standard for each student. Similarly, examinations track student progress, allow them to accept their current position and focus upon the steps required for improvement, rather than absolutely determining their ability. Assessment is essential to learning recovery but should not be immune to reform.

Embedding EdTech tools within classroom practice – that use continuous assessment to fill gaps in learning and highlight learning blockages to teachers – would allow for continuous monitoring to help all students to keep up with the educational programme. This would likely eliminate the need to identify so-called successes and failings in teaching and learning at the end of the year.

From Thought to Action

Of course, a change in mindset alone will not alter the working realities of teaching professionals, the disparities in classroom attainment, or the administrative and financial difficulties associated with hosting a series of examinations.   

However, the pandemic’s prompting of a new mode of thinking does increase the impetus to develop solutions that accelerate learning for all students, now that over half of them need additional assistance from teachers to meet traditional markers. As aforementioned, the continuous assessment of human and virtual tutors can highlight gaps in a student’s learning and provide individualised instruction that will maintain some rate of progress across a class.

Rather than talking about deficits, exam disappointments and set abilities we should focus on progress, possibilities and the probability of pushing attainments upwards if we are to input new approaches that will increase the resilience and accessibility of education.