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How AFL could be applied to a PE class (based on principles that apply to all classes)

This was originally posted on Assessment FOR Learning on October 9,...

I would imagine that many Physical Education teachers must feel as though much of the professional development activities and workshops in schools do not apply to them. Typically, discussions of state standards and NCLB expectations dominate these discussions. While these apply to PE, they apply in a different manner than they do in a core area classroom. And let’s face it, PE is a very different world from the typical classroom. PE teachers are dealing with a completely different environment than most other teachers. They are dealing with a different set of behavior issues, a different set of classroom expectations/procedures, and a different set of skills than other teachers are.

One reason that I have become a big fan of Assessment FOR Learning is the fact AFL principles are universal. Even though a PE classroom differs greatly from a regular classroom, AFL ideas still apply and can still help students learn in such a setting.

I have spoken with PE teachers who can see how AFL could be used in teaching and assessing certain skills in PE – such as foul shooting (I’ll share such an example in a moment). Along with AFL comes the importance of accurate grading practices – grading that reflects mastery of content and skills. However, the trend in PE these days is to move away from grading based on the mastery of skill acquisition in favor of participation and effort. Therefore, one could conclude that AFL would not be appropriate to use in the PE environment.

The trick is to separate assessment from grading. The purpose of AFL is to assess in a way that helps students learn. The purpose is not to assess to get a grade. While a grade may be an outcome, it is not the primary goal. Therefore, one can assess a student (create feedback that can be used to guide learning) and still not grade based on those assessments. Let me explain.

I regularly work out in our school’s weight room. When the football players are there lifting weights, they each carry around a piece of paper with a chart on it. They use this chart to keep track of their lifting. They each have goals that they would like to reach for various lifts. The coaches let them know how much they should be lifting each week if they are going to reach their goals by “max out” day. The players make sure that their progress is matching the path that leads to their goal.

While perhaps no one has called it this before, I think that the weight lifters are participating in an AFL activity. They are part of a “planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by… students to adjust their current learning tactics.” (James Popham) They are taking ownership of their progress. They are aware of what they need to do to achieve a goal, they are constantly assessing how they are doing, and they are adjusting their lifting patterns to make sure they reach the goal. No one is grading them based on how much they lift. However, because of the feedback they are receiving and the way they have been trained to use that feedback they are getting stronger and stronger This is an example of how AFL can be used to teach an athletic skill.

So let’s say that the skill being taught is shooting foul shots in a PE class. The students could take a pre-assessment by shooting 10 foul shots. They could then set a goal for improvement. Then the teacher could demonstrate/teach/instruct the students on the various sub-skills necessary to shoot a foul shot – proper foot placement, bending knees, holding the ball properly, where to aim, arm extension, wrist/hand motion, ball rotation, arc of the ball, and follow through. Students could learn a sub-skill, practice it, assess how well they are able to use the skill, and chart the impact that it has on their foul shooting as they repeatedly apply their new skills to the act of shooting 10 foul shots. They could work to assess/critique each other as well.

As someone who has never taught PE, I’m sure that the model I just described has some flaws. I’m sure it could be tweaked to be made more practical for a PE setting. However, it is an example of AFL. AFL isn’t always teachers using assessment data. In fact, AFL is probably at its most powerful when students are using the data themselves to guide their own learning. In a skill-based class like PE this is definitely possible.

Now, here’s the kicker: the result of the self-assessment – in other words, how well the student can shoot a foul shot when the unit is finished – does not have to have any impact whatsoever on the student’s grade. Instead, the grade the student earns could come from how diligently the student completed the self-assessment process. A daily grade could be earned based on how completely the chart was filled out each day. A final unit grade could be assigned based on the completed chart. This would be a more objective way to grade than a perceived level of participation or simply dressing out. It would be an accurate grade of effort and achievable for all students. (Of course, I realize that does not mean all students will decide to achieve a good grade.)

But again, the point is that the Assessment FOR Learning practices are there to help the student learn the skill, and the grade does not have to be based on the mastery of the skill. Assessing and grading are two very different things. Assessment in AFL is all about getting students to learn.

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