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Snapshot 13: Shifting the focus onto learning

This snapshot describes how one English department shifted its focus from assessment to learning and, as a consequence, increased programme coherence and student interest. At the same time, the students’ assessment results improved markedly.


Three years ago our level 6 programme was organised entirely around achievement standards, and the learning process driven by assessment. Internal submission dates dictated the assessment points across the programme and how staff taught and allocated time.

Students were not engaged in the learning and made little connection between the processes and strategies and aspects of the curriculum across the standards. We would, for example, study a novel so the students could respond to the extended text external standard and then move to a formal writing piece for the formal writing standard, but the students would not see any connection between the two parts of the programme.

We were dissatisfied with this state of affairs; also, the students’ results were far from impressive. Students were credit counting and some would only participate if there were credits involved.

The programme lacked any cohesion and on reflection we felt it was designed only for assessment and not for learning.

Teacher action

It was the introduction of the New Zealand Curriculum and the subsequent alignment of NCEA standards that provided the impetus for a rethink. Out of our reflection came the decision to base our level 6 programme around a theme, “man’s inhumanity to his fellow men”, instead of around set texts. We hoped that this would give the programme greater coherence for the students.

Now, the teacher involved the students in the selection of texts. The chosen texts included plays, novels, short stories films (both short and long), poems, and various articles and talks. Instead of focusing on achievement standards throughout the year, we focused on the level 6 achievement objectives. Different tasks challenged the students to write in a variety of styles, present static images and create web pages, deliver interviews and speeches. They filed their draft texts in a portfolio.

We then looked carefully for achievement standards that were appropriate for the students and what they were learning. In the third term, the students selected written, oral, and visual drafts from their folios and edited them for presentation and assessment.

What happened?

We surveyed the students, collected and analysed results, talked to other teachers.

The overwhelming response from the students was that they had enjoyed the learning. They felt they had been able to pursue interests, develop core skills, and gain greater appreciation and understandings of English, both in and beyond the classroom. They felt good about the fact that they had spent the year learning, not just “chasing credits”.

An interesting and important outcome was that, in the external standards, the proportion of students gaining merit and excellence increased markedly, indicating greater depth of understanding.

Teaching based around an authentic context turned out to be a great deal more enjoyable for both teachers and students.

Last updated July 17, 2012