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Assessing to Empower Learners: Why Do We Assess Student Learning?

Why do we assess student learning? The first reason obviously is to empower our students. We don't assess to assign a grade or to do an endpoint. What we do is we teach students through our assessment: what good work looks like and how they might modify their work to achieve success. It's interesting because students don't know how much they like feedback until they get substantive feedback. They find out, "Okay, this is what it needs to look like. I understand." Then they can make their own judgments about how much effort they want to put in and how well their work meets the mark.

They develop their own bar of achievement. What I find is that then students become empowered. They become willing to invest because they have their eye on what it looks like to be successful. It's a process of learning rather than interrupting their learning to offer them a grade.

What I find is that when we assess student learning, we're actually building trusting relationships with them. Students learn to trust the librarian, and there are several ways that we build that trust through assessment. First of all, we have to be very clear in our learning goals. What do we expect students to be able to do? When they understand that, most often they're going to work to achieve it.

We have to be trusted to then teach them the skills that they need to learn in order to complete their assignments. Be sure that then when you assess, your feedback is around how they have used what you have taught. Librarians also need to trust students. Usually we think about students trusting teachers but now we're talking about, we need to also trust our students—that they're going to commit to the learning.

There are essential elements to build trust between librarians and students. There has to be a clear positive intent on both sides. There has to be authenticity, that the skills that they're learning really apply to the content that they're learning and that they're going to be able to demonstrate their use of the skills in an authentic way. We need to provide support for each student to achieve success.

That support is not going to look identical for each student and that's why the individualized approach to assessment is so valuable. Essentially, what we do with assessment, is to move students through their zone of proximal development, which is learning theory by Lev Vygotsky.

I don't know if you're as enamored of the zone of proximal development as I am, but essentially what it means is that all of us have a zone for new learning. We know this amount and we can get to this level with support and with provocation. Somebody asking the tough questions to push us. Then we reach that upper level and we can set a whole new zone of development. It's a really wonderful way to think about the process of learning and how you gradually build competence on your own competence that you already have, and then reaching just a little beyond where you would get without support and provocation. We certainly have a role in moving our student to higher level of their zone and setting new zones. Think about that zone of development for every student as you're working with them on assessing how they're doing, and then what are the next steps to move them to the next level of their zone.

Assessment is also important for librarians who I've talked a lot about what it does for students, empowering them and building trust with them and moving them through their zone, but what assessment does for librarians is it enables us to individualize instruction. As we assess, we know where every student is and we can provide specific support and guidance and provocation, if that's called for, to move individual students to the next step in their learning.

What we can do with this assessment is to create a whole environment of success. When students experience success and they share that with their peers, it creates a climate that we're all in this together and we're all going to be successful, and we're going to achieve this learning goal together.

Assessment is not a, "gotcha." It's not a grade. It's not an endpoint. It's not an evaluation. It is a way to provide support and guidance in an atmosphere of trust and success.

About the Author

Barbara K. Stripling, PhD, is Senior Associate Dean and associate professor emerita at the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University. She earned her doctorate in information management from Syracuse University. Stripling is the author of numerous books and articles on school libraries, advocacy, inquiry, assessment, learning, and primary sources.

Stripling was the 2013–2014 president of the American Library Association. Previously, in her 40-year library career, Stripling has been Director of Library Services for the New York City schools, a school library media specialist and school district director of libraries in Arkansas, a library grant program director in Tennessee, and director of library programs at a local education fund in New York City. Stripling is a former president of the American Association of School Librarians.

Select Citation Style:
Stripling, Barbara K. "Assessing to Empower Learners: Why Do We Assess Student Learning?" School Library Connection, November 2019,
Stripling, Barbara K. "Assessing to Empower Learners: Why Do We Assess Student Learning?" School Library Connection, November 2019.
Stripling, B. K. (2019, November). Assessing to empower learners: Why do we assess student learning? School Library Connection. Retrieved from

Entry ID: 2228075

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