Teaching and learning can be prone to shifting trends. Some aspects of teaching may suffer from waning popularity, but we cannot lose sight of them because they are so integral for successful learning. Formative assessment is one such aspect that demands our focus – or a refocus – on its central importance. 

Just before the millennium ticked over, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam got ‘Inside the black box’ to help determine the vital importance of formative assessment. In this span of high popularity, feedback become a national focus and ‘AfL’ strategies became king. 

Like many aspects of teaching and learning, gains were made, but also the principles of formative assessment were sometimes lost in the pursuit of coloured cups and similar. The subtle difference between assessment ‘for’ learning and assessment ‘of’ learning was always tricky. The demand for data to capture seeming-progress meant that for is too often trumped by of

In between the millennium and now, teachers have had to scale mountains of marking, as well as trends that privileged whole class feedback. Regardless of the swings in popular practices, the principles of formative assessment endure. But a refocus is likely necessary to ensure we don’t simple return to a pendulum swing of temporarily popular practices. 

Defining formative assessment 

Put simply, formative assessment describes the systematic focus on pupils’ performance, so that they can bridge the gap between their current performance and their intended learning and future goals. 

Perhaps the best definition of formative assessment is by (unsurprisingly) Dylan Wiliam:

“The central idea is that we should use assessment to influence learning and that the teaching should be contingent on what students have learnt, so that while we’re teaching, we collect evidence about where the students are to make adjustments to our teaching to better meet our students’ learning needs.”

Dylan Wiliam, ‘Assessment for Learning: Why, what and how’ 

Strategies under the umbrella of formative assessment include:

  • Teacher questioning
  • Oral and written feedback, and,  
  • Peer and self-assessment

Each strategy in turn can prove popular but also tricky to implement well. For example, teachers need to carefully train pupils over time if they are to self- and peer assess without it breaking down into idle chatter or mild confusion. Oral and written feedback never fall out of fashion, but policies and accountability can sometimes compromise their value. 

4 reasons to refocus on formative assessment 

Done well, formative assessment acts like the control room for effective teaching and learning. In effect, there are four key reasons why it should persist as a whole school or trust focus:

  1. It helps steer ‘adaptive teaching’. The popularity of adaptive teaching is in part a recognition from teachers that they teach diverse groups of pupils, and it can lead to unpredictability, no matter how good the lesson plan is on paper. Formative assessment is the vital means to adapt the plan to meet group and individual needs. We cannot have a buzz about ‘scaffolding’ or ‘flexible grouping’ without recognising that formative assessment of current learning should determine the degree of scaffold requires or who should be regrouped flexibly.
  2. It helps pupils better estimate their learning. Pupils routinely struggle to accurately judge their own learning. They are overconfident and they consistently overestimate their abilities. As a result, they end tasks early, think they have learnt material when they have some familiarity, or they fail to prepare for a test. If they do not routinely engage in peer and self-feedback, the teacher will work hard teaching, but learning will never be maximised.  
  3. It helps pupils move their learning forward. It is self-evident, but too often teacher assessment can be driven to marking and so – to cite Wiliam again – feedback too often looks backwards (rear-view mirror), but doesn’t move learning forward (through the windshield). This fine distinction means that every written comment, and most verbal feedback, needs to do this. For example, forward facing actions can include feedback on how to better use a planning strategy for writing, or how you can draw upon multiple methods (e.g. the graphing or substitution method) to solve linear equations in maths.
  4. It can help reduce teacher workload. Teaching in the classroom will always be an intense, active experience. It is what can make it stressful and joyful. But lugging bags of books home for literacy marking that isn’t acted upon is exposed by returning to the principles of formative assessment. With a little refocus, we can start to activate pupils as resources for each other and themselves – not a reliance on the teacher doing all the work and hard thinking. 


Related Reading:
  • The EEF guidance report on ‘Teacher Feedback to Improve Pupil Learning’ (featuring Dylan Wiliam) distils the evidence on feedback and formative assessment. SEE HERE
  • Embedded Formative Assessment’ is an evidence-based programme that helps schools mobilise formative assessment is a strong, systematic programme. FIND OUT MORE HERE
  • Dylan Wiliam has said all this in print and on video far better than I ever could. WATCH THIS EXPLAINER.

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