Knowledge Bank - Leadership

Assessment for Learning

We have been told by Ofsted that our school has superficial Assessment for Learning practices. Can you help us?'

How Assessment for Learning and formative assessment encourages learner reflection and improvement

The term Assessment for Learning – or ‘formative assessment’ – is about learner and teacher using assessment to test understanding and identify strategies for improvement in an ongoing way.  It occurs at all stages of the learning process.This is opposed to summative assessment which attributes a final grade or mark representing the sum of a learner’s achievement.

Implementing the principals of formative assessment in the classroom can bring about a great many benefits to both teachers and students.

 Improving Student Progress

Assessment for Learning (A4L) is based on the notion that learners do not always know what they need to do in order to progress and succeed. Furthermore, achieving a low grade/level – or not the sought-after grade – in a summative test (most of which tend to have high stakes) can have a de-motivational effect, reducing a learner’s confidence in their ability to progress.

In their article, ‘Inside the Black Box’, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam note that in the common classroom, the giving of marks and grades is overemphasised and the giving of useful advice and the learning function is underemphasised. Students often know to which level they are working or how many marks they are capable of achieving, but are unsure what they need to do to improve on that, or even why they are achieving at that level. This may result in the development of a ‘fixed mindset’ – the belief that their intelligence is ‘fixed’ and they cannot achieve or progress any further.

Wiliam and Black report that to create a culture of success, where all learners believe they can achieve, teachers need to:

  1. Make sure that learners are clear about:
    what they are meant to be doing
    b. how it will be assessed
    c. what they are doing well
    d. what is wrong and what needs to be done to put it right
  2. Avoid reference to ability, and competition and comparison with others.

This should be done through feedback on tests, classwork and homework. Many teachers scrap numerical scores altogether, and focus on delivering detailed and constructive comments.

It is also interesting to note that formative assessment often helps low achievers more than other students and so serves to reduce the range of student achievement, while also raising overall achievement.

Facilitating student ownership of learning

An A4L approach encourages the learner to measure their own progress in relation to their prior achievements and future goals.  Thus, a student’s achievement is personal.  Personal learning goals make achievement realistic and reachable, and thus draw students into the learning process, giving ownership and encouraging responsibility for achievement. 

Critical to A4L is the development of the ‘learning to learn’ skill of reflection and self assessment – students should analyse what they have achieved, where they haven’t, and why. Sue Horner recommends making use of ICT for self assessment in her article, ‘A new conversation about assessment’. She suggests that students use audio recording features to explain verbally the decisions they have taken, or use software features in programmes such as Microsoft Word to track changes to help them reflect on how they have improved.

Self and peer assessment is a vital component of A4L, but teacher assessment can be useful too – as long as it’s given in the right way. In ‘Assessment as an act of love’ (open access), Debra Kidd cites the specific example of a school, where students are set a research project surrounding questions such as ‘what makes people happy?’ and ‘is the world a fair place?’. Once completed, the project is assessed by a member of staff, who does not give it a mark but comments on:

  • Quality of discussion
  • Use of evidence and examples
  • Ability to draw conclusions
  • Highlights
  • Areas for improvement
  • Care and presentation
  • Quality of research

Students understand exactly what they achieved, their strengths and where they need to improve. In the article, Kidd comments that the children are enthused and motivated as they receive their feedback. She states that by the end of the project (which results in a ten minute presentation) every child and every parent knows what the student has done well, what they learned, what they know, and what they need to do in order to improve.

‘Most importantly,” She says, ‘They have overcome a hurdle and completed a task that seemed daunting at first.’ Through the independent nature of the project, they have taken ownership of their learning, and through feedback from their peers, parents and teachers, have gained the confidence to progress.

Improving teaching practice

Assessment for learning also enables a teacher to improve their own teaching practice. By identifying areas of weakness within their learner group, teachers are able to analyse where their own teaching was successful/unsuccessful, and find other strategies to improve their teaching of those subjects. In the article ‘Take the tears out of testing’, Jon Williamson and Marian Sainsbury detail an e-assessment package, ‘i-nfer plan’, which is based on the principals of A4L and intended for use with KS1 and 2 to aid teachers in identifying individual and group weaknesses and initiating student progress. Such technology can support and shape a teacher’s professional judgement, and may be useful when starting out with formative assessment.

A4L can also aid teachers in differentiating for each student’s developmental needs. Since teachers are regularly gathering information on pupils’ learning throughout the entire year, they are able to build up a clear picture of the child’s individual needs, which can then be used to ensure that every child makes good progress in learning. In ‘The biggest test of all’, Andrew Thraves explains that formative assessment is more effective than summative assessment in this way, because it allows teachers to take into account what they hear and observe in class, which is just as important as what pupils are able to write. As a result, teachers become much more secure in trusting their judgement – they are able to better understand the child, and tailoring their teaching to meet the child’s specific needs becomes much easier.

A4L in the classroom

Typical elements that you would expect to see in a lesson planned with A4L principles in mind include:

  • Clear learning aims and personal targets that students understand and buy into
  • Clear instructions and atmosphere whereby students can ask questions and clarify
  • Clear criteria for achieving success
  • Student knowledge of how to use assessment criteria in order to succeed.
  • Collaborative work to enable students to verbalise own understanding
  • Opportunities for self and peer assessment
  • Mini-plenaries to confirm understanding of subject and task
  • Targeted teacher questioning to assess understanding and provide opportunities for students to test own understanding
  • Opportunities for students to plan their learning and to reflect on what has been learnt, what was difficult and how difficulties have been overcome.
  • Written feedback by teacher, providing strategies for improvement rather than just grades.

For more information on practical manifestations of formative assessment, see this helpful guide: ‘Assessment for Learning – what you need to know’(open access).

Problems with A4L

In theory, A4L brings great rewards. In practice, these rewards depend much upon the individual teacher and their implementation of formative assessment. Paul Black explains that, although he has witnessed A4L bring about many productive changes in schools across the country, he has also witnessed many cases where limited understanding and superficial adoption has greatly inhibited student progress.

In his article, ‘Formative assessment: Promises or problems?’ he brings to attention six main mistakes teachers and school leaders make when implementing formative assessment. These are:

1. Misunderstandings
A frequent misunderstanding is that any assessment by teachers, and in particular the use of a weekly test to produce a record of marks, constitutes formative assessment. It does not. Unless some learning action follows from the outcome, such practice is merely frequent summative assessment.

2.Lack of formative interaction
All too often, teachers do not give students time to think during a class discussion. The one word answers the pupils inevitably give are rewarded if correct and brushed aside if not. Questions should open up a discussion. According to Black, a student should feel their teacher is interested in what s/he thinks and not in whether s/he has the right answer. Teachers should welcome wrong or partly right answers, which can then stimulate further discussion.

3.Inadequate comments
Numerical marks do not improve learning, but neither do comments that do not give the recipient clear guidance on how to improve. Teachers who abandon the giving of marks and devote to producing effective comments find that pupils begin to read their comments and use them to improve their work.

4.Working in groups not as groups
Research has shown that groups in which learners collaborate yield big learning gains over either individual study or work where there is competition within each group. To learn collaboratively, all students within the group must participate, all contributions must be treated with respect, the group must achieve consensus, and all claims must be supported by reasons.

5. Expecting too much too quickly
School leaders must not expect the benefits of formative assessment to materialise within a matter of months. In the work of King’s College with a set of six schools, it took two years before changes became embedded in the teachers’ classroom practices – there was little sign of change after only one year. Yet this was in a project where all the teachers had a whole-day meeting together at King’s once every five weeks, research staff visited each individually to observe lessons and give feedback, and they were keen to adopt the innovations.

In his article ‘Developing teachers – Changing classroom practice’, deputy head Robin Newman describes how establishing a ‘Teaching and Learning community’ within his school enabled them to embed a culture of formative assessment over a period of two years. He also provides some great tips on how you can do the same.

6.Lack of support
Teachers need support in making such radical changes. Inspirational talks, brief training courses or reams of written advice may be useful to guide and inspire, but given the personally challenging nature of formative assessment, are generally inadequate. Teachers should be supported by a commitment sustained within their whole school over several years, a commitment which arranges that they have time to share experiences and advice with colleagues, and that they can risk, and be helped to overcome and learn from, failures. Black further suggests that school leaders should not commit their staff to other innovations until this one is well established.

A4L and ‘Successful Learners

A4L refers to more than just a form of assessment – rather it encompasses an approach to teaching and learning whereby there is a continuous dialogue between teacher and students where both are informing each other of what they need to learn, how to learn it, identifying lack of understanding and tackling it. 

More recent  pedagogies build on A4L ideas and emphasise that to succeed, learners need to understand not just what their targets are, but what real learning ‘means’. They should understand the process of learning, being able to recognise how their learning is going and being prepared – and able to identify and overcome difficulties when they occur.  A lot of the work around ‘successful learners’ discusses the need for students to develop the language for talking about and evaluating learning.

Ann O’Hara agrees. In her article, ‘Classroom conversation commended by Ofsted’, she explains that formative assessment aims to generate learners who understand that:

  • Learning is a journey
  • Everyone can develop the tools to be a successful learner
  • Questions are not about ‘right answers’, but about exploring, sharing and developing understanding.

Underpinning all of the above is an adult understanding of the skills needed to learn and the ability to create talk for learning. Formative assessment, when implemented correctly and in a sustained manner, can contribute in a large part to developing such skills and understanding, enabling students to reflect upon their own learning and manage their own improvement.

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