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An Introduction To Assessment For Learning




What is Assessment for Learning?

Assessment for learning is a process where teachers seek and use evidence to decide where learners are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there. The emphasis here is on using assessment practices to gather information, which can then be used to make judgements about teaching decisions and directly improve learning. The emphasis is on those assessments, which are used to directly help with learning. The term ‘assessment’ is being used in the general sense of ‘gathering information to make a judgement’. Much of this evidence will come from the daily classroom activities – an unexpected answer to a question may alert the teacher to a misunderstanding, puzzled looks on students’ faces may mean a need to clarify some instructions.

This approach to assessment is known as formative assessment, as it ‘informs’ learning. It can be contrasted with the summative assessment which ‘sums up’ where students have got to in their learning, the kind of information generated by end-of-unit tests for grading and certification.

How to get started with assessment for learning:

There are three key practices that will help teachers get started with assessment for learning:

  • Diagnostics (finding out where your students are in their learning journey)
  • Learning intentions & success criteria (being clear about where they need to go)
  • Giving effective feedback (showing them how to get there)

Together, these practices will help you use formative assessment to inform teaching and learning.

1) Good diagnostics – finding out where students are in their learning:

Assessment for learning begins with finding out where the student is in their learning. Classroom teachers gather evidence to help them understand what their students already know and what they need to learn. Building on what learners already know is the most effective way of learning – the psychologist David Ausubel observes: ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner knows already. Ascertain this and teach him accordingly’[i]. Learning Italian if you already know Spanish is going to be far easier than learning Mandarin Chinese, for which we may have little to build on and have to start from scratch – a very slow learning process.

Classroom dialogue is a powerful source of finding out what students know. What happens when a teacher asks the class a question and gets an unexpected answer from a student? The temptation is to move on to someone else, who may then give the correct answer. What if, instead, the teacher stays with this student and tries to find out how this answer was arrived at? Was it a different interpretation of the question, a misunderstanding of a word, or interference from a first language? This is the teacher using assessment to help the learning process, both the teacher’s (who finds out more about the student’s understanding), and the student’s (who makes explicit the reasoning behind the answer). This, done respectfully, is Assessment for Learning in practice.

Good questions from the teacher are at the heart of classroom dialogue. However, the researcher John Hattie has shown that in a typical school classroom, teachers:

  • Talk for 70-80 per cent of the lesson;
  • Ask 200-300 questions a day, of which 60 per cent require recall of facts (‘What is a noun?’)  and 20 per cent are procedural (‘where’s your book?’).
  • Less than five per cent of the time is spent in a group or whole-class discussion of meaningful ideas;
  • 70 per cent of answers take students less than five seconds to give and, on average, involve three words[ii].

While these percentages may be different for language classes, they should remind us that good diagnostics are based on giving students as many opportunities as possible to show what they know, understand, and can do. Our students should be talking more than we are.

Other classroom research has studied how much thinking time we give our students after we ask a question. The surprise finding was that teachers waited for less than one second before they took action. One assessment for learning practice is to introduce ‘wait time’ in which the teacher deliberately allows more time for thought. This will often be combined with ‘pair and share’ activities which invite students to talk to each other about the answer before the teacher chooses someone to answer. Wait time also encourages teachers to ask richer questions that encourage thought (‘why does…?’; ‘what if…?)

Are classroom tests and quizzes part of Assessment for Learning? Yes, but these assessments will only be formative if there is a follow-up to the responses – ‘why did you choose this answer?’. Simply giving a mark or marking responses as right or wrong does not contribute to the learning process – unless students are asked to work out why an answer is wrong. Simply giving students the right answer will not be a learning experience if they don’t know why it is correct.

Summative assessments (for example, published tests) can also be used formatively, if the responses are used to diagnose what students have understood so that further learning can take place. Where several items on a topic have been answered incorrectly, teachers learn that this topic needs more attention, and perhaps a different way of presenting it – it has become formative for the teachers.

2) Learning intentions & success criteria – being clear about where learners need to go:

Another important assessment for learning practice involves helping students understand what they are learning, why they are learning it, and how this new learning will contribute to their progress. This means that teachers themselves have to be clear about what is being learned, and how a lesson contributes to progress. This is more than knowing what the class will do in a particular lesson, it’s about what students will learn from these activities. And it’s not enough for the teacher to be clear, the students themselves need to be aware of the learning intention – what the lesson is seeking to achieve. A teacher may explain this at the beginning of a lesson or vary the pattern by asking the class part-way through the lesson: ‘Why do you think we are doing this today?’.

Knowing the learning intention is only part of the story, students also need to know what successful learning will look like, the ‘where they need to go’ of assessment for learning. This involves making clear to the students the success criteria, what is involved in a successful performance. This can involve:

  • Negotiating with the students about what think a good performance looks like (‘what would you expect to see?’).
  • Exemplars. Teachers may also provide anonymous examples of other students’ work, some successfully meeting the success criteria, some falling short. Groups may then be asked to use the criteria (no more than four) to judge ‘which the better performance and why?’. In this way, students are developing an understanding of the quality of work required of them and the criteria by which they will be judged.
  • Modelling. Perhaps the most powerful way for language teachers of providing students with an understanding of ‘where they need to go’ is to model it, demonstrating how something is done – for example striking up a conversation or making a request.

3) Effective feedback – showing learners how to get where they’re going:

Feedback becomes one of the most powerful forms of learning when it helps learners close the gap between their current and the desired performance. Feedback is a two-way process, it is not simply the teacher giving advice to students, our students are continuously giving us feedback – about what they understand, about misconceptions and about what engages them. While effective feedback has a powerful effect on learning, much of what we call feedback does not ‘close the gap’ – it may even have a negative effect on learning. Feedback can’t simply be a formulaic process, it is part of a teacher’s skill to judge what is appropriate for different learners; the same feedback may work for one student but not for another.

What makes feedback effective?

We can identify seven elements that will encourage more productive feedback.

  1. It is specific and clear. When a 14-year-old Norwegian was given the feedback ‘write more’, he responded: ‘If I knew more I would have written it – I don’t know what more to write. Teachers should tell me what is missing’[iii]. He was right. To be effective feedback needs to provide specific advice on how to improve. (‘What words could you use instead of ‘nice’ in your report?’). And it needs to be clear – both in terms of handwriting and the language used (that is why oral feedback is often more useful – the student can clarify the feedback if it isn’t clear).
  2. It is well-timed. Choosing the right moment to give feedback is a teaching skill. Often it will be best as the student is doing the work so as to move it in the right direction. With more fluent performers it may come afterwards – music teachers don’t usually interrupt in the middle of a practice piece, they wait and then go back to the problem. Allowing time for students to work on the feedback is also important. The same Norwegian study also found: When students are given time to respond and the teacher follows up on the feedback, it is treated as positive. If they are not given time to act on the feedback, they see it as negative and critical. (p.160)
  3. The feedback is clearly linked to the learning intention and success criteria. If the focus of the learning has been made clear to the student, then the feedback should be directly linked to this. As teachers, we are tempted to give feedback on other aspects of the work as well, particularly presentational features such as spelling, punctuation and grammar. This distracts from the main learning, and we may give so much feedback that the student does not recognise what is the most important. A helpful practice here is to think in terms of ‘medals and mission’[iv] – recognition of one or two aspects of the work that meet the criteria (medals) and one instruction on what can be done to improve the work (mission). The teaching skill here is to select the one feedback activity that will best ‘close the gap’.
  4. The feedback focuses on the task, not the learner. When the focus is on the quality of the work, students can see what they need to do to improve further. ‘This work hasn’t progressed much from the last piece, what further improvements could you make?’. This allows the student to reflect and become a more resilient learner. When feedback is directed at the self (‘you’re a brilliant student’; ‘you’re a disappointment’) students respond by protecting their reputation. With ‘star’ students this may mean, in order to preserve their reputation, never failing – so they look for the safe route and take no risks. This is not a recipe for effective learning.
  5. It gives prompts in a way that moves the learning forward. Students will be at different stages in their learning: For beginners, we may need to provide concrete examples of what is needed (‘here are two ways you could organise your report’); With progress, the feedback is aimed at giving the student more structure (‘scaffolding’) – ‘can you see how to organise the points you make?’. As the learner becomes more proficient, the feedback reminds learners about what they already know, expecting them to use their skills: ‘Remember that the conclusion should link back to the opening paragraph’. When learners have met the success criteria, they can be prompted to reflect on their work so as to provoke further thinking: ‘What else could you do to make your argument more persuasive?’
  6. Good feedback offers strategies rather than solutions. To be given the correct answers is not helpful if the students don’t know why these are correct. Even when given time to respond to the teacher’s comments, they may make the corrections mechanically and without understanding. It is more useful to give feedback on strategies for checking their answers – underlining an error (‘check this’), rather than correcting it may be more productive.
  7. Effective feedback challenges, requires action, and is achievable. If feedback does not encourage students to think and to act on their work, it will be unsuccessful, the is no closing of the gap. It also means the time the teacher has spent preparing it has been wasted. Students also need to see that what they are being asked to do is achievable and worth doing – the kind of practice that will move their learning forward.

The goal of Assessment for Learning practices is good diagnostics; clear learning intentions and success criteria; and effective feedback – is to produce more effective learners, learners who are able to actively regulate their own learning, to think for themselves.

Do you want to propel learners forward with Formative Assessment? You’ll find everything you need to get started on our Assessment for Learning Homepage, including tools, training, and advice!

Try it now!


Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education, Institute of Education, University College London and an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA).
Before moving to the Institute of Education UCL, he spent twenty years as a senior researcher in policy-related environments, firstly as head of research at an examination board, then at government education agencies. Prior to that, he was a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist.

Much of his recent assessment work has involved promoting formative assessment as part of improving teaching and learning. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group which has promoted Assessment for Learning internationally.

He is a former editor of the international journal Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice and author of Testing times- the uses and abuses of assessment (Routledge, 2008). His current work is on how experts learn and the implications for classroom teaching and learning. His book on this is The Expert Learner – Challenging the myth of ability (2014, OUP/ McGraw-Hill).


[i] Ausubel, D. (1968), Educational Psychology: A cognitive view, New York: Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, p.vi.

[ii] Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximising Impact on Learning, London: Routledge.

[iii] Gamlem, S. & Smith, K. (2013) Student perceptions of classroom feedback, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 20, 2, 150-169.

[iv] Petty, G. (2009) Evidenced-based teaching, Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes.

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