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Formative assessment

Have we really had enough of experts?

Remember when the former Education Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that we had “had enough of experts”? A dispiriting sentiment for someone who had previously been such a keen advocate for the accumulation of knowledge and for learning from best practice.

But have we really now had enough of academic experts and well-researched ideas, favouring instead the chaotic noise of social media? Or is there still an appetite for tapping into the collective expertise of those who have dedicated their careers to studying and thoroughly researching their field?

AfL 10 principles

Take formative assessment (also known as ‘Assessment for Learning’ or AfL) for example. There has been an enormous wealth of research and exploration in this area over the last few decades. Yet it is an area that is still quite misunderstood by some and, in some corners of the twittersphere, the accusation has been made that the claimed impact of formative assessment on pupils’ learning has been exaggerated.

Let’s discuss this by firstly reminding ourselves of some of the landmark research publications.

Black & Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box (1998) is still considered a seminal work, but the research into formative assessment goes back much further, for example Sadler (1989) and Butler (1988) to name but two earlier studies. More recently, John Hattie’s Visible Learning (2008) brought a fresh perspective on which assessment-related activities seem to have the greatest impacts on pupils’ learning.

For me, one of the key messages coming out of all of this research is this: formative assessment is not a bolt-on ‘thing’ that teachers choose to do at certain times, neither is it a set of rules or strategies. It is an intrinsic part of teaching and learning, an essential element of pedagogy. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that where it is claimed that AfL has not worked – not succeeded in leading to better pupil progress – it has not been properly understood and implemented.

For an interesting narrative of what AfL is and what it isn’t, see Sue Swaffield’s “The Misrepresentation of Assessment for Learning”.

Definitions of AfL, or formative assessment, vary.

The Assessment Reform Group (2002) defined it as “the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there”.  But this definition led to some misunderstandings, as some took it to be about ‘measurement’ of where learners are in their learning (e.g. via levels) and about numerical target-setting – rather than the intended meaning which was about students’ understanding of the specific knowledge and concepts being explored within a sequence of lessons.

Perhaps a more helpful definition is this one, offered by Dylan Wiliam: “Using evidence of achievement to adapt what happens in classrooms to meet learner needs”.

I have, on the odd occasion, heard people refer to an “AfL lesson”. I’m guessing they mean a lesson that includes some particular assessment activity from which the teacher hopes to glean useful information about what the children have understood. But if that is an “AfL lesson”, what’s happening the rest of the time? A refusal to use first-hand evidence of what children are understanding or not understanding to adapt what happens in the classroom?

Klenowski (2009) states that formative assessment “is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning”.

So, based on this definition, real AfL should be happening all the time. It is in the moment. And my view, informed by working with groups of teachers as part of action research projects led by Shirley Clarke, is that when teachers really understand what it is – and what it is not – and wholeheartedly embrace it within their day-to-day practice, it has revolutionary impact on the children’s approaches to learning, their engagement, motivation and, ultimately, their progress. (It also has been seen to produce huge benefits for the teachers themselves – in terms of their motivation, professional learning and job satisfaction.)

Future blogs will explore in more detail some of the aspects that make up effective formative assessment practice.

In a few weeks’ time, we have the huge privilege and pleasure of having Dylan Wiliam come to our training centre in Stevenage, to lead a conference on Embedding Formative Assessment. At the time of writing, there are still a few places remaining if there are more folk out there who still value the ideas, thoughts and practical suggestions of a bona fide ‘expert’.

Please also see the full range of assessment training that we are providing in the forthcoming term, or contact us if you would like to arrange bespoke training or consultancy in your school.

Ben Fuller, Lead Assessment Adviser, Herts for Learning Ltd.



Assessment Reform Group (2002) Assessment for learning: 10 principles, Online:

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the black box: raising standards through classroom assessment, London: School of Education, King’s College

Butler, R. (1988) Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation; the effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance, British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 1-14

Hattie, J. (2008) Visible learning: a synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement, Oxford: Routledge

Klenowski, V. (2009) Assessment for learning revisited: an Asia-Pacific perspective, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice 16, no. 3: 263-268

Sadler, R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems, Instructional Science, 18, 119-44

Swaffield, S. (2009) The misrepresentation of assessment for learning – and the woeful waste of a wonderful opportunity, Online:


Just Give them a Grade – Sound Advice from the Minister?

Ben Fuller is Lead Assessment Adviser at Herts for Learning

Yesterday, our Schools Minister Nick Gibb said that teachers could save time and workload by, instead of producing in-depth marking of children’s work, just writing a grade on each piece. We do of course all want to find ways to make marking and feedback less time-consuming and more impactful, but this suggestion of using grades as part of the day-to-day process of formative assessment demonstrates a tragic vacuum of understanding about the purpose of feedback.

Continue reading “Just Give them a Grade – Sound Advice from the Minister?”

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