How to Use Assessment for Learning

assessment for learning

Great teachers never work harder than their students. They know that a quality education prepares pupils to succeed alone, whether sitting an exam, facing an interview panel or sounding out their first word.

Assessment for learning develops this self-sufficiency among students. You can use its principles to build confidence, resilience and optimism in your classroom. It also gives you feedback on your performance as a teacher so you can adjust strategies and avoid wasting your and your students’ precious learning time.

The Purpose of Assessment

Assessments give you an idea of your learners’ understanding or abilities. No evaluation will ever be entirely conclusive, however. Some learners also find assessments stressful, which can be reflected in underwhelming results (and, sadly, unhappy students).

As a teacher, successfully using assessment for learning will improve your lesson outcomes and attainment levels across all the different forms of education.

What is Assessment for Learning?

Assessment for learning (AFL) gives direction to your lessons. Learning is often (and appropriately) described as a journey. A successful journey needs a defined start and end point and a planned route.

AFL helps you plan that route. It does this in two ways:

  • Gives you feedback on your performance as a teacher
  • Gives your learners feedback on their progress towards the learning objective

Consider a successful lesson plan. It should account for your class’s current level of understanding (the starting point) and include a learning objective (the endpoint). You then fill out the explanations, modelled examples, questions and instructions your students need to reach that endpoint (the route).

Some learners get it almost instantly, while others struggle. And it’s not easy to tell which students are in which groups. It’s also challenging to know why; too few worked examples? Not enough independent practice? Have some learners missed a critical part of the sequence?

AFL (also known as formative assessment) answers these questions and reveals which learners need additional support. You can use it to inform your teaching as it happens and help all learners progress towards the endpoint.

Communication Skills Training

Our Communication Skills Training courses provide employers, managers and their employees with the fundamental aspects of effective communication for the success of businesses, organisations and individuals. It helps employers build constructive relationships with their workforce.

How Formative Assessment is Different to Summative Assessment

Summative Assessments

You can’t measure your success as an educator without evidence that students have learned, i.e., made progress between the start and end of a learning sequence.

Summative assessments are:

  • Given at the end of a learning sequence
  • A measure of success against a defined outcome (i.e. students need to achieve a particular score)
  • Representative of knowledge or ability at one moment in time
  • Generally high-stakes

A common low-stakes summative assessment would be a spelling test after learning a set list of words. Other summative assessments are much more consequential, such as SATs or GCSEs.

This type of assessment is obviously essential. But, summative assessments are arguably more useful for school leaders and local authorities, who must prove that educational targets are being met.

Parents and carers like to see this evidence, too, with some trusting it as a summary of what their child has achieved at school (even if the reality is more nuanced).

For educators, summative assessments are less valuable since they come after the learning has already happened and the opportunity to help students has passed.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments (aka assessment for learning) are used during a lesson or learning sequence.

Formative assessments are:

  • Ongoing and used to improve learning as it happens
  • Able to identify areas of weakness and misconceptions
  • Typically collaborative, requiring discussion between peers and teachers
  • Generally low-stakes

To teach effectively, you need to check students’ understanding as you go and adjust your strategies accordingly. You can do this using formative assessments.

Assessment for Learning Benefits

Successful AFL makes lessons more worthwhile. It does this in several ways:

  • Increases overall attainment
  • Helps more learners achieve lesson aims
  • Makes students better learners
What is assessment for learning

Higher overall attainment is the most obvious outcome. Using AFL to refine (or rescue) your lessons increases your effectiveness as a teacher. You can use AFL to identify learners who need additional support. It’s also likely that the learners who need this extra help are disadvantaged somehow, so AFL lets you improve outcomes for this traditionally underachieving cohort.

AFL has benefits for your learners, too. When you use formative assessment, you ask students to engage with the learning process. Moving from the passive to the active helps them take ownership of their learning. Like metacognition, formative assessment allows students to judge their performance. It gives them an idea of what they can do better.

Assessment for Learning Principles

AFL is interactive. Educational researchers Paul Black and Dylan William, who defined AFL with their influential paper Inside the Black Box, noted that interactivity is critical to effective teaching. You can’t teach students without knowing their level of understanding or areas of weakness.

AFL is also about ongoing improvement. It should be part of every lesson, and the information you have on hand should be used then and there.

You can achieve two goals by following a few fundamental AFL principles:-

Use Learning Objectives to Measure Performance

You can only assess a learner’s performance if you have something to test against.

A learning objective lets you measure a learner’s performance.

Giving specific criteria or steps towards the learning objective makes it even easier to judge performance, particularly for younger learners.

Provide Quality Feedback

Feeling comfortable at the front of your classroom or behind your desk is natural. But the entire space is yours, so use it. Circulate around the room, teach from the back or hover over the shoulder of that one learner who’s clearly not listening.

AFL should create opportunities for immediate improvement. So learners need fast, quality feedback on their performance.

Verbal feedback is best for this as it can be delivered at the point of learning and quickly tailored to the learner. And don’t overlook peer feedback. Even young learners can provide honest and insightful responses.

Use Group or Whole-Class Assessments

You should poll your whole class as often as possible to get a sense of your teaching’s impact. Assessing as many children as possible makes AFL easier to manage.

Focus on Processes, Not Outcomes

This principle comes straight from Black and William. Many learners are happy to just ‘get by’ and avoid particularly challenging tasks. AFL shifts the focus from the outcome to the process of learning, which benefits students who feel discouraged by failure. Give students input on their learning and what they can do to improve and avoid comparisons or scores often used in summative assessment.

Assessment for Learning Strategies

You need various strategies to make AFL a fixture of every lesson. The techniques listed below can be adapted to almost every classroom, subject and age range.

Hinge Questions

According to Dylan William, deciding when to move on, recap or reteach is an educator’s most important choice. Hinge questions let you make an informed decision at these critical points.

Plan a hinge question at multiple points in a lesson to check your class’ understanding. If the vast majority are with you, move on. A recap is a good idea if more than two or three learners are struggling. A wall of wrong answers should tell you a total reteach is necessary.

Exit Tickets

Exit tickets let you check understanding when students exit the lesson. However, unlike hinge questions, exit tickets test students against the overall learning objective, not the steps to get there.

You can use exit tickets literally. One of the technique’s early champions, Doug Lemov, witnessed a teacher ask students to write what they understood from the lesson on a slip of paper before leaving.

If you discover a fundamental misunderstanding, you won’t be able to drag students back into the room for a reteach. But exit tickets mean you can plan the next lesson accordingly.

Peer Discussion

‘Hands-up’ is still the default model for classroom questioning. But, it narrows the information you have to work with and engages only one learner at a time, leaving 29 others with nothing to do.

Inevitably, only confident learners offer answers, potentially skewing your impression of your class’s understanding.

Having students talk with each other before answering your questions is a simple yet effective technique to overcome the limitations of ‘hands-up’.

Peer discussion creates a safe space where learners can get things wrong. Of course, you won’t have time to hear everyone’s response, but at least every learner has a reason to work through and vocalise their answer.

Finally, students can help each other by offering immediate feedback.

Communication is Key

All AFL techniques depend on effective communication. You need to clarify what students are expected to do and give them the language and confidence to explain their thinking clearly. Something you can only do if you’re a skilled communicator yourself.

Our online Communication Skills Training teaches the principles of effective communication. The course covers verbal and non-verbal language ­– a critically overlooked aspect of successful teaching. It also develops your ability to empathise with others. You can relate better to your colleagues and choose the right words when tackling challenging conversations with parents and carers.

About the author(s)

Authors Photo
Jonathan Goby
Share with others
You might also like