Does the school’s assessment practice support pupils’ learning as it happens, through the skilled and intelligent use of formative assessment? Do pupils develop as autonomous learners?

“Research evidence indicates that when formative assessment practices are integrated into the minute by minute, day-by –day classroom activities of teachers, substantial increases in pupil achievement are possible, even when the outcomes are measured with externally mandated standardised tests”      Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, 2011

Formative assessment practice

Frequently schools and teachers view formative assessment or Assessment for Learning (AfL) as something that has been emphasised ‘ad nauseam’ in numerous CPD sessions for too long.  As a result its wisdom and power gets eclipsed by the misconception that it is already embedded in a school’s current classroom practice and/or by the opinion that ‘We’ve done that and we need to turn our attention to something else.’

In reality, what passes for AfL in many cases is light years away from what Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam originally envisaged and how truly authentic AfL manifests itself in the classroom with the potential to transform both learning and teaching.

What follows is important for all teachers to understand and the reflective questions after each section, if answered candidly, can offer insight into the extent to which assessment is integrated into day to day teaching and is actually supporting pupils’ learning.

The four key elements of formative assessment are essential features of quality teaching:

  1. The use of learning objectives and success criteria
  2. Effective classroom discussion, tasks and activities that prompt evidence of learning
  3. The provision of feedback that moves learners forward
  4. Activating pupils as the owners of their learning

Employed intelligently, these serve to support learning that is deep and lasting rather than shallow and transient.  Their consistent use in the classroom provides teachers and learners with evidence of the mastery of learning. In turn, this enables adjustments to be made that support the learner and inform further planning and teaching.  


  1. The use of learning objectives and success criteria

Teachers need to make clear their expectations of what is to belearnedin lessons (as opposed to what is to be done) and explain how this will contribute to any learning objectives that have been shared.  Without such clarity neither the teacher nor the pupils can set a course or measure any progress towards achieving the objectives and extending their learning.  In order to know what such success looks like and understand how to achieve it, pupils need access to models and exemplars.  Ron Berger, American educator and author of a number of insightful books including Learning That Lasts, describes how examples “set the standards for what I and my students aspire to achieve.”

We sit and we admire.  We critique and discuss what makes the work powerful: what makes a piece of creative writing compelling and exciting; what makes a scientific or historical research project significant and stirring; what makes a novel mathematical solution so breath-taking.”  Ron Berger, An Ethic of Excellence: Building a Culture of Craftsmanship with Students, 2003, p.31.

From models and exemplars a concept of what excellence looks like can develop and this goes far beyond simply sharing a learning objective. It means the unpicking of the target knowledge and skills inherent in a task that constitute success. Learners benefit from knowing howto achieve the learning and success criteriahelp them to focus on the learning process. When pupils know how to be successful they are more likely to respond in ways that make their progress visible.  As a result teachers are in a position to make reliable assessments.

The danger is however, that writing up learning objectives becomes a box–ticking exercise or meaningless routine that has little or no effect on pupils’ learning.  The use of learning objectives and success criteria should be a key element of assessment for learning.  As Dylan Wiliam stresses, sharing learning objectives opens up a dialogue about learning and pupils need to know where they are going if they are going to have a fighting chance of getting there.  For teachers the learning objective represents the core purpose of the lesson and for teachers and pupils alike, a useful benchmark against which progress can be checked.  In tandem with this, success criteria that break down the objectives into doable steps are essential if the learning objective is to fulfil its role.

David Didau offers useful guidance to avoid the use of learning objectives becoming a futile chore:

  • Do have a learning objective clear in your mind before you plan your lesson
  • Do feel free to share it with students in as creative and interesting a way as you’re capable of
  • Do have success criteria against which progress can be measured
  • Do refer back to your learning objective at various points in the lesson and get students to explain how far they’ve met it.
  • Don’t just get students to copy them down in their books and tick them at the end of the lesson.

             David Didau, Learning Objectives and Why We Need ‘Em, 2012 (web article)

Reviewing practice questions:

How effective are teachers at making clear to learners what they are learning, what success looks like and what is expected of them?

Have the pupils had the opportunity to contribute to/create the success criteria?

Do teachers ensure that all children understand the learning objectives and success criteria?

Are the learning objectives and success criteria referred to during lessons?

Do teachers take time at the end of lessons to discuss with pupils how well they have achieved the learning objectives and success criteria?

Are the pupils able to assess themselves and peers against the success criteria?


  1. Effective classroom discussion, tasks and activities that prompt evidence of learning

Teachers assess constantly as part of daily learning and teaching.  They do this in a number of ways including watching and listening to pupils carrying out tasks, by looking at what they write and make, listening to what they say and by considering how they answer questions.  Teachers get to know their learners well, build up a profile of their progress, strengths and needs and involve them in planning what they need to learn next.  Regular conversations about learning between teacher and learner(s) or between learners provide a rich source of evidence of and information about learning that cannot be gathered more effectively in any other way.  There is a need for teachers to plan discussions, tasks and activities so that learners can demonstrate their knowledge, skills and understanding from a range of sources and with a choice of approaches.  These should include both in-school and out-of-school experiences and provide opportunities for learners to progress over time and across a range of activities.

Developed by Professor Robin Alexander in the 2000s, dialogic teaching harnesses the power of talk to stimulate and extend pupils’ thinking and advance their learning and understanding.  A report published in 2017 by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) showed that spending more class time on meaningful dialogue that encourages pupils to reason, discuss, speculate, argue and explain, rather than simply give the expected answers, can boost primary pupils’ progress in maths, science and English.  30 years of research shows that teachers primarily use classroom talk to give information, check understanding and maintain control.  All of these are essential, but the evidence indicates that teachers can often dominate classroom interaction.  Improving the quality of interactions with pupils means thinking beyond the dominant purposes of providing information and checking understanding to:

  • Review the way questions are asked
  • Consider how teachers respond to pupils
  • Use ‘wait time’ after asking questions, and develop a repertoire of ways in which this can be allowed for
  • Reflect on how to respond to incorrect answers, (for example, taking the question round the class to tease out understanding rather than providing correction)

A dialogic teacher sees pupils as partners in the learning process, not just passive recipients (Getting to the heart of authentic Assessment for Learning, Sue Swaffield, 2011).  Dialogic teaching is characterised by:

  • Questions being used that stimulate and support thinking
  • Pupils being encouraged to elaborate or add detail
  • Teachers and pupils alike challenging the thinking of those around them in the class
  • Pupils being asked to give reasons, justify their statements and opinions and speculate and hypothesise
  •  Everyone being able and confident to negotiate their position and change their mind

Reviewing practice questions:

Does the information teachers gather from assessment cover planned learning across the curriculum?

Does the assessment information that is used combine the contributions of learners as well as teachers?

Do learners have sufficient opportunities for dialogue with teachers about their progress in achieving their goals and targets?

Do teachers’ questions engage pupils in thinking for themselves?

Do teachers ask questions that prompt pupils to further responses and do they build on responses, irrespective of whether they are correct or not?

How often do pupils ask questions?

Is there an atmosphere of trust in classrooms where pupils’ views, concerns and ideas are valued?


  1. The provision of feedback that moves learners forward

Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement – if teachers get it right.  Giving pupils feedback during the learning process has been proven to increase learning and improve outcomes.  Timely, accurate feedback should guide the pupil in her/his learning and give them the direction required to reach their goals.  However, while feedback’s power is indisputable, it is one of the most variable of influences on learning and simple claims about it are misleading and confusing.

Not all feedback is equally effective, and it can be counterproductive if, for example, it is presented in a solely negative or corrective way, is unfocused, not understood by pupils or pupils are not receptive to it.  Although there is no quick or simple answer to such potential variability, research has given clear indicators as to the kind of feedback that will increase motivation, help pupils reflect on what they’ve learned and build on existing knowledge.

Rather than using general, meaningless comments to pupils such as “Try harder” or “Satisfactory work”, employing the three key elements which characterise the most effective feedback has far greater impact.  These were expressed by Terry Crooks in his paper The validity of formative assessments, presented at the BERA conference, Leeds, in September 2001 and were summarised by John Hattie and Shirley Clarke in their book Visible Learning: Feedback, 2018, p.4:

The greatest motivational benefits come from focusing feedback on:

  • the qualities of the pupil’s work and not on comparison with that of other pupils
  • specific ways in which the pupil’s work could be improved
  • improvements that the pupil has made in comparison with her/his previous work

For teachers, feedback’s starting point is finding out what pupils actually understand and what they are really thinking.  Only when these aspects of their learning are grasped and taken into account can appropriately-created feedback be given that advises them how to proceed.  John Hattie confesses to making the mistake of “…seeing feedback as something that teachers provided to students.  I discovered that feedback is most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher.  What they know, what they understand, where they make errors, when they have misconceptions, when they are not engaged – then teaching and learning can be synchronised and powerful.”  John Hattie, Visible Learning for Teachers, 2012

It is a mistaken belief that the more feedback that is given, the greater will be the influence on the pupils to whom it is addressed.  The potential benefits of pupils being taught to receive, interpret and utilise the feedback with which they are provided far outweigh any focus on the quantity of feedback they receive.  Pupils, just like the adults that surround them, rapidly become selective listeners and feedback given but not heard, understood or used is a waste of both the giver and receiver’s time.  As John Hattie states:

I used to think giving more feedback and better feedback was the answer [to improving education], and it’s the exact opposite: How do teachers and students receive feedback? How do they interpret it?”  John Hattie quoted in John Hattie and Shirley Clarke, Visible Learning: Feedback, 2018.

University of Stanford Psychology professor Carol Dweck’s research has made the concept of ‘mindset’ and its manifestation in school and at home something that has practical implications for teachers and parents:

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”  Carol Dweck,Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, Updated 2017.

Feedback can play a role in encouraging either a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’.  For example, Dweck found young children’s persistence in problem solving can be reduced after being praised for being clever on earlier easier tasks.  To encourage the development of a growth mindset, she advocates focusing feedback on effort and process, e.g. “You did well on this task.  Tell me how you went about getting such a good result.”  In addition, Dylan Wiliam says feedback should make it clear that ability is incremental rather than fixed.

Dweck also says that a ‘growth mindset’ can be encouraged by setting suitably high expectations so that pupils experience appropriate difficulties and sometimes fail, but through feedback they come to understand that this is a perfectly normal and expected part of the learning process.  Feedback should be designed to help pupils understand why they didn’t fully succeed and give them the information they need to give it another go and improve.  Of course they need to experience enough success to sustain their efforts and view improvement as a significant step towards achieving their goal.

On the other hand, if a task is not pitched high enough and pupils complete it faultlessly, then it would indicate that they have not been challenged.  An exercise book full of ticks signals that the tasks set have been too easy and potentially limited progress has been made in learning.  Tasks need designing to ensure everyone finds something challenging about them, that there is something that makes them stop and think, and/or something that they get wrong on the first attempt.  As John Hattie states in Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn 2014,Learners need to expect difficult tasks to be difficult.’  It is possible that not making learning tasks challenging enough over a period of time may actually lead pupils to develop a ‘fixed mindset’ because they will not be used to struggling or coping with difficulties.

Reviewing practice questions:

Do teachers check pupils’ understanding systematically, pinpointing strengths, and identifying misconceptions and is the feedback they give clear and constructive?

Is feedback tailored to pupils’ specific learning needs?

Do pupils understand, think about and make use of the feedback they receive?

Is there evidence that teachers observe and listen to pupils in order to understand better what they do and don’t know and why?

Do teachers respond by adapting their teaching and the support they give as necessary?

Is time built in for pupils to review and improve their work?

Do pupils have opportunities to feed back to teachers about their teaching and the pupils’ own learning? How openly is this feedback received, valued and utilised by teachers?

Does the feedback that pupils receive promote a growth mindset?


  1. Activating pupils as the owners of their learning

“In traditional schools, all the learning design – the topics to be studied, the activities to be done, the layout of the furniture, the displays on the walls – is done by the teacher.  That is efficient, but if we do it completely, all the time, we are depriving our students of opportunities to learn how to design their own learning for themselves.  And they will need to be able to do that for the simple reason that they will not be followed around for the rest of their lives by an obliging teacher, telling them what to learn and how.”   Guy Claxton, The Learning Power Approach, 2017

Teachers need to be able to help pupils develop the ability to make appropriate choices and take responsible control over their own learning.  When pupilsfeel asense of ownership, they are more likely to engage in tasks and activities and persist with their learning.

All too often many pupils at Year 3 and Year 4 begin to show signs of decreased motivation to learn.  The natural eagerness to go to school or the curiosity to learn that is so apparent in preschool, Reception and KS1 pupils seems to evaporate.  Many teachers fear that presenting more choices to their pupils will lead to losing control over the classroom.  However, research shows that the opposite happens.  When pupils understand their role as being in command of their own feeling, thinking and learning behaviours, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning.  To be independent learners, however, they need to have some authentic choice and control.

Pupils owning their learning cannot occur in the absence of implementing all of the other formative assessment strategies. Dylan Wiliam inEmbedded Formative Assessment, 2011, suggests that the following are supportive of learning autonomy:

  • Sharing learning goals with pupils so that they are able to monitor their own progress toward them
  • Promoting the belief that ability is incremental rather than fixed; when pupils think they can’t get smarter, they are likely to devote their energy to avoiding failure
  • Making it more difficult for pupils to compare themselves with others in terms of achievement
  • Providing feedback that offers a recipe for future action rather than a review of past failures.
  • Using every opportunity to transfer executive control of the learning from the teacher to the pupils to support their development as autonomous learners

One of the fundamentals of being an independent learner is the ability to work on one’s own, with minimal direction and with some confidence.  This includes knowing how to manage one’s learning as well as how to respond to difficulties or challenges.  In such a situation it is necessary that the teacher takes a back seat as pupils will have little chance of being independent if the teacher is taking a major role and steering their learning.  The dilemma that the teacher faces is how to be sure pupils are being independent learners if s/he is not closely involved with what they are doing.  There is no certainty and the teacher must have some faith based on a belief that their teaching has cultivated independent habits of mind in the pupils. How then can those independent traits be developed?

A considerable amount of advice is available as to how this can be achieved. However, what follows are some suggestions that have proved effective:

  • Adjusting the teacher’s mindset:Instinctively teachers tend to help those they teach when they have a problem. Without a second thought they do their best to ensure pupils can access the learning and assist their understanding. Too much help can remove opportunities for pupils to think for themselves, work through difficulties and solve problems.  Knowing that there is always help available can become a crutch.  Avoiding this trap demands that teachers think critically about whether or not to intervene; sometimes it will be necessary, sometimes not.  Responses such as “What’s the best way to proceed would you say?” or “Have a go at solving it yourself first” may help in the latter case. Used repeatedly over time this strategy can send the message that the next steps are in the pupils’ hands and help to foster independence.
  • Handing over to pupils: Provide activities in which a framework is given within which pupils must make choices.  In supplying a structure, teachers set the parameters for the learning and locate it somewhere specific inside the mass of all that is possible.  Giving pupils options and choices within a framework, and decisions to arrive at, they are encouraged to be independent.
  • Formative feedback: If pupils know specifically what they need to do to improve, they are in a position to make those improvements themselves.  The reverse would be to give a summative grade or mark.  This would leave no scope for action and would encourage pupils to become dependent as they would need to look to similar grades in the future for reinforcement of the sense of self generated by the initial grade.

Creating learners who own and control their learning is no short term project.  It is about the gradual development of skills and mindsets that entrench resilience, perseverance and the courage and determination to work through issues and problems towards success.  Such habits of mind take time, patience and resolve to cultivate over the course of months or longer.  As Dylan Wiliam advises:

Reflecting critically on one’s own learning is emotionally charged, which is why developing such skills takes time, especially with students who are accustomed to failure.”Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, 2011


Reviewing practice questions:

Are there expectations that pupils, of whatever age, should take ownership of their learning?

Are pupils given opportunities to establish learning goals, and assess their progress against them?

Is there explicit teaching for pupils about self-managing strategies?

Have classroom systems been established to enable pupils to monitor their personal progress?

Do pupils regularly assess their own progress and derive observable benefit from the process?


Some further reading:

Assessment as learning

Assessment in schools: Fit for Purpose?

AAIA publications

Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles

Carol Dweck: Growth Mindset

Robin Alexander - Dialogic Teaching

Dylan Wiliam - papers about formative assessment

Shirley Clarke - Transforming learning through formative assessment

Inside the Black Box

John Hattie - Feedback in Schools

Education Endowment Foundation – feedback

Education Endowment Fund – metacognition and self-regulation


Return to Assessment without levels: Assessment in the context of the National Curriculum