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What is formative assessment, why hasn’t it worked in schools, and how can we make it better in the classroom?

Written by: Nikki Booth
8 min read

‘Smart is not something you are, smart is something you get’ (Wiliam, 2013a).

What is formative assessment?

There is more than 40 years’ research evidence to suggest that enhancing formative assessment within the classroom has a significant impact on student learning. Within the context of the UK, the term ‘formative assessment’ (also used interchangeably with ‘Assessment for Learning’) tends to be built on the pioneering work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. Black and Wiliam have defined formative assessment as ‘all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or their students to modify teaching and learning activities in which they [the students] are engaged’ (1998: p.8). What is crucial to know is that formative assessment is a process and involves working with students so that learners know where they are in their learning, where they need to be, and how they are going to get there. In short, formative assessment normally involves a dialogue (whether oral or written) which moves teaching and learning forward.

Within the classroom, teachers who model, observe and give learners constructive comments are using formative assessment. As Keith Swanwick puts it, ‘to teach is to assess’ (Swanwick, 1988: p.149) and although this may not be seen, by some, as assessment, this is exactly what is happening. The nature of formative assessment does not include marks, levels or grades, nor does it compare students with one another. Instead, it focuses on what the next steps are on an individual and personal level. The key component of formative assessment, though, is not just the collection of information, but that it is actively used and acted upon by the teacher to improve future teaching, and the student to improve future learning.

Why hasn’t it worked in schools?

Firstly, one reason worth exploring is given by the Assessment Reform Group (1999), which explains:
‘The term “formative” itself is open to a variety of interpretations and often means no more than that assessment is carried out frequently and is planned at the same time as teaching. It may be formative in helping the teacher identify areas where more explanation or practice is needed. But for the pupils, the marks or remarks in their work may tell them about their successes or failures, but not how to make progress towards future learning’ (p.7).

This point is further exemplified by Wiliam who, in an interview published in the Times Educational Supplement, stated: ‘The big mistake that Paul and I made was calling this stuff “assessment”… because when you use the word assessment, people think about tests and exams’ (Stewart, 2012). He later commented that it should probably have been called something like ‘responsive teaching’ (Wiliam, 2013b). This means that when students are given a mark or score after a class test or quiz, student learning has, in fact, been ‘summed up’. What can happen, therefore, is that instead of formative assessment practise taking place within the classroom there is, in place of it, a culture of mini-summative assessments

Secondly, it is quite common in schools, following a class test, for teachers to give students a score with comments to improve. This notion has been widely researched, along with other modes of feedback, including in the oft-quoted work by Butler (1988) who looked into the effects of different types of feedback on students in Israel between two lessons, and reported the following findings:
– Students who were given marks only made no gain in attainment between the two lessons.
– Students who were given comments only improved, on average, by 30 per cent compared with their previous performance.
– Students who were given marks and comments made, surprisingly, no gain.

While the idea of giving marks and comments to improve might appear favourable, and may even be part of a school’s assessment policy, what seems likely to happen in practice is that students look at their score, compare it with the person nearest to them, and ignore the comments. As such, the efforts of the teacher, having spent time writing the comments, is largely wasted.

A third reason could relate to Fautley and Savage’s (2008) acknowledgement that, in some schools, there is pressure on teachers and students, presumably from senior leadership, to produce high levels of attainment in the form of marks or grades from assessments. With this in mind, consideration should be given to the fact that teachers may consciously be neglecting their formative practices and beliefs in favour of summative assessments, albeit mini ones, to meet requests for data tracking purposes.

In the Department for Education’s (DfE) Final Report of the Commission on Assessment Without Levels, it was reported that ‘formative assessment was not always being used as an integral part of effective teaching’ (DfE, 2015: p.13) and that the previous focus on National Curriculum levels in schools meant that ‘Instead of using classroom assessment to identify strengths and gaps in pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the programmes of study, some teachers were simply tracking pupils’ progress towards target levels’ (DfE, 2015: p.13). The removal of levels from the English National Curriculum in 2014 meant there could be a more significant emphasis on embedding formative assessment within day-today teaching and learning. Even before this, though, research suggests that in schools and within the classroom, the term ‘formative assessment’ has become misunderstood and confused (James et al., 2006). As such, ‘there has been no (or at best limited) effect on learning outcomes nationally’ (Coe, 2013: p.10).

How can we make it better in the classroom?

Although formative assessment is useful for gathering evidence to be used as feedback to improve learner performance, it can also be integral to effective teaching on a day-to-day basis. Based on the work of Leahy et al (2005), these formative strategies include learning intentions, success criteria, eliciting evidence of student learning, feedback, and both peer-and self-assessment. A brief summary of each is given below.

Learning intentions

A common feature within classroom practice today is the sharing of learning intentions (also known as learning objectives) with students where the intended learning behind the tasks and activities is revealed. The clarification and understanding, at student level, of learning intentions, however, is essential so that students become able to hold a concept similar to that of the teacher (Sadler, 1989). Writing good learning intentions, though, is hard as we need to distinguish clearly in our planning not only what the students will be doing, but what they will be learning by doing it.

Success criteria

Sharing what success looks like with students is at the very heart of formative assessment and provides regular opportunities for such assessment to take place throughout the lesson. As one student puts it, knowing and understanding the success criteria is ‘like knowing the teacher’s secret’ (Spendlove, 2009: 18). Within formative assessment, success criteria can act as an aide memoire to students throughout the lesson so that, through on-going reflection, their learning can be kept on track. The regular referral to success criteria also allows teachers to engage in conversations with their students where meaningful oral feedback is given on where the learner is now, where they need to be, and how they are going to get there.

Eliciting evidence of student learning

Questioning is an excellent way of gathering evidence of student learning. Traditionally, this may be done by questioning a small number of students, they get the answers right, and the teacher moves on. This is problematic, though, as we do not know whether the rest of the class is ready to move on, too. Although some may consider feedback to be at the heart of formative assessment, the quality of the feedback depends on the quality of the evidence gathered. Asking a small number of students before moving on may not constitute quality evidence. A more reliable source of information, however, could come from asking questions at whole-class level via the use of mini-whiteboards with, perhaps, ABCD multiple-choice responses for students to choose from. The information this elicits, then, can be immediately interpreted by the teacher before deciding whether to move on or not.


The notion of any kind of feedback, according to Sadler (1989), is powerful for several reasons:
1. It informs teachers about levels of knowledge, understanding and skills attained or yet to be attained by the student
2. It aims to facilitate learners in being able to identify and amend a gap in learning
3. It assists teachers in reducing and selecting suitable tasks or activities, and
4. It allows teachers to modify their teaching in order to support the closing of the gap.

Peer- and self-assessment

Peer- and self-assessment ‘is essential to learning because students can only achieve a learning goal if they understand that goal and can assess what they need to do to reach it’ (Black and Wiliam, 2006: 15). Within the understanding of formative assessment, what this means is that the students know what to do to develop each other’s, as well as their own, learning.

The interaction between these key strategies not only fosters engaging learning environments, but also makes clear to both teachers and students that learning is, indeed, heading in the intended direction. The information these strategies elicit is then used to decide what to do next. This is formative assessment in action.

Assessment Reform Group (1999) Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box. Cambridge: Cambridge School of Education.

Black P and Wiliam D (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: King’s College School of Education.

Black P and Wiliam D (2006) Assessment for learning in the classroom. In: Gardner J (ed) Assessment and Learning (2nd ed). London: SAGE, pp. 11–32.

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

Coe R (2013) Improving Education: A Triumph of Hope Over Experience. Durham: Durham University Centre for Education and Monitoring.

Department for Education (2015) Final Report of the Commission on Assessment Without Levels. London: The Stationery Office.

Fautley M and Savage J (2008) Assessment for Learning and Teaching in Secondary Schools. Exeter: Learning Matters.

James M, Black P, Carmichael P, Conner C, Dudley P, Fox A, Frost A, Honour L, Macbeth J, McCormack R, Marshall B, Pedder D, Procter R, Swaffield S and Wiliam D (2006) Learning How to Learn: Tools for Schools. Abingdon: Routledge.

Leahy S, Lyon C, Thompson M and Wiliam D (2005) Classroom assessment: Minute-by-minute and day-by-day. Educational Leadership 63(3): 18–24.

Sadler R (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18: 119–144.

Spendlove D (2009) Putting Assessment for Learning into Practice. London: Continuum.

Stewart W (2012) Think you’ve implemented assessment for learning? Times Educational Supplement. Available at: (accessed 25 June 2017).

Swanwick K (1988) Music, Mind and Education. London: Routledge.

Wiliam D (2013a) Assessment: The bridge between teaching and learning. Voices from the Middle 21(2): 15–20.

Wiliam D (2013b) Example of a really big mistake: Calling formative assessment formative assessment and not something like “responsive teaching”. Twitter blog available at: (accessed 25 June 2017).

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      Author(s): Bill Lucas