Journey to Excellence

Research summary - assessment for learning

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What is it?

'Formative assessment describes all those processes by which teachers and learners use information about student’s achievement to improve their achievements. So it’s about using information to adapt your teaching, to adapt the work of your pupils to put the learning back on track … to make sure the learning is proceeding in the right direction and to support that learning. So it’s what happens when you don’t just lecture students and rattle through the material and then ask them if they understood OK.'  Dylan Wiliam, Nov 2006 

Broadly speaking there are two kinds of assessment used in education – summative and formative. They differ mainly in terms of their purpose, how the evidence gathered will be used and by whom.


Formative Assessment 

Mainly about improvement 

Key questions

How well are you doing?

What progress has he made?

What does she need to do now?

  • Tends to be forward looking: part of the learning process, ongoing and continuous, used as an aid to future progress. 

  • Mainly used to diagnose needs, to provide feedback to help learners learn and to help teachers improve teaching.

  • Casts teacher in the role of facilitator.

  • Favours the use of classroom assessment planned as part of the lesson.

  • Tends to take more time, is relative to individual pupils, is less easily generalised and more subjective.

Summative Assessment 

Mainly about accountability

Key questions

How good are you?

Is she at level E yet?

Can he do his 6 times table?

  • Tends to be backward looking: to come at the end of a learning process, often separate from it and indicate present or past achievement.

  • Mainly used to provide information to others about how much learners have learned for certification and accountability.

  • Casts teacher in the role of judge.

  • Favours the use of formal standardised tests, usually devised and sometimes scored by someone other than the teacher.

  • These are short, cheap and easy to score, but usually lack validity, especially when used for accountability purposes.

Formative assessment

For generations, summative assessment has dominated most classroom assessment work, especially in secondary schools, where the bulk of teacher time has been taken up with creating tests, marking and grading. There is a strong emphasis on comparing students to national standards, and feedback to learners comes in the form of marks or grades. These kinds of tests provide little direction or advice for improvement. Typically, they don't give much indication of mastery of particular ideas or concepts because the test content is generally too limited and the scoring is too simplistic to represent the broad range of skills and knowledge that have been covered. 

In recent years there has been a fundamental change in the way that schools think about the role and nature of assessment. There is a growing acceptance that where assessment is used as a formative element of classroom work, learning and attainment can be significantly enhanced. Assessment for learning shifts the emphasis to enable a better balance between summative and formative assessment - from making judgements to engaging in ongoing activities that can be used to support the next stages of learning.

Formative assessment, like summative assessment, is about gathering information relating to students’ learning but it is the point at which this information is gathered that makes it different. Formative assessment focuses on how a young person is learning as they undertake the task. The teacher is then more able to tune into the learner’s progress, picking up on emerging understandings and difficulties. Formative assessment provides teachers with information with which to modify or change the teaching and learning activities in which students are engaged.

In the UK, formative assessment has come to be very much concerned with the everyday ongoing process of teaching and learning. It enables teachers to gather information about their learner’s learning and to use that information to improve the way that they learn. This has come to be known as ‘assessment for learning’. 

'In this paper, the term ‘assessment’ refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and students themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment only becomes ‘formative assessment’ when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.' Inside the Black Box (Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam) 

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Where does the idea come from?

The current worldwide interest in assessment for learning is, to a large extent, due to a review of research carried out by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam at Kings College in London and published in 1998. Their publication, 'Inside the Black Box', was a review that drew upon 250 research journals and publications between 1988 and 1997.

Black and Wiliam’s research spanned all age groups (from 5-year-olds to university graduates), subjects and nationalities. It was also based on empirical data. Black and Wiliam considered only research that used control groups, for instance, where learning gains were measured by comparing average improvements in tests with the scores for typical groups of students taking identical tests.

As a follow-up to 'Inside the Black Box', Dylan Wiliam and others at King’s College demonstrated that teachers could improve the quality of assessment for learning in their classrooms within the existing constraints of national tests and examinations. 

In a pilot project over a six-month period, teachers implemented a new teaching programme using formative assessment. The teachers chose from a range of options: improving their questioning techniques, developing self-assessment procedures, sharing success criteria with pupils, giving feedback and comment-only marking.

Their results were reported to the annual conference of BERA in September 2001. Some of the strategies used by teachers were also published in 2002 in ‘Working Inside the Black Box’. Since then several versions of 'Working Inside the Black Box' have been published covering subject areas such as science, maths and English. 

The main messages

Black and Wiliam’s research came up with three main findings.

  1. Where assessment for learning is implemented effectively, it raises standards of achievement across the board, but particularly for low achievers. It reduced the spread of attainment while raising the bar for everyone. Where pupils are given better quality support and feedback, and are encouraged and empowered to take more responsibility, they learn more effectively. 

  2. There are common barriers that inhibit the development of assessment for learning in schools, namely:

    • the over-reliance on testing that encourages teachers to promote rote and superficial learning
    • the negative impact on pupils when the giving of marks, grades and levels is over-emphasised and where pupils are compared with one another; and
    • the focus on the managerial role of assessments at the expense of learning.
  3. There were many excellent of examples of good practice that schools could use to develop their own assessment procedures.


The team at King's College developed a number of key strategies that underpin Assessment for Learning. 

  • Finding out where pupils are in their learning through discussion and questioning. 

  • Teachers agreeing clear objectives with pupils and providing feedback that helps them to achieve these goals. 

  • Sharing criteria for success and expectations with pupils through sharing learning intentions and success criteria with pupils.

  • Making peer and self-assessment key components of learning.

  • Enabling young people to take greater ownership of their learning.

Assessment is an essential part of effective teaching

Good teachers constantly assess their pupils’ learning. They recognise the need to understand what and how learners are thinking, and use this to enhance future learning. 

For formative assessment to be effective, teachers need to focus on how children are learning. They need to get inside children’s heads, to connect with their thinking and feelings. Pupils need to know what they are supposed to learn and how to identify success.

Teaching and learning must be an interactive, collaborative process, where teachers can talk with pupils and raise open-ended questions in order to construct and share their understandings.

Formative assessment is based on constructivist models of learning and has been linked directly to Vygotsky’s ideas on scaffolding, which give teachers a key role in extending children’s understanding as it develops. Classroom-based formative assessment is a way of better understanding children’s thinking and scaffolding their learning.

Pupils supported to think for themselves, become more resourceful, reflective and effective learners. They know what works for them and what does not. Resourceful, reflective children are more successful in examinations. 

In other words, the rationale for formative assessment is based firmly on our growing understanding of how young people learn and how this can be supported by good teaching. 

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Assessment for learning increases the capacity to learn

Self-motivation has a crucial role to play in learning. What motivates us and how other people can influence our self-motivation is a very complex area but one in which our understanding is growing. We now know that success itself does not necessarily motivate. It depends to a great extent on why we think we have been successful in our learning. Even the performance of very able pupils can plateau or even diminish if they believe that they have reached what they consider to be the limits of their intelligence - that their level of intelligence is fixed and they are powerless to increase their capacity to learn.

Assessment for learning places emphasis on helping pupils to achieve success through their own efforts and using techniques that work for them. Being wrong, making mistakes and struggling to understand or to do something is a necessary and formative part of learning. It can help young people to change their ideas about intelligence and understand how they can become smarter, better learners. As Wiliam says, 'It is no longer about how smart you are, but how can you get smarter.'


The implications for learners

'Assessment by pupils, far from being a luxury, is an essential part of formative assessment.' Inside the Black Box

Assessment for learning is not just about helping teachers to teach more effectively but about encouraging and enabling learners to take more responsibility for their own learning. 

Teachers can help bring this about by teaching in a more interactive way and modelling ways to question and give and receive feedback. They can also help pupils take more responsibility for their own learning by:

  • sharing learning objectives and success criteria more systematically and more effectively with learners; and

  • promoting pupil self-assessment and peer assessment.

Sharing learning objectives and success criteria

Pupils cannot take more responsibility for their own learning unless they know what they are expected to learn and how they will know that they have been successful.

To help promote effective self-assessment, teachers need to go beyond simply telling pupils what to do and how to do it (the task or activity) and making clear what is to be learned (the learning intention or objective) and how to recognise success (the success criteria).

In order for assessment to play a formative role in teaching and learning, it must be integral to a teacher’s planning. Learning intentions describe what children are going to learn, rather than what they are about to do. They focus on the learning, not the task. 

Research shows that children are more highly motivated and task-orientated if they know and understand the learning intention. They are also better equipped to make decisions about how to go about tasks. This is why learning objectives should be shared with pupils in advance and displayed visually during lessons.

Developing success criteria at the planning stage is also a vital element of formative assessment. Success criteria describe how both the teacher and the pupils will know that they have been successful in achieving the learning intention. Involving learners in the creation of success criteria enables them to see more clearly the relevance of classroom activities.  

Image of a young girl working

Pupil assessment- self and peer assessment

Research shows that children of 5 and younger can assess themselves with great skill if they are taught how to do so, particularly if they regard it as part of their learning. With practice, pupils quickly learn to be honest and effective in assessing both themselves and others. 

The sharing of the learning intentions and the development of the success criteria is critical to the success of pupil assessment as this enables pupils to be objective about their own and others’ efforts. The process of assessing another’s work enables the pupil assessor to internalise the success criteria, giving rise to a deeper level of understanding that can be transferred into his or her own work.

But as pupils get older, attitudes towards assessment tend to change. Assessment becomes associated with getting grades and pupils competing with one another. This might explain to some extent why, historically, teachers and pupils have regarded peer and self-assessment as soft options, and these approaches have taken time to embed. As the assessment for learning programme becomes more established in schools throughout Scotland, however, this situation is changing and there are four reasons why it is important to persevere.

The first reason is pragmatic. To learn effectively, pupils require good quality, continuous feedback, tailored to the pupils’ individual needs. If the source of all the feedback in a classroom is the teacher, there will inevitably be bottlenecks in this provision. Providing learners with the framework and skills for peer and self-assessment reduces the burden on the teacher.

Secondly, peer and self-assessment promotes metacognition in learners. It helps them to develop a deeper awareness of how they learn and this promotes better learning. 

Thirdly, research shows that pupil assessment can be more effective than traditional teacher-based marking. Pupils often listen more actively to the observations of learning partners and accord higher status to their evaluations.

Finally, if learners can reflect accurately and honestly on their own work, the evidence generated can provide teachers with information to back up their own judgements and give them valuable insights into their learners’ thinking. This in turn can lead to more effective teaching.

As part of AifL - Assessment is for Learning, Scottish schools have been exploring a number of ways to promote effective pupil peer and self-assessment. These include for example:

  • small steps learning intentions

  • paired marking

  • two stars and a wish

  • traffic lighting

  • KWL grids

  • learning logs

  • plenary sessions.

In order for peer and self-assessment to be effective it is important that learners have:

  • clear information about what they need to learn and how they will know they have been successful

  • a clear understanding of what constitutes high quality work

  • the skills and vocabulary required to assess what they have achieved.

The implications for teachers and schools

The effective promotion of assessment for learning requires teachers to recognise that feedback is a two-way process. Teachers not only need to find ways to give more effective feedback to learners, they must also find ways of receiving better feedback from learners. This points to a number of practical areas for development.


Quality of classroom dialogue

Receiving better feedback from learners about what they have understood or can do, and the strategies they are using, is an essential part of good teaching. 

Getting inside a learner’s head to clarify what learning has taken place, to identify what learning difficulties are being experienced and to introduce future tasks, is one of the biggest challenges for classroom teachers. It involves encouraging and enabling pupils to share their ideas and emerging understandings with their teacher and also their peers. The King’s College research shows that teachers can often improve the quality of interaction with pupils by making simple changes to their normal classroom behaviour. This might, for example, involve changes to:

  • the way that they ask questions;

  • the way that they respond to pupils;

  • classroom routines; and

  • the nature of the tasks and activities that learners undertake.

Teachers often find that quite small changes can make a significant difference. For instance, they might:

  • leave more ‘wait time’ after asking a question;

  • defer pupil answers until much later, sometimes until another teaching session;

  • take the question round the class to tease it out, instead of correcting a wrong answer;

  • occasionally changing the ‘hands up before answering’ rule to ‘hands up only to ask a question’;

  • ask the class for a display of thumbs up or down to check for understanding after an explanation; and

  • use collaborative learning techniques such as ‘think, pair and share’.


Timely, focused feedback 

‘Feedback or knowledge of results is the lifeblood of learning.’  Derek Rowntree

Evidence from inspections over the years shows that many teachers are not effective at providing children with the feedback they require to help them evaluate their work and identify what or how to improve. In general, most feedback is too little, too late, too vague and too impersonal.

Effective feedback should relate to the learning objective, pointing out success and improvement needs. It should offer clear guidance on how work can be improved, the next steps in learning and how pupils can take them.

Research shows that the feedback given by many teachers often focuses heavily on presentation, punctuation, spelling and the quantity of writing and effort, rather than feedback on the learning intention.

In creating a positive climate for learning, many teachers increase the level of praise that they give during feedback sessions. Research shows, however, that praise needs to be realistic if the feedback is to be more meaningful. Regular, excessive praise often does more harm than good, leading to delusion or even frustration and resentment. To be effective, praise must confirm a child’s own sense of reality.


Making marking count 

‘Correction usually comes too fast and too often for most learners, impressing on them precisely what they don’t know and can’t do.’ Frank Smith

The marking of pupil work is one of the more contentious areas within assessment for learning. In particular, this relates to the nature of the written comments teachers make on pupils’ work and the extent to which teachers share grades, levels and marks publicly with pupils.

Traditionally, teachers spend many hours correcting spelling errors, acting as a copy-editor and providing marks and comments. The marking of pupil work can be extremely time-consuming and repetitive and research shows that the vast majority of marking has little or no effect. There is also strong evidence to indicate that traditional forms of marking can be responsible for regression in many pupils, because they can make little sense of it and become demoralised and overwhelmed. Most learners accord far more status to the mark scored and tend to ignore any comments made by the teacher.

Black and Wiliam believe that when pupils are given a mark, their ego kicks in and they react emotionally to the score and fail to register the comments. A lower than expected mark is internalised as failure, whereas a better than expected grade leads to children feeling elated and keen to find out if they have done better than their friends. Either way, they ignore the teacher’s comments. 

Black and Wiliam advocate reducing the frequency of awarding scores or grades and the importance given to them. They argue that use of comment-only marking leads to improvements in both learning and attainment. In primary and early secondary, sharing marks with children and parents once a year is sufficient, and once a term is enough for pupils preparing for national examinations in middle and upper secondary.

Black and Wiliam point out, however, that there are barriers which can make it difficult for teachers to change to comment-only marking. Pupils have become weaned onto marks and grades, and constantly look for them, as do their parents. Many teachers still feel pressured into accounting for the progress of their pupils in quantitative or measurable terms. 

The argument that ‘pupils need to know where they stand’ is true, but the real questions are how do we tell them and how often? For many schools, assessment for learning necessitates a change of marking policy and one that is shared with and explained to parents.


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Marking and formative assessment

The King’s College research indicates a number of ways that teachers can make marking an integral part of formative assessment.

In work that has only one correct answer, for example, in number work and spelling, children can find their own mistakes and make their own corrections, providing that they are given appropriate guidance.

Self-assessment can help pupils practice using learning intentions, success criteria and ground rules when marking their own work.

Providing individuals or groups with immediate verbal feedback or brief written comments as they are working, can help to promote more effective learning.

Learners should be encouraged to leave white space in their jotters where the teacher writes a prompt to help improve their work. These prompts can take different forms:

  • Reminder: 'Say more about ….'

  • Question: 'Can you describe how …?'

  • Example: 'Can you think of an example to show what you are saying?'

Comment-only marking should be used as often as possible. Comments should be designed to put responsibility back to the pupil for taking their learning forward.

More able children can be challenged by awarding a plus, a minus or an equals, depending on how it compares with their last piece of work.


Further reading

Books to help your reflect

'Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment' (Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Kings College, London, 1998)

'Assessment in Education Volume 5' - Special Issue on Assessment and Classroom Learning (Carfax Publishing Ltd, 1998)


Books with practical advice

'Formative Assessment in Action' (Shirley Clarke, Hodder Murray, 2005)

'Assessment for Learning: Putting it into practice'  (Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam, OUP, 2003)

'Working Inside the Black Box' (Paul Black, Christine Harrison, Clare Lee, Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam, Kings College, London, 2002) 

'Mathematics Inside the Black Box' (Jeremy Hodgen and Dylan Wiliam, NferNelson, 2006)

'English Inside the Black Box' (Bethan Marshall and Dylan Wiliam, NferNelson, 2006)

'Assessment for Learning: Mark less to achieve more' (Ian Smith,  Learning Unlimited, 2003)

'The Learning Set'  (Ian Smith and Eric Young, Learning Unlimited, 2003)

'Science Inside the Black Box' (NferNelson, 2006)


Useful Websites

Learning and Teaching Scotland:

Assessment Reform Group:

Association for Achievement and Improvement through Assessment:

Department of Education and Skills:

Kings College Assessment Group:

Learning Unlimited:


Further research

Explore Learning and Teaching Scotland's Research Round-Up.

In association with Education Scotland