How to Implement Formative Assessment

06 Mar 2017

While there is no definitive manual of formative assessment, the Assessment Reform Group (1999) provides a useful digest of the key features: formative assessment, they summarise, “is embedded in a view of teaching and learning of which it is an essential part; it involves sharing learning goals with pupils; it aims to help pupils to know and to recognise the standards they are aiming for; it involves pupils in self-assessment; it provides feedback which leads to pupils recognising their next steps and how to take them; it is underpinned by confidence that every student can improve; [and] it involves both teacher and pupils reviewing and reflecting on assessment data” (Assessment Reform Group, 1999, p. 7). However, despite broad agreement on these features, and no shortage of authors putting forward ‘principles’ for successful classroom implementation (cf. Clarke, 2014; Furtak, 2009; Keeley, 2008), the realisation of a formative assessment approach in a typical classroom is not straightforward: “there is no one simple way to improve formative assessment” (Black and Wiliam, 1998b, p. 8) and “no prescribed model of effective classroom action” (Wiliam et al., 2004, p. 51). Nevertheless, there is some agreement about the key areas of classroom practice to which a formative assessment approach might contribute positively, core examples being: questioning, feedback, peer- and self-assessment, and the formative use of summative tests (ibid.).


There is much research evidence that typical classroom dialogue, including the use of questions, is far from ideal: “many teachers do not plan and conduct classroom dialogue in ways that might help students to learn” (Black et al., 2004, p. 11) and “at its worst, classroom talk does the opposite of what one might reasonably expect it to do: it disempowers the student” (Alexander, 2006, p. 5). A formative approach to questioning moves away from the typical ‘fact’ or ‘guess what’s in my head’ type of questions, posed too often in too many classrooms, often with too little wait time for the student to gather their thoughts and reply usefully, to refocus on open questions that aim to evoke discussion or promote collaborative activities between students: “asking simple questions, such as “Why do you think that?” or “How might you express that?” can become part of the interactive dynamic of the classroom and can provide an invaluable opportunity to extend students’ thinking through immediate feedback on their work” (Black et al., 2004, p. 13).


Formative feedback has been extensively researched (see Shute, 2008), such that a summary is beyond the scope of this review. However, the key feature of formative feedback as advocated by Black and Wiliam is the complete replacement of numerical marks or grades with written comments that “identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement and give guidance on how to make that improvement” (Black et al., 2004, p. 14). The evidence is that numerical marks are inevitably perceived negatively, while combining marks and comments leads the student to ignore the comments and focus on the marks. Most importantly, “a numerical score or a grade does not tell students how to improve their work, so an opportunity to enhance their learning is lost” (ibid., p. 13).

Peer and self-assessment

‘Students can achieve a learning goal only if they understand that goal and can assess what they need to do to reach it. So self-assessment is essential to learning’ (ibid., p. 14). Self-assessment also contributes to self-regulated learning (Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick, 2006) and to working at a metacognitive level (Lajoie, 2008). In this context, Black and colleagues also introduce a very practical strategy, the use of ‘traffic lights’, suggesting that teachers encourage their students to identify their self-assessed level of understanding by marking their work green, amber or red (Black et al., 2004). Meanwhile, peer-assessment can be valuable for various reasons: students may be more willing to accept criticism of their work from one another, they are likely to express their comments in a language style and pitch that the recipient also uses, and they learn from having to consider critically an approach alternative to their own and from having to articulate their thoughts. A practical strategy suggested to support peer-assessment is ‘three stars and a wish’, where the peer reviewer has to identify and comment upon three things in the work that have been successful and one thing that could be improved (Bennett, 2011).

Formative use of summative tests

“From their earliest use it was clear that the terms ‘formative’ and summative’ applied not to the assessments themselves, but to the functions they served” (Black and Wiliam, 2003, p. 623). Given that it is likely classroom and high-stakes summative assessments are not going to go away, how can this assessment of learning be appropriated to support learning? One approach is to use the impending arrival of a summative test as a further reason for the students to undertake self-assessment, identifying (perhaps with ‘traffic lights’) those topics that are sufficiently understood and those that need further effort. Encouraging the students to generate and answer their own questions on topics to be covered by the test can also be especially useful.

Peer-marking of the finished tests can also support learning, especially if the students have themselves been involved in developing the marking rubric or if they use the ‘three stars and a wish’ approach. Peer marking also has the practical benefit of freeing the teacher from the chore of marking thirty scripts and, more importantly, of enabling them to spend more time exploring and discussing the questions in class, especially those that most students found especially challenging.

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