Formative assessment is a critical part of teaching. It involves gathering and using evidence of student learning to adapt and improve teaching such as to address any emerging gaps in understanding.

Central to formative assessment is a teacher’s ability to ‘engineer effective classroom discussions, questions and tasks that elicit evidence of learning’ (Wiliam, 2006). To do this well, the learning intentions should be clear in the teacher’s mind so that they can formulate effective questions and tasks. Professor Rob Coe highlights the importance of the curriculum in his writing about effective formative assessment:

‘If you want to use assessments to tell you whether students have learnt something, you need to be clear what it is you wanted them to learn in the first place. Clarity about the intended learning (ie, the curriculum) is crucial if we want to create or select questions for an assessment that will tell us what has been learnt. (Coe, 2019)

Read Inside the Black Box

Therefore, taking time to think carefully about the topic at hand will be time well spent. Considering the depth and complexity of the topic and then designing questions accordingly will enable teachers to see whether students have a sufficient understanding of the topic. Furthermore, experienced teachers will be aware of common misconceptions or errors that arise when teaching particular topics and so, including questions to elicit such misconceptions will be valuable.

When planning classroom discussions, questions and tasks to elicit evidence of learning, teachers should aim to engage all students in order to get a clear view of the whole class’s understanding. This will be easier to achieve if teachers are using written tasks, be they in the form of selected responses such as multiple choice questions, or short to longer written answers. Whether these are done on paper or online, they usually involve all students and so a teacher should be in a position to get an accurate view of understanding of the whole class. Involving all students may be more challenging in discussions when it is easy to rely on a few trusty volunteers. This is where deliberate questioning strategies such as cold calling, wait time and think, pair, share can maximise the engagement and involvement of more students. Doug Lemov uses the term ‘participation ratio’ which helps us consider the ratio of students in our class participating (or not) in an activity.

Once teachers have been able to assess students’ understanding as accurately as they can, they’ll then be in a position to respond. If the majority of students have demonstrated good understanding then teachers will typically move on, but where it is clear from students’ answers that there is a common misconception, then a teacher can go back and re-explain or re-teach an aspect of the topic. Therefore, formative assessment enables teachers to be responsive in the moment to adjust their teaching.  Hence why Dylan Wiliam famously commented that if he had his time again, he would have termed formative assessment or ‘assessment for learning’ as response teaching instead.

Formative assessment, as conceived by Dylan Wiliam, also identifies the important role students play in the formative assessment of their own learning or that of their peers.  In Wiliam’s own words: ‘What we’ve discovered is that formative peer-assessment, where students are helping each other improve their work, has benefits for the person that receives feedback but also has benefits for the person who gives the feedback. Because, in thinking through what it is that this piece of work represents and what needs to happen to improve it, the students are forced to internalise a success criteria and they’re able to do it in the context of someone else’s work, which is less emotionally charged than your own.’ (You can view a video of Dylan Wiliam discussing this here)

To learn more about how to carry our formative assessment online, do read our ‘Research Informed Pedagogies for Remote Learning’ guide here.