Embedding your formative assessment

Experimenting with new approaches to teaching is the only way to improve.

I’m a great fan of Professor Dylan Wiliam, and his  book on how to embed formative assessment into your teaching is a stunner. It has some brilliant teaching methods for you to try. Formative assessment has a gigantic effect on student learning and achievement, and benefits the weakest learners most, but as a profession we don’t do it well. Wiliam’s methods are usually easy to use, and require your students to work harder than you do, which should be our goal for this year!

The first chapter is a gem, making the case that the best way to improve our education system is to improve teaching. The evidence Wiliam quotes is overwhelming, and anyone interested in improving education should read it.

Contrary to popular opinion Wiliam shows there is strong evidence that education has improved very markedly over the past 50 years or so. Students do very much better now on objective tests such as IQ tests. 50 years ago, only the top 15% did as well as an average student does now on the same test! So standards have not slipped. Instead, expectations of parents, employers and governments, have risen faster than education has improved. I feel a letter to the Daily Mail coming on.

Black and Wiliam have dropped the term “Assessment for Learning”, though they invented it, because it has become corrupted by the Government’s Education Department purloining the term to describe summative practices that have nothing to do with formative assessment or with Black and Wiliams’ careful reading of research.

What follows are some strategies from the book, but the book has many more strategies and some vital insights, so do read it, and ask your library to get some copies. If we and our student teachers got formative assessment right, then students would learn about twice as much as from conventional teaching.  Try these powerful methods, talk about your experiences with colleagues, and adapt them until they work. You’ll need to use them about 5 times to discover whether they will work for you, and about 25 times to get them working 80% effectively. Happy experimenting!

Japanese catch up

Say you have 14 lessons to teach a topic or unit:

  1. 12 lessons are used to teach the topic
  2. At the end of the 12th lesson you give students a short diagnostic test or quiz
  3. The test/quiz papers are not marked by the teacher, who instead looks them over to discover what students find difficult
  4. Lessons 13 and 14 are used for remedial activity on the difficulties noticed in ‘3’ above.

Using exemplar work to clarify success criteria and to improve work

  1. A task is set, and students work alone to produce draft work.
  2. The teacher collects papers, and secretly awards a provisional grade to each student. No comments are made on the work. The teacher chooses the three best pieces of work (exemplars) and photocopies these.
  3. Students get their own work back, unmarked, along with copies of the three exemplars.
  4. Students work in groups to use the exemplars to decide on assessment criteria for the task.
  5. Students redraft their own work, and resubmit. (They are not allowed to simply copy the exemplars)


Peer assessment of draft creative work

  1. Students are given a design brief and working alone generate 5 or 6 rough ideas
  2. Students decide on their best idea
  3. Students swap their draft ideas with those of another student, and secretly choose the best idea presented by the other student
  4. Work is handed back to the owner, and discussion follows, especially if the choices are different.


Students write their own assessment questions

After a topic has been completed, students write assessment questions, along with some means of assessing their answers such as:

  • assessment criteria,
  • mark scheme
  • etc

The students don’t do each other’s questions, but the teacher can grade each student’s questions and assessment guidance.


Peer assessment to improve answers without a model or criteria

  1. Students work individually on a practice exam test or quiz
  2. Students work in groups of 3 or 4 and share their unmarked papers
  3. Students try to create the best composite answer from their individual papers
  4. Groups share their answers with the rest of the class



While students are working in class they are asked to consult three peers before asking the teacher for help: ( ‘see three before me’ = C3B4M)


Traffic-light cups

Each student is given 3 cardboard cups: red, amber, and green. As the lesson progresses, each student shows the level of their understanding by displaying the appropriate coloured cup on top on the desk in front of them:


Red:                   I don’t understand what is going on

Amber:                   I sort of get it, but I am not confident

Green:                   I understand it well, and could explain it to others.


The teacher can say to a student displaying an amber cup ‘what don’t you understand?’, and then ask a student displaying a green cup to answer the student’s question.

When the teacher judges it necessary, because there are some amber or red cups being displayed, she says:

“Okay, red cups over here with me, those with an amber cup find a student with a green cup and ask them for help”


The anatomy of formative assessment

The diagram below  is a summary of aspects of Dylan Wiliam’s excellent book “Embedding Formative Assessment”. The diagram tries to show that the top two boxes engergise the process in the bottom three boxes.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.59.25


































3 thoughts on “Embedding your formative assessment

  1. I work in a school where the students’ level of English is weak and their interest in learning is the least. Learning pace is slow but they are expected to meet the statutory requirements. The most difficult part for me is ‘activating the students as owners of their own learning.’ What would you suggest to the educators when they set the tasks for the students but they see that the students spend their time in playful exchanges instead of getting on task and achieving the goal?

    • A common problem Sadia. I think teachers and indeed institutions must persuade students that education will improve their life prospects, ensure they have a more interesting job, better pay and conditions. They must also persuade students that they can learn even if they have failed to do so in the past – the growth mindset. (See the motivation chapter in my Evidence Based Teaching and the equality and diversity chapter in the 5th edition of my Teaching Today. While you are working on those difficult, time consuming, but very achievable and important project there is no need to activate students as owners of their own learning with peer assesment as they may talk inappropriately, try self assessment and spoof assessment instead. See also the download on classroom management and discipline. geoffpetty.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/ClassroomManagement2.doc

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