I’m working on a guide to formative assessment for classroom teachers.  I want to do two things: first, set out clear principles and introduce the research underpinning them; second, show how these principles work in practice through discussing an extensive range of examples.



Two millstones burden formative assessment; two current trends demand we look at it afresh.

Millstone #1

Effective formative assessment remains rare.  The Assessment Commission Report found that:

Formative classroom assessment was not always being used as an integral part of effective teaching”;

and a focus on National Curriculum Levels in schools meant that:

Instead of using classroom assessments 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.”

The Carter Review found that:

The most significant improvements [to Initial Teacher Training] are needed for training in assessment…  there are significant gaps in both the capacity of schools and ITT providers in the theoretical and technical aspects of assessment.”

Millstone #2

Meanwhile, some of our most thoughtful teachers have turned their backs on formative assessment.  David Didau has posed valid concerns about the the conflation of learning and performance, and some formative assessment techniques; rather than refining formative assessment however, he uses these concerns to:

Conclude that the ‘big idea’ of AfL is wrong.”*

Meanwhile, Joe Kirby’s post on workload ‘hornets’ rejects key tenets of formative assessment out of hand:

No writing, sharing or copying learning objectives or outcomes…. No mini-plenaries or checks on progress within a lesson.”

Fresh attention

Conversely, two current concerns in English schools demand that we reexamine and refresh formative assessment:

  • Formative assessment needs to be adapted to suit the demands of a knowledge-rich curriculum.  The underpinning research and most of the principles rest unchanged; the details and the techniques may differ in nature or emphasis from those which dominated my early experiences of formative assessment.
  • Cognitive science offers us a much deeper understanding of why formative assessment works; this understanding can guide our refinement of existing techniques.

Seven principles of formative assessment

The Pleiades (aka The Seven Sisters)

I believe formative assessment can be cast in seven principles:

  1. Determine exactly what students need to know and be able to do.
  2. Align every aspect of lessons to their purpose.
  3. Show students what’s expected.
  4. Respond to students’ understanding between lessons.
  5. Respond to students’ understanding within lessons.
  6. Provide feedback which causes improvement.

  7. Guide refinement.

The principles are hierarchical: successfully showing students what’s expected relies on having determined exactly what they need to know and do; providing feedback which causes improvement depends on a good understanding of what students have understood.  (There’s a clear debt here to the careful sequencing of teacher improvement in leverage coaching).  I believe these principles apply across subjects and ages (if you disagree, now’s your chance).

This looks very different from the canonical formulation of formative assessment as five strategies:Formative_assessment.jpg

My view is that a hierarchical formulation sets out priorities more helpfully, and where the bulk of responsibility lies – with the teacher – more clearly.  Abundant scope remains for peer and self assessment once students know what they’re expected to do and have sufficient guidance to succeed.

A direct way to apply each principle

In the guide, I intend to exemplify each principle through detailed discussion of one technique.  I plan to use the following techniques (links lead to previous, somewhat dated, posts about them):

  1. Determine exactly what students need to know and be able to do: setting clear learning objectives
  2. Align every aspect of lessons: Ruthless application of a checklist (do you have a better suggestion?)
  3. Show students what’s expected: sharing lesson objectives and model work
  4. Respond to students’ understanding between lessons: exit tickets
  5. Respond to students’ understanding within lessons: hinge questions;  questioning and classroom discussion
  6. Provide feedback which causes improvement: RAG/dot marking

  7. Guide refinement: redrafting

(There’s more to each principle than one technique; this is primarily a way to convey the principle through a detailed example.  I will discuss a range of other approaches briefly).

Now, your turn:

  1. Are these principles well-chosen and well-formulated?  Why (or why not)?
  2. Are these techniques good examples of the principles?
  3. What examples of these principles in practice can you share?
  4. Have you tried to adopt any of these principles or techniques?  Would you be interested in describing how it went?

If you have answers to any of these questions, or are interested in commenting on a draft chapter of the guide, let me know.

If you’d like a sneak preview, answer the three questions below, and I’ll send you a section of the book, tailored to your needs.

*  I’ve since critiqued David’s arguments in more depth here.