10. Examining pupils’ responses

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Harry Fletcher-Wood

Teachers spend lots of time gathering information about pupil learning. They gather information when they ask questions, circulate as pupils work and when they mark their work. In order to make the most of this information, it’s important that teachers pause to examine what it’s telling them. By using formative assessment effectively, teachers are likely to make better decisions about their teaching.

Presenter main

Using formative assessment is about drawing tentative conclusions about what pupils do or do not understand so the teachers can decide what to do next. Tentative language is important here. It’s almost impossible to identify with real certainty what pupils are thinking and what they know. Information that teachers get from an assessment will only provide them with a momentary snapshot of pupils thinking, it won’t be the whole picture. And yet it’s still valuable information that can give teachers a good indication of how learning is going, especially when it comes to identifying misconceptions. So while we need to be careful about the conclusions that we draw, teachers still need to examine and use the information that they gain.

First, teachers need to have gathered some data. Some of the ways in which teachers might do this include observing pupil’s work when circulating the classroom, asking a series of questions or asking pupils to complete an exit task. An exit task is a short task that pupils complete at the end of the lesson. These tasks should be focused on the key learning of the lesson or the identification of common misconceptions and should be relatively quick to complete and to assess.

Once the data’s been gathered, teachers need to think about what they can infer from it. There are a number of questions that teachers can ask themselves to help them examine and interpret the information. First, what’s the mistake? Second, how many people have got this wrong? And then what might the source of the mistake be? For example, is that the result of a gap in understanding or is it a misconception? The answers to these questions will determine how teachers decide to respond. For example, teachers may infer that lots of their pupils hold a common misconception and decide to pause the lesson to address it. Or they may infer that lots of their pupils have a significant gap in understanding, and then it would be worth reteaching the relevant content in a subsequent lesson.

One of the challenges that teachers face when examining pupil responses is that they have a huge amount of information to consider and it can take a long time to do this. One way in which teachers can make this workload manageable is to prioritise looking for knowledge or understanding of the most important ideas. It’s equally important to bear in mind the most common misconceptions when examining pupil work. Knowing what knowledge and misconceptions you’re looking for an advance will make it easier for you to spot them when you come across them.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you’ll see a model of how to examine a set of pupils’ responses to an exit task. As you watch pay attention to the following:

  • Is aware of common misconceptions
  • Draws conclusions about what pupils have learned by looking at patterns of performance over a number of assessments

Exemplification: Ambition Institute coach

I want you to imagine that I’ve just taught my year six class a lesson on adding fractions with different denominators. At the planning stage, I spoke to a colleague who has taught this content effectively on many occasions, and she helped me to identify some common mistakes that pupils make. I designed an exit task for pupils to complete at the end of the lesson to see if any of them had made these mistakes. Here are the most common errors that I have decided to check for.

  • Pupils have taken the largest number instead of identifying a common denominator
  • Pupils have added the numerator and denominator separately
  • Pupils have not simplified the fraction

Here are all the exit tasks that I’ve got from the class. The first thing that I do is to scan them quickly to see which pupils have got the answer correct and which ones have got it wrong. I’ve written down the correct answer here to help me do this more quickly. I’ve divided the exit task into two piles. I’m going to concentrate on this pile of incorrect answers.

The next step is to dig into these incorrect answers. I want to see which errors pupils have made. Again, the fact that I thought about these misconceptions in advance really speeds this process up. The majority of pupils have gone wrong because they forgotten to simplify the fraction. A few of them haven’t found the common denominator.

Now that I know this, I need to decide what to do next. I’m going to draw on information that I have from the exit task along with what I know about my pupils and the unit of work. I’m going to prioritise reteaching how to simplify a fraction at the beginning of our next lesson. Quite a few pupils have got it wrong, so it’s worthwhile reteaching to the whole class. Pupils that got it right will benefit from additional practice. And I will ensure that the subsequent independent practice will include a stretch to their thinking. I’m going to hold off addressing the error of not identifying the common denominator. I first taught this to the class a few lessons ago and lots more of them have got it right, so it looks like the majority are getting the hang of this. We’ll be coming back to it in a few lessons time, so I’ll have another opportunity to address it then.

Presenter exemplification analysis

There are a couple of key points to draw out from this short example. First, the coach had identified in advance which misconceptions she wanted to test for. This made it much easier to spot them when interpreting exit tasks. It should also make her inferences more accurate because each question on the exit task targeted one misconception, helping to identify a precise problem.

Second, when examining information in the exit tasks the coach considers patterns. She identified a pattern of pupils who had made particular errors and she also considered patterns of performance when she compared pupils’ responses on this exit task to previous performance on the topic. Looking back at past performance provided more information with which to draw an inference. In this case that the majority of people seem to be improving their understanding of simplifying fractions. The coach was able to come to a number of likely conclusions fairly quickly and adapt her teaching and response. This was time well spent.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we’ve considered the importance of formative assessment and some of the ways in which teachers can assess formatively. Before we finish, read the key ideas that video has covered. Which ideas has this example illustrate the best?

  • Being aware of common misconceptions and discussing with experienced colleagues how to help pupils master important concepts
  • Monitoring pupils’ work during lessons, including checking for misconceptions
  • Drawing conclusions about what pupils have learned by looking at patterns of performance over a number of assessments (e.g. appreciating that assessments draw inferences about learning from performance)

Presenter summary

Formative assessment can feel easier the more that teachers know their subject and their pupils. When teaching something new for the first time, it’s a really good idea to work with an experienced teacher when reviewing pupil assessments. This can help teachers to make better decisions for their pupils, and ultimately improve learning.

Download this module (PDF)

Teaching challenge

Mr Jones is designing and using assessments frequently to check pupil understanding and misconceptions. However, he finds the amount of information they provide challenging to manage, particularly with so many pupil responses. He must decide what to do next rapidly, either during the lesson, or before the next. Doing this slowly during a lesson risks losing pupils’ attention; doing this slowly after the lesson adds to his workload dramatically. How can he use the information available to identify rapidly what pupils have understood, their misconceptions and their knowledge gaps?

Key idea

Teachers need a simple, systematic approach to decide how to respond to pupils’ knowledge gaps and misconceptions.

Evidence summary

Identifying critical knowledge gaps and misconceptions

When faced with an array of pupil responses, Mr Jones must be able to identify the crucial points rapidly. Since his goal is to develop pupils’ mental models, his focus must be on what pupils are thinking, not just on whether they have got the correct answer. Understanding pupils’ thinking allows teachers to recognise the strengths and gaps in their mental models, and to plan ways to respond (Wiliam, 2011). Mr Jones can do this best by taking a systematic approach. Teachers can use their knowledge of likely misconceptions and knowledge gaps (Ball et al., 2010) to design tasks which will reveal them. Similarly, they can analyse assessments with the most likely misconceptions and knowledge gaps in mind. Mr Jones’ previous work with colleagues, breaking learning down, specifying goals, sequencing ideas and identifying misconceptions should allow him to look for evidence of their knowledge and understanding of the most fundamental and important ideas.

Deciding on next steps

In reviewing pupils’ work, Mr Jones must decide whether to revisit an idea or to move on. His decision will reflect the importance of the idea: if a pupil misconception is core to understanding the subject, or to understanding the current topic, it is worth reviewing immediately. If a misconception is peripheral to the subject or the topic, it may not be a priority (Wiliam, 2011). Mr Jones may also be influenced by the prevalence of the misconception or knowledge gap: the more pupils who hold it, the more important it is to address.

Having identified the prevalence and importance of the knowledge gap or misconception, he can choose how to adapt his teaching and/or how to provide feedback to pupils. For example, if an assessment activity shows him that a handful of pupils have retained a misconception from a previous unit, he may defer addressing it since it is not foundational to the subject or the current unit. Conversely, if pupils have a fundamental misconception, or many pupils have the same knowledge gap, he may offer a fresh explanation, a new learning task and then reassess pupils’ understanding. His mental model of the subject and his sense of pupils’ developing mental models should allow him to prioritise the most crucial barriers to their understanding, drawing on the support of colleagues and resources where necessary.

Learning and performance are distinct

Learning and performance are different things. Performance is a temporary change in behaviour or knowledge which can be measured immediately after acquisition; learning is a lasting change in behaviour or knowledge (Christodoulou, 2017). Pupils’ responses during or after a lesson that introduced new information are an indication of their performance, not of their learning. For example, pupils may answer correctly initially but subsequently forget new information. In analysing pupils’ responses, Mr Jones prioritises using them to identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions, rather than seeing them as a guarantee that pupils will recall key ideas: his plans to revisit key ideas will check and support pupils’ subsequent retention.

Nuances and caveats

Whatever the process Mr Jones follows, it must be quick. Within a lesson, the process could take a few seconds; after the lesson, he needs to have enough time having examined pupil responses to plan a next step. Equally, it is difficult for teachers new to an idea to identify misconceptions or gaps in pupils’ mental models immediately. Mr Jones may usefully review assessments and decide on next steps in collaboration with his mentor or a more experienced teacher. They can help him decide best what to do next and can model their approach to reviewing assessments.

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can reach conclusions about next steps from formative assessment if he:

  • Takes a systematic approach to identify patterns of understanding.
  • Tries to understand pupils’ thinking by seeking common misconceptions and knowledge gaps, rather than just looking for the correct answer.
  • Judges the prevalence and importance of misconceptions and knowledge gaps when deciding whether and how to adapt his teaching.

Further reading

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8–21.


Ball, D. Thames, M. & Phelps, G. (2008). Content Knowledge for Teaching: What Makes It Special? Journal of Teacher Education, 59(5), 389-407.

Christodoulou, D. (2017). Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford, OUP.

Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, Solution Tree Press.


Answer the questions in the quiz to check your understanding of the evidence summary.

Take the quiz


Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Jones can reach conclusions about next steps from formative assessment if he:

  • Takes a systematic approach to identify patterns of understanding.
  • Tries to understand pupils’ thinking by seeking common misconceptions and knowledge gaps, rather than just looking for the correct answer.
  • Judges the prevalence and importance of misconceptions and knowledge gaps when deciding whether and how to adapt his teaching.

Reflect on the following questions

  1. What did you see in this module that you already do or have seen in other classrooms?
  2. What do you feel is the gap between your current practice and what you have seen in this module?
  3. Which of the ‘key takeaways’ do you need to focus on? Where and when might you try to apply them to your teaching?