9. Assessing for formative purposes

Video transcript

Presenter intro: Harry Fletcher-Wood

Every lesson teachers make lots of decisions that have an impact on what they teach and what pupils learn. They make decisions about whether a pupil has understood something or if they need to go back and reteach it. In order to ensure that we make good decisions and act in ways that will have the most impact on pupils’ learning, we need to think carefully about what we assess and how we assess it. Designing and delivering formative assessment can help teachers make better decisions.

Presenter main

A great way of understanding what formative assessment is, is to consider the definition that Paul Black and Dylan William gave in their influential work ‘Inside the Black Box’. And assessment is formative if it leads a teacher to make a better decision about next steps. Effective formative assessment allows teachers to develop an understanding of how learning is going and to make decisions about how they’ll adapt their teaching. This is different from summative assessment, which is designed to demonstrate what pupils have learned. By the time that teachers get information back from summative assessment, it’s often too late to do anything about it. Designing and delivering formative assessment allows teachers to make decisions about how and what they’re teaching as they go.

Perhaps one of the most important decisions that teachers make and will need to make most regularly is this: I’ve taught my pupils something, have they understood it? And are they ready to move on? Formative assessment needs to be carefully designed so that it gives teachers the answers to these important questions. It needs to be linked to the key learning in the lesson.

Here’s one approach that teachers can take when designing formative assessment. First, identify what the most important content in the lesson is. They also need to identify the most likely misconceptions related to it. We want to know if pupils have understood the key content and if they hold any misconceptions that will get in the way. Next, teachers need to design a question that tests for one piece of information at a time, that way you’ll have a better chance of identifying the specific problem that you need to address. Finally, once you’ve designed a question it’s really important that you test it out, for example with your mentor, to check that it tells you what you want to know. Sometimes we come up with what looks like a great question, but when we test it out, it doesn’t tell us the information that we need. For example, you might want to know whether a pupil can add tens and units together. Say you decided to give them a word maths problem like this: Adam has 10 apples in his basket and puts two more in. How many apples does he have? The problem with a question like this is that it requires pupils to know how to read as well as how to add tens and units. If they get the answer wrong, how are you going to know if the problem lies with their ability to add up or with their ability to read it? It could be the pupil’s understanding of addition is secure. In this instance, the teacher won’t be able to use this information to decide whether or not they’ve understood enough about addition of tens and units to move on. So it won’t be effective formative assessment.

As well as designing formative assessment carefully, teachers also need to think about how to deliver it. Pupils need a positive learning environment in order to feel comfortable making mistakes. It’s helpful to explain to pupils why you’re giving them an assessment and that you want to know if they’ve understood what you’ve taught them and if they’re ready to move on. In an EYFS setting, the assessment may take the form of a one-to-one conversation with a pupil. Having a strong relationship of trust and mutual respect will provide an important basis for this.

One further point is that while formative assessment is good at capturing what pupils have understood in the moment, it’s not always the most reliable way of telling you how secure learning is. A correct answer might be a lucky guess, or it might be pupils have performed well because the content is fresh in their minds. It’s quite possible that pupils will have forgotten by the next lesson. Teachers will need to go back to content to check whether the pupils have a secure and lasting understanding. Formative assessment is most useful for identifying pupils’ misconceptions, and then knowledge gaps.

When designed and delivered well, formative assessment can help show teachers how learning is going and help them make good decisions about what to do next.

Presenter exemplification framing

In the next example, you’ll see a model of planning formative assessment. As you watch pay particular attention to the following:

  • Plan a formative assessment task that is linked to the lesson objective
  • Think ahead about what would indicate understanding

Exemplification: Sarah Cottingham and Paula Delaney

COACH (SARAH COTTINGHAM): What’s the learning goal of this lesson?

ECT (PAULA DELANEY): To form the lowercase letter M.

COACH: Let’s think about this in a bit more detail. What key knowledge and skills do you want pupils to achieve in this lesson?

ECT: I want them to know how to accurately form the letter by starting at the top of the line, using straight lines, starting the curve two thirds up the straight line, ensuring the two curves are the same size and then adding that flick at the end. And that’s going to feed forward when they do cursive handwriting as well. I want them to be able to write slowly and check for accuracy, and I want them to be able to say or think the key steps for forming the letter as they write.

COACH: What tasks could you get them to do to show that they’d understood?

ECT: Well, they’re going to be forming the letter M and I can check their independent practice. But I also want to check that the class can articulate the steps that they actually need to take. This is what’s going to help them in the future. So they’ll have some useful prompts, like I need to remember to start at the top of the line. So I could ask a series of questions that I’ve carefully scripted to check that they have that knowledge.

COACH: What question would you ask to assess then each piece of the key learning?

ECT: Well, I can turn a lot of my key knowledge and skills into questions. And so instead of to be able to start forming the letter at the top, I could say, where should I start when I’m forming my letter or their questions are, what should I take care of when drawing my downward line? Where should I start the first curve? And what do I need to remember about the second curve? And why do we need to take my time?

COACH: So let’s look at this question a bit more detail when you ask, what do I need to remember about the second curve? Could you be more specific.

ECT: How about what size should the second mentioned be?

COACH: Great. That narrows down the potential answers. Now let’s test out this question. Why do I need to take my time? I imagine that pupils could say something like, to take care or, so I can be proud of my work, but you’re trying to check that they understand that they should be accurate. If they said that they needed to take their time or so they can be proud of their work, would that tell you that they needed to be accurate?

ECT: Not really.

COCAH: And would it tell you that they didn’t know the importance of being accurate?

ECT: No, because both answers could work.

COACH: So how could you refine the question to make sure that the answer you get tells you what you want to find out?

ECT: I could give them a couple of statements and ask them to choose which one is correct. So for example, I could say, is it better to write lots of letters quickly or to write one letter accurately?

COACH: That’s a good idea. Only one of those answers is right. And the right answer being accurate tells you what you want to find out.

Presenter key ideas

In this video, we’ve explored the importance of formative assessment and provided some practical strategies for designing it. Before we finish, take a moment to read over the key ideas that the video has covered. Which ideas do you think the example illustrated best?

  • Making use of formative assessment
  • Planning formative assessment tasks linked to lesson objectives
  • Thinking ahead about what would indicate understanding (e.g. by using diagnostic questions to pinpoint knowledge gaps)

Presenter summary

The better teachers know what their pupils have understood or misunderstood the more they’ll be able to adapt their teaching in response. Formative assessment helps teachers make better decisions.

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Teaching challenge

Mr Jones feels his lessons are increasingly clearly designed and convey the key ideas to his pupils. However, he often feels unsure how much pupils have understood during the lesson or by the end. Sometimes, end-of-unit assessments suggest that pupils have failed to grasp key ideas. How can Mr Jones develop ways to identify what pupils are thinking – and what they have misunderstood – in order to ensure they are all meeting the learning goals?

Key idea

Effective formative assessment shows the teacher what pupils are thinking: this makes it possible to meet pupils’ needs, making it more likely they will meet learning goals.

Evidence summary

The role of summative assessment

Mr Jones encounters many forms of external assessment on a regular basis in school. Often, pupils complete practice versions of external exams or commercially-developed tests in order to demonstrate progress or highlight gaps in their knowledge. However, the information this provides often comes too late to enable him to make the kind of changes he hopes to make. He is unwilling to wait until the end of the key stage to find out exactly how much pupils have understood.

Mr Jones’ initial idea is that he will adapt these external assessments and use them in his lessons. However, this proves problematic. These assessments are designed to demonstrate what pupils have learned over a long period of time (Wiliam & Black, 1996). To do so, many questions integrate knowledge of multiple concepts: a question may ask pupils to draw on their knowledge of algebra and number, to write a paragraph or to compare different concepts. Errors may not tell him whether a pupil lacks basic knowledge, misinterpreted the question or holds an underlying misconception (Christodoulou, 2017).

Creating exams and ensuring they are marked reliably is a complicated, intricate and time-consuming process: this is not something an individual teacher can easily simulate (Christodoulou, 2017). Mr Jones still wants his pupils to succeed in summative assessments and he uses them to help ensure he is teaching everything pupils need to know. Moreover, if he needs to make a summative judgement, he should choose these materials where possible and draw conclusions from patterns of performance over a number of these, while remembering that assessments draw inferences about learning from performance. However, his focus is identifying what pupils have learned – or misunderstood – in order to adapt his teaching accordingly. This means he focuses on using formative assessment.

The role of formative assessment

An assessment is formative if it is designed to lead to a change in what the teacher (or the student) does (Black & Wiliam, 1998). Effective formative assessment practices help teachers collect evidence about pupil understanding and needs and adapt their teaching to support pupils to be more successful (Black & Wiliam, 1998; Speckesser et al., 2018). Mr Jones is aware of the risk of using ‘poor proxies’ for learning (Coe, 2013): of believing that students have understood because they are busy, engaged, working hard, or answering questions correctly even if they haven’t fully understood or couldn’t reproduce the work independently. All of these are valuable and desirable, but they do not show that pupils have understood the key ideas and avoided misconceptions.

Designing formative assessment

Mr Jones’ previous work identifying and setting clear learning goals proves useful in formulating precise assessment questions. He focuses on questions that show whether pupils have mastered the key idea in the lesson or whether they hold misconceptions – being particularly mindful of pupils with specific learning barriers linked to special educational needs or disabilities. It helps to design questions with data analysis in mind (Wiliam, 2014) and Mr Jones is mindful of this as he plans formative assessment.

For example, he knows that a fifty-question quiz will provide very detailed information about what every pupil understands but he also knows that he will not have time to review every pupils’ quiz for at least a week. It is better to decide to choose one crucial question – and use the information he gains – than to choose several important questions and run out of time to ask them or assess students’ answers. However, Mr Jones is aware that he will still need to be cautious about the conclusions he draws: pupils may produce correct answers now but struggle to recreate them in future (Coe, 2013; Christodoulou, 2017).

Using formative assessment

Once he has designed a formative assessment, Mr Jones applies it in class. He appreciates the need to gain a response from all pupils independently, since the answer of one pupil in discussion may influence that of other pupils. As a result, he gets his pupils to respond simultaneously, using whiteboards or on paper. Having collected the data, he is able to analyse it, adapt teaching and provide feedback as appropriate.

Nuances and caveats

Formative assessment, such as end of class questioning, is a powerful way to identify what pupils have understood in the moment. However, getting an answer correct one day doesn’t mean that pupils will recall it in future: they are very likely to forget some of it. Formative assessment is most useful for identifying pupils’ misconceptions or knowledge gaps and addressing them.

Formative assessment is an approach, not a technique. Using mini-whiteboards, exit tasks or hinge questions does not mean a teacher is using formative assessment: what matters is why and how they are used. If they are used to find out what pupils understand and to improve their understanding, the teacher is using formative assessment and practising responsive teaching (Christodoulou, 2017).

Key takeaways

Mr Jones can check pupils’ developing understanding by:

  • Recognising that summative assessment has value but that it cannot provide rapid, detailed information about pupil understanding.
  • Formative assessment practices can provide valuable information about what pupils have understood and gaps in their knowledge.
  • Formative assessment should be designed around how the information it provides will be used.

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.


Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: GL Assessment.

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

Coe, R. (2013). Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience. Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring.

Speckesser, S., Runge, J., Foliano, F., Bursnall, M., Hudson-Sharp, N., Rolfe, H., & Anders, J. (2018). Embedding Formative Assessment: Evaluation report and executive summary. Education Endowment Fund.

Wiliam, D. (2014). Redesigning Schooling 8: Principled Assessment Design. SSAT.

Wiliam, D., Black, P. (1996) Meanings and Consequences: A Basis for Distinguishing Formative and Summative Functions of Assessment? British Educational Research Journal, 22(5) 537-548.


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

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Reminder of key takeaways

Mr Jones can check pupils’ developing understanding by:

  • Recognising that summative assessment has value but that it cannot provide rapid, detailed information about pupil understanding.
  • Formative assessment practices can provide valuable information about what pupils have understood and gaps in their knowledge.
  • Formative assessment should be designed around how the information it provides will be used.

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?