Assessment for learning (AFL) is a process that harnesses information from an activity to ‘diagnose’ where an individual or cohort is in their learning. Assessments form a continuous process to inform learners in the steps they need to take to make progress towards an ideal level. These progression checks can be informal (e.g. questioning, discussion, quizzes) and used as a snap-shot to inform teaching strategies in the moment, as well as a way for students to assess their own performance and understanding.
“…in order for assessment to facilitate learning, students need to understand the level and nature of their current performance, the desired state of proficiency, and the discrepancy between the actual and the desired state. Further, they need to be able to effectively process that information and work to reduce the difference, or borrowing from the London Underground, “mind the gap.” Lipnevich, A.A., McCallen, L.N., Miles, K.P. et al. (2014)
Getting started with AfL
AfL can be conceptualised as a series of questions that are continuously being asked and answered by both lecturer and student throughout a programme of study.
The teaching cycle for Assessment for Learning can be conceptualised as a series of iterative engagements between students and lecturers, driven by informal and formative, rather than summative, assessments.
A traditional approach to teaching:
An assessment for learning approach to teaching:
AFL should underpin a well-designed course, making progress more transparent, and providing an opportunity for responsive teaching and learning to take place. AFL should encompass a variety of activities that allow learners to encounter, practise and master the skills that are required to graduate your course.
The strategies you choose and how you use them may differ depending on the context (e.g. year of study, intended learning outcomes, subject content, class size, available resources, and so on).
The benefits of AFL
Using AfL strategies is directly linked to improvements in student performance in summative assessments (Hattie, Invisible Learning, 2009) when learners are active in their response to feedback- seeing it as an opportunity to make progress. (Boud and Molloy, 2013). This requires a shift in focus from seeing assessments as simply providing a grade at the end of a unit/course, to a part of a learning journey. Learners can use the metacognitive skills gained through AFL across different units, courses and disciplines.
However, that is not to say that all feedback in all circumstances has a positive effect. Positive or negative statements without context (eg ‘good work’ or ‘rubbish!’) can have either no benefit, or can cause active harm. Paul A. Kirschner & Mirjam Neelen (2018)
Using AfL strategies encourages learners to move beyond being a passive recipient of grades into an active participant. By de-mystifying standards expected, providing clear steps for progression and exemplars, learners can take greater accountability and the ability to make a sound evaluation about their own work.
“Learners are more likely to change what they do only when they have formed their own judgments that this is necessary”. Boud and Molloy (2013)
Peer assessment, when well-structured and supported, can accelerate progress. The higher-order thinking processes activated, and internal feedback produced by the process of marking/ making judgements provides a greater learning opportunity than the feedback they receive from their peers in the same process.
“Making comparisons against external information and generating inner feedback out of those comparisons is how we all learn and is the mechanism by which we regulate our own performance and learning.” Nicol, D (2022)
An AfL approach helps create a collaborative learning environment. High-achieving learners often avoid taking risks because they are afraid of making mistakes. Using AfL strategies helps learners and lecturers experiment with new teaching approaches and reduces fear of failure, especially when low-stakes, regular formative assessment strategies are used.
The ‘Forgetting curve’ is an important part of learning and can be utilised effectively in a classroom to involve all learners in re-thinking how they conceptualise what ‘failure’ and ‘success’ look like, when learning is about progression, rather than passing a test for a single outcome.
By collaborating with others in peer-assessment and group work, rather than being in a competitive, outcome-based environment, students can gain a greater sense of belonging and community.
Successful formative assessment
There are four main pillars to successful formative assessment as part of an assessment for learning approach to teaching.
Question and answer episodes can be used to check student understanding, either by asking questions of the students or inviting questions from the students, thus identifying ongoing knowledge gaps and creating an opportunity to re-shape teaching in the moment, as required. However, it is worth being mindful that posing a question that only one student answers may not illicit whole-cohort learning and give a skewed view of progression.
- Short Q&A discussion sessions in live lecture sessions.
- Polling before, during, or after sessions.
- MCQs/ auto-marked questions that can give individual and immediate feedback (using Microsoft Forms, or other online in-class technology).
- Discussions using open questions (live sessions, break-out rooms, forums, chat boxes).
- One-to-one tutorials.
To do it better, try using:
Hinge Questions (D. Wiliam, 2016)
Verbally or in writing. Feedback should take place constantly and be a two-way or dialogic teaching process (Alexander, 2018) that uses both formal and informal channels. Examples include:
- Pre-submission assignment discussions.
- Formal formative or summative assessment scripts.
- Post-submission discussions.
- Individual, small group, or whole cohort feedback.
- Stop/start/continue forms.
- Voice notes.
- Adding reasons for 'wrong answers' when setting up MCQs or auto-marked responses.
To do it better, see:
Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment best practice guides (2009-2012): especially the guides on giving feedback for students and lecturers.
Dylan Wiliam’s (2016) task-focused Feedback on Learning
Learners need to be able to evaluate their own progress against shared learning goals and identify actions to improve. They should also be able to provide peer-to-peer support and guidance for one another to develop the skills to become collegiate and collaborative colleagues. However, they will only be able engage in peer and self-assessment tasks if they are clear about what ‘good’ looks like, making a shared understanding of assessment criteria and intended learning outcomes vital.
- Co-creating self-assessment checklists for summative assessments with students.
- Students discussing marking criteria and applying to exemplars of assessment material.
- Peer-marking other’s work.
- Self-marking work.
To do it better, see:
Paul Orsmond, Self and Peer Assessment Guidance (2004).
Summative assessments can be formative too. Planning assessment sequences to show how assessments link to one another throughout a course in terms of developing both subject knowledge and skills is key here.
- Linked to the curriculum principle of articulating a course-wide approach to learning, ensure that you know how the knowledge and skills your students develop for you assessment will feed into other assessments in the course e.g. your assessment essays in year 1 can help a learner do better in essays in year 2 and to develop the skills to write a dissertation in the final year.
To do it better, see:
Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment best practice guides (2009-2012): especially the guides on assessment sequences.
Further information and resources
Dylan Wiliam, Embedded Formative Assessment, Solution Tree Press: A book that goes through the 5 strands of AfL. Searching for Wiliam and Black AfL or ‘Inside the Black Box’ will also point you to lots of resources. Note that this research is focused on school education, but the pedagogy transcends the artificial barriers that sometimes imply that learning approaches are allocated to a specific level of education.
Cambridge Assessment, Getting started with AFL: A starter for AfL, which includes videos, links and encourages reflection, and offers some ideas. Aimed at schools but can be applied to the HE environment.
John Hattie, Visible Learning: Lots of information about effect sizes of various classroom approaches, including feedback. Mainly from a school context but still applicable to HE contexts.
Phil Race, Assessment resources: Higher education specific resources/viewpoints.
Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment: Prof Tansy Jessop, now Pro-VC Education at Bristol, worked with the CLT to develop our workshops. Her Transforming the Experience of Students Through Assessment (TESTA) has similar messages to Dylan Wiliam’s framework.
King’s College, Assessment for Learning: A comprehensive guide to assessment, with case studies and practical examples.
Carol Evans, Enhancing Assessment Tool: Free sign-up to access a range of resources aimed at supporting assessment design, feedback and literacy. The aim of this project was to improve students’ ownership of their learning and promote self-regulation.
Naomi Winstone: Naomi has carried out significant research into effective feedback provision and engaging students with feedback.
Updated on: 01 October 2022