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.

Getting started with assessment for learning diagram
Adapted from: Getting Started with Assessment for Learning, Cambridge Assessment International Education, and Wiliam, D., & Thompson, M. (2007) Integrating assessment with instruction: what will it take to make it work? in C. A. Dwyer (Ed.) The future of assessment: shaping teaching and learning (pp. 53-82). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

What changes?

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:

A traditional approach to teaching diagram

An assessment for learning approach to teaching:

An assessment for learning approach to teaching diagram

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

Successful formative assessment

There are four main pillars to successful formative assessment as part of an assessment for learning approach to teaching.

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