Assessment for Learning (AfL) is the feedback-based process by which lecturers elicit evidence of students’ learning throughout a session, unit, and course of study via informal evaluation strategies - such as questioning and discussion, online quizzes and polling, and looking at draft work. The checks indicate how well a student, or the cohort of students, is progressing towards the intended learning outcomes, giving the lecturer an insight into how they might adapt their teaching strategies to further support their students to meet these.
The benefits of AfL
Using AfL strategies is directly linked to improvements in student performance in summative assessments (Hattie, Invisible Learning, 2009) with students able to learn at approximately double the rate (see Black and William, Inside the Black Box, 2001). AfL is particularly powerful in helping low-achieving students to enhance their learning.
Using AfL strategies encourages learners to recognise that they can reach targets through hard work and active engagement. Learners develop the skills to guide one another, with more able learners progressing through ‘think it, say it, teach it’ (Shimura, MARGE, 2018) and less able learners benefiting from extra guidance. Peer learning also helps to develop professional and transferable skills such as communication, collaboration, and diplomacy.
AfL enables learners to engage in active learning techniques. Students become able to assess themselves and take responsibility for their own learning. Lecturers gain opportunities to reflect on what is going well in their teaching and what can be improved. Lecturers may also have fewer repetitious emails asking for clarification about assignment briefs.
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. By collaborating in learning experiences and seeing that failure is a normal part of the learning journey, students realise outcomes can be improved in the future (C. Dweck, Mindset: the New Psychology of Success, 2006).
Making the invisible visible
AfL encompasses acts of transparency around commonly “hidden curricula”, such as:
- sharing intended learning outcomes for sessions, units, and the course of study
- providing assessment journeys (how assignments connect through a course, e.g. essays in years 1 & 2 develop skills for the final year dissertation)
- clear assignment briefs, with opportunities to determine the students’ understanding of these
- sharing and discussing marking criteria with students
- providing action-focused feedback and offering follow-up discussions
By enabling students to share in their lecturers’ understanding of how their curriculum is structured and their learning is assessed, lecturers facilitate their students becoming independent learners able to self-regulate their learning, and help themselves, and their peers, to progress. Effective lecturers embed these informal or 'formative' exercises in 'all aspects of learning and teaching' and common strategies may be 'conducted by different teachers as part of their own diverse and individual teaching styles' (Black et. al., 2003, p.2).
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 formal formative, rather than summative, assessments.
A traditional approach to teaching:
An assessment for learning approach to teaching:
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).
Use this self-assessment checklist from Cambridge Assessment International Education to better understand your own current AfL practices.
Four pillars for successful formative assessment
There are four main pillars to successful formative assessment as part of an assessment for learning approach to teaching.
Asking effective questions
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 eliciting evidence of learning and identifying ongoing knowledge gaps. Examples include:
- Short Q&A discussion sessions in live lecture sessions
- Polling before, during, or after sessions
- Discussions using open questions (live sessions, break-out rooms, forums, chat boxes)
- One-to-one tutorials.
To do it better, try using:
Hinge Questions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mh5SZZt207k (D. Wiliam, 2016)
The 5 Features of Classroom Talk: https://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/people/staff/hennessy/all_publications/Howe%20et%20al%20JLS%202019%20accepted%20MS.pdf (Howe, et. al., 2018)
Recommended reading 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: https://cambridge-community.org.uk/professional-development/gswafl/index.html
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 https://visible-learning.org/
Lots of information about effect sizes of various classroom approaches, including feedback. Again, mainly from a school context but still applicable to HE contexts.
Phil Race: https://phil-race.co.uk/assessment/
Higher education specific resources/viewpoints. Also ‘The Lecturer’s Toolkit’ book of his is good to dip in and out of as need be.
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 AfL page: https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/aflkings/
A comprehensive guide to assessment, with case studies and practical examples.
Carol Evans EAT framework: https://eatframework.org.uk
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: https://www.surrey.ac.uk/people/naomi-winstone
Naomi has carried our significant research into effective feedback provision and engaging students with feedback.
Updated on: 17 June 2020