Improving progress through Assessment for Learning

Written by: HTU | Published:

Dr Joanna Goodman reflects on the role of Assessment for Learning

The term “assessment” is often associated with an objective process of measurement (Drummond, 1994; Linn and Gronlund, 2000) and of obtaining information (Desforges,1989; Rowntree, 1987). This gathering of information often rests on assumptions that testing reveals objective truths but this can be disputed as “tests modify or even create that which they purpose to measure” (Hanson, 1994 p.47).

Therefore assessment is complex, because it can stand for different approaches to the gathering of evidence and is so ingrained in the whole educational process, it would be too simplistic to refer to it just as a measuring device without considering it as part of the learning process. Effective assessment could be more precisely viewed as a process of asking questions about learning and educational outcomes; a process in which understanding of children’s learning can be used to evaluate and enrich the curriculum on offer (Drummond, 1994; Weeden et al.2002). As this expanded view of assessment puts the child’s interests in the centre, it could be argued that it moves closer to recognising assessment as a tool for enriching children’s learning and development, and as such could be viewed more in terms of assessment for learning.

In improving learning through assessment, Black and Wiliam (1998) suggest the following factors:

a) Effective feedback to pupils.
b) Active involvement of pupils in their own learning.
c) Adjusting teaching to take account of assessment results.
d) Recognition of influence of assessment on pupil motivation and self-esteem.
e) Self-monitoring and correction by pupils.

Over recent years, much has been written about the role of Assessment for Learning (AfL) in improving progress and how schools should use it to maximise achievement and learning sustainability. At the national level, following the findings of the Assessment Reform Group (ARG) on the positive impact of formative assessment on improving learning, the idea of AfL was embraced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) who defined it as “the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there” (ARG, 2002).

Since then, schools have been trying to implement AfL into their everyday practice with different degrees of success regarding the various stages of implementation. At first, as with any new initiative, the idea of AfL met with some scepticism from the teaching profession as the lack of in-depth understanding of the theory and principles underpinning AfL, and often inadequate training, meant that teachers often felt that it would mean more work for them, especially regarding the expectations of giving feedback in terms of comments for improvement. My practical experience, lessons observations and academic research into the use of AfL in everyday practice confirm that still in some settings today, where AfL is being implemented, there appears to be only ritualised understanding of the processes behind it and the principled understanding can be harder to grasp.

In providing information for schools, the QCA (ARG, 1999; 2002) adopted the main AfL principles, as mentioned above, based on research-based evidence (Black and Wiliam). These principles recognise the importance of assessment for learning to classroom practice and advocate that AfL should become part of effective planning of teaching and learning, and a key professional skill for teachers, because at the core of it is the involvement of learners in their own learning processes.

Effective teaching should provide pupils with constructive guidance on improvement to enable them to become reflective and self-managing. These principles are important because they summarise the essence of AfL and bridge the gap between educational research and the actual practice by identifying for teachers what is crucial to AfL and why it is important to strive to make it part of effective classroom practice. This type of assessment is imperative for learners, because through their involvement, it helps them to manage their own learning, which is a skill for life rather than just for passing examinations (Stobart, 2008).

In order to have a better understanding of principles which encourage pupils to learn and why some pupils are more successful than others, extensive studies have taken place into the psychology of learning focused on motivation and, in particular, on the association between motivation and learning outcomes (Boekaerts, 2002; Dweck, 1986). Research indicates that motivational beliefs, which act as a frame of reference for pupils’ feelings and actions in a given subject or task, result from learning experiences and act as favourable contexts for learning, where students are not motivated to learn in the face of failure, but students who have positive beliefs about their capacity to learn have higher achievements (Boekaerts, 1995).

Therefore teachers who are effective at assessing where pupils are in their learning and who are able to communicate these levels of attainment followed by “next steps” guidance on improvement, engage pupils in their learning in a positive way and increase pupils’ self-motivation to learn and achieve. This approach produces particularly impressive learning gains when working with less able pupils as it reduces their anxiety of failure and, instead, creates an environment where everyone is able to move to the next stage in their learning, whatever it may be. When working with more able pupils, this approach encourages further learning as it does not put a ceiling on achievement, as a grade does, and identifies for learners their next learning goals.

Learners who are well-motivated are capable of using their self-regulatory skills effectively for higher achievement, whereas learners who are not skilled, or not inclined, to use self-regulatory skills, are poorly motivated and over-reliant on teachers. Therefore the involvement of students in their learning, e.g. through self-assessment, peer-assessment or self-reflection, is a key element of the AfL practice, which can be overlooked where learner autonomy becomes procedural, rather than an aim in itself, for example through explicit learning objectives and time for self-evaluation.

Schools thus face a crucial challenge of developing strategies of working successfully within the system of high-stake tests, for certification and accountability purposes, and developing self-regulated learners through formative practices.

- Dr Joanna Goodman has a Doctorate in Education from King’s College London. She is an educationalist with curriculum expertise, assessment in particular, and leadership development. She is an experienced senior school leader and a school inspector.


Assessment Reform Group (1999). Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Assessment Reform Group (2002). Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles: Research-based principles to guide classroom practice. Cambridge: University of Cambridge School of Education.
Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment. London: GL Assessment.
Boekaerts, M. (1995). Motivation in Education. The British Psychological Society.
Boekaerts. M. (2002). Motivation to Learn. Educational Practices – 10. International Academy of Education. UNESCO booklet.
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Hanson, F.A. (1994). Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life. CA: University of California Press.
Linn, R.L. and Gronlund, N.E. (2000). Measurement and Assessment in Teaching. (8th ed.). N.J.: Prentice Hall.
Rowntree, D. (1987). Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them? London: Kogan Page.
Stobart, G. (2008). Testing Times: The uses and abuses of assessment. Oxon: Routledge.
Weeden, P., Winter, J., Broadfoot, P. (2002). Assessment for Learning: What’s in it for Schools? London: Routledge.

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