Introduction
Carol Dwyer, PhD, Educational Testing Service

How can teachers capitalize on data about student learning that are generated in their classrooms every day? How can this information best be collected and used to increase student learning?
Effective feedback  is a great way for teachers to use collected data in order to improve student learning. Unfortunately, feedback opportunities are scarce in most classrooms (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999). Teachers can create more opportunities for effective feedback and use collected² formative3 data to improve students’ learning.

Research by Dylan Wiliam and his colleagues have shown important increases in student learning when teachers: 

  • Clearly define the purposes of each lesson that they teach; 

  • Use lessons to collect evidence on how students learn; and 

  • Use collected evidence and promptly re-direct students as needed.

Results from almost any assessment can be of great benefit to students, provided they are used to make instructional adjustments. And — the shorter the amount of time between assessment and adjustment — the more powerful its effect on learning.

Dos and don'ts
Dos—the five key strategies

Formative assessment is any assessment that is used to guide future learning. Summative assessment, on the other hand involves assessing whether students have already learned the concept(s) or skill(s) being evaluated. The results from almost any assessment can be used formatively, provided that they are used to make instructional adjustments. However, the sooner an instructional adjustment is made, the more effective it is in improving learning.

Wiliam identified five key strategies for assessing student learning:

  1. For each important new concept or assignment, teachers should make the learning expectations clear and share with students the criteria for successfully meeting those expectations. This information should be provided on a daily basis and revisited at the end of each class to evaluate progress toward these goals.

  2. Use data from classroom discussions, student answers and learning tasks to revise lessons and activities. Teachers can use various techniques that engage all students in discussion and use revealed evidence of student thinking and understanding as they plan future instruction.

  3. Provide feedback that clearly and explicitly identifies what needs to be improved in order to move learners forward and promote students’ understanding of concepts. To best meet students’ immediate learning needs, teachers should use this evidence to adapt instruction in real time. 

  4. Encourage students to serve as instructional and learning resources for one another on a daily basis. 

  5. Encourage students to take responsibility for their own learning. 

Formative feedback is essential to the assessment process as it allows teachers to collect the evidence they need to immediately address their students’ learning needs.

Don’ts
  • Don’t think that feedback itself is enough to make an assessment formative. Although providing feedback is a necessary first step, an assessment only becomes formative when the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner to improve future performance. Therefore only feedback that is potentially useful to the learner is formative. For example, if a teacher says, “That’s very creative,” the student does not know why her product is creative, or how to make future products creative. An exception to this occurs when the teacher has already provided the criteria for what a “creative” response looks like.

To ensure that feedback is formative:

Don’t leave it open-ended or ambiguous. Give clear indications of the criteria that have been used to assess the quality of the product a student submits 

Don’t wander from the point.  Base all feedback on criteria specified for the assignment. 

Don’t delay.  Provide feedback as soon as possible after the student submits the assignment.  

Explanation and evidence

Wiliam’s five key strategies of assessment for learning discussed in the Dos and Don’ts section can be expected to produce the following student outcomes: 

  • Students will become more engaged with lesson content and activities. 

  • Students will support each other and take responsibility for their own learning within well-established criteria for quality. 

  • Students will act on feedback in order to improve their assignments. 

  • Students’ learning will improve, as evidenced by test scores and other indicators.

Leahy, Lyon, Thompson, and Wiliam (2005) give a brief, teacher-oriented description of each of these strategies. This information can be found on the Educational Leadership website.

Black and Wiliam’s (1998a) cited 250 studies in their review of the effects of formative assessment on learning.  They found that effective use of formative classroom assessment yielded high levels of student achievement (effect sizes ranged from between 0.4 to 0.7 of a standard deviation). Nyquist (2003) found effect sizes for formative feedback ranging from 0.3 to 0.5 of a standard deviation.

FAQs
Do these techniques require a specific kind of testing?

According to Black and Wiliam (2004a), the effectiveness of formative assessment on student learning comes from the feedback provided by the teacher, not from the kind of assessment used. The teacher must have evidence of learning that can be used to provide students with “minute by minute” feedback. This finding means that many different kinds of teacher-made and standardized assessments can provide the evidence needed to guide teacher feedback. Evidence of student learning that comes from informal sources such as whole-class or small-group discussions, as well as class polls (a quick show of hands), can also be useful.

How do teachers learn to use these techniques?

Groups of teachers working together (called teacher learning communities) can share ideas and support one another as they implement the five key strategies in their own classrooms. Extensive experience of Leahy and others has concluded that these types of groups are most effective when they are composed of teachers from a variety of subject-matters and grade levels working together to support one another (view these strategies on the Educational Leadership website).  
 

For whom does the strategy work and under what conditions?
Kindergarten Elementary School High School College
X X X X

Formative assessment has been shown to work with a wide variety of learners. Wiliam and colleagues have done most of their work in mathematics, science and English classrooms, but their research in other subject matter areas has confirmed those findings. Their research is applicable to the following types of students:

  • All grade levels (kindergarten, elementary, high school and college-aged students) 

  • All ethnic groups (White, Black, Hispanic and Asian American) 

  • All settings (urban, suburban and rural ) 

  • Males and females 

  • All competence levels (special education through gifted)

Teacher and student differences

Wiliam and colleagues have found that formative assessment strategies are most effective when tailored by individual teachers to meet the unique needs of their students and contexts. For example, teachers who use the “find and fix” technique (pairs of students working together to identify and correct errors on an assessment) discover that younger students can only use this technique with short assessments (two or three problems); whereas older students can use the technique with much longer assessments. 

Gaps in the literature
Science and mathematics

There appears to be some promise of cutting back on the drop-out rate from difficult mathematics and science courses when faculty (particularly at the postsecondary level) engage in professional development aimed at increasing their pedagogical skills (including the five key strategies discussed on the Dos and Don’ts page). Larger-scale trials are needed to confirm these preliminary findings.

Where can I get more information?

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003). Assessment for learning: Putting it into practice. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

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. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998a). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, policy and practice, 5(1), 7-73.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998b). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139–148.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2004a). Classroom assessment is not (necessarily) formative assessment (and vice-versa). In M. Wilson (Ed.), Towards coherence between classroom assessment and accountability: 103rd Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Pt. 2, pp. 183-188). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2004b). The formative purpose: Assessment must first promote learning. In M. Wilson (Ed.), Towards coherence between classroom assessment and accountability: 103rd Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Pt. 2, pp. 20-50). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2005a). Lessons from around the world: How policies, politics and cultures constrain and afford assessment practices. Curriculum Journal, 16(2), 249- 261.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2005b). Developing a theory of formative assessment. In J. Gardner (Ed.), Assessment and learning (pp. 81-100). London: Sage.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2003). Assessment for learning: Putting it into practice. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.

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.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school.  Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Leahy, S., Lyon, C., Thompson, M., & Wiliam, D. (2005, November). Classroom assessment, minute by minute, day by day. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 19-24.
 
Minstrell, J. (2001). The role of the teacher in making sense of classroom experiences and effecting better learning. In Carver, S. M., & Klahr, D. (Eds.),Cognition and instruction: Twenty-five years of progress (pp. 121-150). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Nyquist, J. B. (2003). The benefits of reconstructing feedback as a larger system of formative assessment: A meta-analysis. Unpublished master’s thesis, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.

Stiggins, R. (2007). Correcting “errors of measurement” that sabotage student learning. In C. A. Dwyer (Ed.), The future of assessment: Shaping teaching and learning (pp. 229-244). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wiliam, D. (2007). Keeping learning on track: Formative assessment and the regulation of learning. In F. K. Lester, Jr. (Ed.), Second handbook of mathematics teaching and learning (pp. 1053-1088). Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Wiliam, D. (2005). Keeping learning on track: Formative assessment and the regulation of learning. In M. Coupland, J. Anderson, & T. Spencer (Eds.), Making mathematics vital: Proceedings of the twentieth biennial conference of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers (pp. 26–40). Adelaide, Australia: Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers.

Wiliam, D., & Black, P. J. (1996). Meanings and consequences: A basis for distinguishing formative and summative functions of assessment? British Educational Research Journal, 22(5), 537-548.

Wiliam, D., Lee, C., Harrison, C., & Black, P. J. (2004). Teachers developing assessment for learning: Impact on student achievement. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 11(1), 49-65.

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.