Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Adapting Pedagogy for Formative Assessment

  • Chris Harrison
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_394


Assessment for Learning is an accepted approach to pedagogy in many countries where the purpose of assessment is to provide feedback and guidance to inform future learning. Both teachers and learners are involved, but ultimately it is the learner that needs to take action. Adapting pedagogy to make room for feedback and action is a complex process that takes time and effort to evolve.

Classroom Assessment

Black and Wiliam’s (1998) survey of evidence linking assessment with improved learning has significantly influenced how educators and policymakers have conceptualized classroom assessment over the last three decades. Within classroom activities, teachers are able to collect data on student understanding from the way learners answer questions, the questions they raise, and the quality of the artifacts they produce. If this assessment information is then interpreted and used by teachers, students, and their peers, to make decisions and take action to enhance learning, the assessment is termed formative. Interpretation and decisions can drive future planning and support student learning through feedback. In a classroom where assessment is used to primarily support learning, the divide between instruction and assessment becomes increasingly blurred and can disappear (Perrenoud 1991).

The emphasis on formative assessment being informal and part of everyday classroom activity rather than an episodic event of testing is captured by Klenowski (2009):

Assessment for Learning is part of everyday practice by students, teachers and peers that seeks, reflects upon and responds to information from dialogue, demonstration and observation in ways that enhance ongoing learning. (p. 264)

This definition also emphasizes the learner as active in the assessment process through their understanding of what is being learned and how quality is judged. This moves the learner increasingly into the foreground of classroom assessment, with implications for teachers.

This entry looks at ways assessment for learning functions in classrooms and the types of development and learning teachers engage in to strengthen their formative practice. It also considers some of the challenges teachers face when they attempt to make changes in practice. As such, this entry provides insights in support of professional learning as well as greater understanding of formative assessment.

Assessment for Learning as a Pedagogy

As Black and Wiliam (1998) reported, it is difficult to imagine how assessment for learning (AfL) implementation can be treated as a marginal change in classroom activities, because it relies on strengthening feedback loops between learners and teachers and within learning groups. Creating a classroom environment where interactions between learners dominate often requires new skills and practices for both teacher and students. The nature of these changes is a key determinant for the outcomes for students, as formative work becomes embedded in new modes of pedagogy.

Teachers when introduced to ideas on AfL tend to work on a range of strategies that strengthen classroom talk both to improve how they probe and prompt learners in discussion and to help their students respond and interact with one another with increasing confidence. We know, from working on “wait time” (Rowe 1974) between teacher questions and accepting answers, that more students volunteer to answer and elaborate on their answers than previously. In some classrooms, the change is enormous, moving from single word answers from a handful of students to a purposeful discussion driven by several students.

Common to all AfL practices is the active involvement of students, whose role changes from passive recipients of knowledge to active partners in the learning process (Swaffield 2011). Students finding out what makes sense and developing ideas through self and peer critique through discussion encourage next steps in learning. In this situation teachers have to decide which of the many diverse student ideas and experiences are productive starting points for relating and navigating between everyday forms of knowing and those accepted and used within a subject domain (Bang and Medin 2010). Given this dynamic set of assessment information, the teacher can decide how to respond to students’ current conceptual understanding of that topic. Importantly through this approach, students can use feedback to evaluate their own and others’ work, learn from their mistakes, and learn to reflect on their learning. The goal of AfL is not however to eliminate mistakes but to keep them from becoming chronic and seen as inevitable (Stiggins 2007). When students make a mistake or realize something they have done is incorrect, it is part of the teacher’s role to restore their confidence and help them address the situation. This is part of the emotional dynamic and challenge of AfL.

Implementation of AfL Practice

We know that formative assessment is difficult to achieve, even in countries like England, where considerable funding and training has been put in place to support the shifts in teacher practice required (Looney 2007). Despite the investment in training materials, time, and money (e.g., DfES 2007), a report from school inspectors in England indicated that teacher practice was inadequate in 7 of the 43 schools sampled and good to outstanding in only 16 schools. The report noted that AfL practice was better established in primary than secondary schools and also that is was more established in English and mathematics than across the curriculum in both primary and secondary schools (OfSTED 2010). Even when schools valued the training and support provided, good practice in assessment for learning did not necessarily follow with teachers implementing strategies without consideration of how they were meant to work to strengthen feedback. In some cases, schools made decisions to introduce specific AfL strategies, such as traffic lights or comment-only marking, across all classes. Implementation differed markedly from teacher to teacher and failed to ensure consistency of principle while superficially achieving uniformity of practice (Harrison and Howard 2009). In addition, senior leaders did not maintain the momentum of implementation beyond the introductory stages, often moving on to other priorities before practice was secure. Clearly, the reasons for the failure of full-scale implementation are complex, affected by individual teacher conceptualization beliefs and practices and by school systems. In essence, bringing about large-scale change in practice requires considerable effort, determination, and time for new ways of working to be understood by the individual teachers and for new practices to be recognized as valuable and successful by all those within the school community.

Teacher Approaches to Assessment for Learning

The King’s collaborative action research project on the effect of a yearlong trial of implementing AfL in secondary science and mathematics classrooms (Wiliam et al. 2004) categorized the 24 participating teachers into four categories based on their use of key AfL strategies. These categories were triallers, static pioneers, moving pioneers, and experts. Descriptions for each group are set out in Table 1.
Table 1

Types of Assessment for Learning Teachers

AfL teacher type



Teacher tries one or more AfL strategies with one class

Static pioneer

Teacher tries a few AfL strategies and decides on those that they will retain in their practice

Moving pioneer

Teacher who experiments with a number of strategies and begins to consider which work well and which need adapting or removing after a few attempts


Teachers who have established a number of strategies and can explain and demonstrate how these increase feedback loops between students and teacher and affect teaching and/or learning

Subsequently, the King’s AfL team have been involved in other classroom assessment projects with hundreds of teachers in primary and secondary schools (e.g., Harrison and Howard 2009; Black et al 2011). This enabled them at firsthand to observe the ways in which teachers adopt and adapt AfL strategies into their existing practice. While the initial framing of the four categories broadly holds, the team now recognize that it is not simply what AfL strategies teachers use but also how teachers use them as part of their classroom procedures. This has led the team to consider the changes teachers make to their practice, both initially and as their practice evolves. The team also focused on how teachers explained and reflected on their formative practice and the reasons they gave for selecting a specific strategy, using the strategy in a particular way and/or deciding to change the way they worked with a strategy. By sifting and analyzing the data from teacher-researcher conversations during classroom visits, recorded in field notes, and in interviews typically given toward the end of projects, the team has framed five typical AfL teacher types (see Table 2.)
Table 2

Approaches to Assessment for Learning Pedagogy

Teacher type


Teacher quotes


These teachers often relate change in practice to their interpretations of policy or practice requirements from senior colleagues. They explain what they have introduced or changed within their teaching but give little consideration to why this might be useful or how they might use the strategy to benefit learners. Statements tend to be functional, procedural, and unproblematic

“We have a policy that like tells you what you need to do and so each activity has objectives and success criteria in your planning documentation and our headteacher checks these are in place.” (Stefan – Y6 teacher)

Strategy players

These teachers select or trial a specific AfL strategy that they can describe and also attribute the benefits for teachers or learners

“We get the children to us traffic light cups, one set per group, and this helps us see how confident they are when working on group tasks.” (David – secondary science teacher)


These teachers focus on the tasks they have planned and use strategies to help them recognize successful completion of the task and indicate shortcomings or errors. Success criteria are used as a checklist rather than ways of describing quality performance, and this is evident in the atomistic way they feedback to students

“I mark their work against the success criteria and then use what’s missing or what they have got wrong to set a target for them to do their corrections.” (Eloise – secondary language teacher)

“We decide the success criteria as a class and then check each of these off as pupils move through the tasks.” (Samara – Y6 teacher)


These teachers believe that AfL provides the students with useful feedback and encourage students to compare ideas. They are keen on group activity and use peer assessment as a regular part of classroom activity

“Getting the children to work more collectively, swapping ideas and generally sharing so that they can learn from one another or even teach their peers something. I find this really helps.” (Gina – Y6 teacher)

Formative practitioners

These teachers see learning as a collaborative endeavor with students both supporting and assessing one another’s learning. AfL is seen as more than strategies to use and more as aspects of a teaching approach designed to benefit from feedback opportunities

“It’s about getting the kids to be good learners, to be willing to have a go and make mistakes which they learn from. It involves groupwork, talk for learning and lots of feedback both to me and from me and with each other.” (Stephen – secondary science teacher)

While the professional learning journeys of individual teachers varied greatly, teacher developmental trajectories generally began incrementally and then often halted at various points so teachers remained consistent in that AfL approach for a considerable time. In some cases, this was the endpoint of the development within the time frame of the project. Most of the project teachers were either conformists or strategy players in the early part of a project as they tried new ways of working. Some teachers continued to show similar classroom AfL behavior throughout the project, remaining as conformists or strategy players. The majority of teachers, however, moved to a different AfL approach as the project progressed. What was particularly noticeable were the similarities in the factors that teachers attributed to their change in practice and the reasons given for not taking forward practice further. Some conformist teachers and strategy player teachers developed a checker approach; the conformist teachers, however, never became involver teachers or formative practitioners. This was often because they did not believe that their students could play a more active part in assessment:

They (students) find peer assessment very difficult and whenever I try it, I end up marking it myself anyway. (Stefan – Y6 teacher)

While they (students) might be able to spot mistakes, most of my class wouldn’t be able to give the correct word or grammatical idea and so the feedback is better coming from me. (Simone – secondary French teacher)

What was also of interest was how the checker teachers conceptualized knowledge. While they accepted the idea of a gap (Sadler 1989) between the anticipated performance and the actual performance, their conceptualization of closing the gap was to provide instruction as though knowledge came in incremental building blocks and to use a linear and procedural model of feedback (Torrance 2015). Their approach also suggests that improvement centers on closing the gap and completing a task rather than providing feedback that opens up an idea and stimulates further thinking. Indeed, much of the feedback provided by both conformist and checker teachers was presented as corrections with either the correct words or numbers given or an example provided for the target. This approach fits with Torrance and Pryor’s (2001) view of convergent assessment, where the aim of the teacher is to check that students have arrived at a predetermined endpoint for that task, such as “used the correct tense” in a language lesson or “can list all the prime numbers below 20” in mathematics. On the other hand, some of the strategy player teachers did move on to become involvers or formative practitioners because they were more willing to share the control of learning with their students. Their view of learning was much more within the socio-constructivist domain, where they considered how students might be helped to interact more with one another to find new solutions or ways of working. This approach fits with Torrance and Pryor’s (2001) view of divergent assessment where the assessment approach provides feedback to encourage students to think further and develop ideas. The following two examples demonstrate divergent assessment feedback:

How was the Pharaoh’s role different to that of a citizen in ancient Egypt? How did he demonstrate to his people and his enemies that he was powerful? (Year 6 History)

Why do you like the use of alliteration in this poem? (Y9 English)


AfL has become an accepted part of pedagogy in most UK classrooms but the degree to which it supports learning differs from classroom to classroom. There remains a need to raise teacher awareness of what is involved in an effective AfL approach, what formative assessment is, the important role students play in this process, and how AfL can be incorporated into teaching. In many cases, this will require teachers to (re)consider their beliefs about learning and the intricate ways both assessment and teaching weave into this (Harrison 2013). Such changes need peer collaboration and support from the school and professional development community over time and not simply the introduction of the new ways of teaching.

The main difficulty for the teacher who wishes to develop AfL practice is that they cannot simply add new strategies to their current practice. Instead, they need to gradually make changes to their current practice to allow new ways of working to slip into class procedures and systems, while, at the same time, supporting their students in developing new ways to work with peers in the classroom. This iterative process takes sustained effort to introduce and time to implement, and so teachers need to be convinced that such changes are necessary and likely to be fruitful in future lessons.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King’s CollegeLondonUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Bronwen Cowie
    • 1
  1. 1.University of WaikatoHamiltonNew Zealand