What is assessment for learning and why is it important?

by Jason Skeet in Blogs & Articles

Assessment for learning is one of those terms used frequently in education but often discussed in differing ways, so it can end up meaning different things to different people. One source of confusion lies in the idea of what is meant by ‘assessment’, which for many people involves testing and grading learners. Dylan Wiliam — someone who has written extensively about assessment for learning and whose work informs most of what I have to say here — is on record as saying he wishes he could go back in time and popularise the term ‘responsive teaching’ instead. It is the notion of assessing and then responding to learners’ needs, as these needs arise in the process of the learning, that lies at the heart of effective assessment for learning.

Three essential questions

These are questions that every teacher needs to ask about the learning in their lessons:

  • Where are my learners going in their learning?
  • Where is each learner now in their learning?
  • How do I help a learner move forward in their learning?

By posing these questions as part of lesson planning and lesson delivery — since these are questions to ask during the flow of a lesson and not only at the planning stage — a teacher will also see that a constant dialogue with their learners is needed. The elements of this dialogue include:

  • Ensuring every learner understands the learning objectives for a lesson and how to judge their own progress in relation to achieving these objectives;
  • Helping every learner to produce some form of evidence (this can be spoken or written evidence, for example), showing what they learned – this helps teachers and learners to check and consolidate the learning;
  • Giving learners feedback regularly to help them move their learning forward.

Let’s now explore these elements of assessment for learning further by looking at five underlying principles: sharing and understanding learning objectives and success criteria; a flexible approach to teaching and learning; helping learners to show evidence of their learning; involving learners in the process of assessment; and effective feedback that moves learning forward.


Sharing and understanding learning objectives and success criteria

Identifying specific learning objectives helps teachers in ‘planning backwards’. That is, planning a lesson starting from the learning objectives so that specific tasks and activities can be planned to meet each learning objective. The learning objectives describe the new knowledge, understanding and skills, as well as changes in attitudes that learners will be walking out with at the end of a lesson.

Identifying success criteria will then help the teacher to give specific feedback (see the fifth principle discussed below). Success criteria are specific and measurable descriptions of what success looks like when the learning objective is reached.

Here’s an idea to help with writing learning objectives and success criteria:


These acronyms are a good way to make learning objectives and success criteria accessible to learners. WALT stands for ‘We Are Learning To’ (the learning objective) and WILT is ‘What I’m Looking For’ (the success criteria). It’s best to share the WALTs and WILFs as part of the first stage in a lesson, and to ensure that everyone really does understand them (using a suitable technique to check understanding).

A flexible approach to teaching and learning

Assessment for learning is focused on identifying learning needs and what to do next. This is why grades on their own are not useful; it’s what the teacher does with the information they collect about the learning that matters most. Let’s think about how this might look in practice.

The process begins with a teacher collecting information about the learning: for example, she observes that some of her learners can listen and respond with confidence to a simple question but have difficulty using the correct form of the present simple tense. Next, this teacher needs to interpret this evidence in terms of learner needs and progress. Once the teacher has identified learner needs and progress (in this case, that some learners have difficulty using the correct form of the present simple tense), she can identify and adjust the next steps in the process of learning. For example, this teacher may decide that, based on her observation and interpretation, she needs to re-teach how to use the correct form of the present simple tense to those learners who are struggling with this. The teacher may therefore need to adjust her lesson planning.

Of course, grades are useful for tracking learners’ progress and may also indicate where there are misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge. However, this information is only useful if teachers are then able to act or change their plans in time to make things better. If grades are only made available several weeks after the teaching, then it may be too late to address the problem. Furthermore, if the purpose of grades is only to track progress, then assessment is not being used for the learning.

Being able to adjust lesson planning, or even make changes to a lesson plan during the lesson, requires a highly flexible and responsive approach. Teachers have to plan moments of ‘contingency’: that is, moments in which they make a decision on whether all learners understand a new concept or some learners are still struggling to fully understand it. If the teacher finds evidence to suggest that some learners are struggling, the teacher can teach that concept again. For example, if it becomes clear that some learners still do not know when to use possessive ‘s’ after nouns, the teacher can choose to either:

  • Give out another exercise to assess how far everyone has understood;
  • Use confident learners who understood how to use possessive ‘s’ after nouns to explain to the others in small groups and give each other feedback;
  • Explain again when to use possessive ‘s’ after nouns.

The choices are limitless: teachers can choose what they think is best and most likely to improve learning in their classrooms. This way, assessment for learning is done based on evidence and can be used to feed into what the teacher and learners do next. It is therefore important that teachers do not have fixed lesson plans and can adapt their teaching during the lesson if they have to.

Dylan Wiliam in his book Leadership for Teacher Learning (pp. 109-110) explains how teachers can identify the next steps in teaching through moments of contingency by either planning ‘proactively’, ‘interactively’ or ‘retroactively’.

This table shows what this means in practice:

Proactive planning Interactive planning Retroactive planning

Creating a classroom culture in which learners are responsible for their learning.

For example, by using C3B4ME (meaning ‘See Three Before Me’) a learner has to speak to three other learners before seeking help from the teacher. It also helps to create a classroom culture in which learners recognise that they are able to help each other with their learning.

Identifying and responding to learners’ needs during the lesson.

For example, the teacher uses a quick ‘thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs sideways’ from every learner to show how many are ready to move on to a new topic.

What happens next in the lesson is dependent on the results of this formative assessment (see possessive ‘s’ after nouns example above).

Takes place after the lesson has been taught. It involves planning for the next lesson or for a unit of work based on formative assessment.

For example, the results of a self-assessment activity taken by learners are used to identify prior knowledge. This then feeds into the planning for subsequent lessons: this might include deciding which topics need more time as well as how to make use of learners as support for each other.


Helping learners to show evidence of their learning

Helping learners to find and give evidence that they learned something must in turn be guided by three principles — variety, specificity and frequency — as the following table shows:




Using different sources of evidence:

The decisions that teachers need to make about the next steps in learning are more reliable and valid if these decisions are based on different sources of evidence. Assessment for learning therefore needs to be varied.

A lesson includes: small group discussion activities (discussions); practising specific skills and applying knowledge (deliberate practice); a whole class ‘plenary’ (a review of the learning).

These three teaching and learning strategies — discussionsdeliberate practice, and a review of the learning — provide different sources of information about learners’ progress, all helping to inform the teacher’s decisions about the next steps.


Collecting specific information:

The more specific the information is, the more useful it can be. Assessment for learning is more effective if it collects specific information about the learning so that learners can receive specific feedback.

Focused quizzes in the form of multiple-choice questions can be used to diagnose specific misconceptions about a topic, allowing a teacher to focus their teaching on dealing with these specific misconceptions rather than assuming that everyone in the class has understood.


Planning regular assessment for learning opportunities:

When assessment for learning is used frequently, such as regular recapping of learning from previous lessons, it helps to both check and consolidate learning.

Teachers can regularly check learning throughout a sequence of lessons in the form of regular classroom quizzes. These checks on learning are sequenced so that the consolidation of learning builds up over time, instead of being squeezed into a short period. This is called spaced practice. Each quiz includes checks on learning from previous lessons as well as checks on new learning.

Involving learners in the process of assessment

Individual learners and their peers are an essential part of the process. They can be involved in several ways:

  • Through ongoing dialogue with the teacher;
  • Through discussions with each other so that they are able to share and combine their ideas;
  • Through self-assessment and peer-assessment activities that involve learners in their own assessment.

These ideas are explored in the following table:

Ongoing dialogue between teacher and learner Learners help each other with their learning Peer-assessment and self-assessment

Assessment for learning requires an ongoing dialogue between the teacher and learner. This means that teachers plan opportunities in the lessons to speak to individual learners or small groups to check on their progress.

Getting regular feedback from all learners about their learning is also essential. Teachers can use, for example, exit cards (A5 paper-size cards) prepared by the teacher with specific questions about the lesson. Learners fill them in at the end of the lesson, and they should not take longer than a few minutes to complete. Exit cards help teachers to identify specific gaps in understanding that can then be addressed in the next lesson. They can be used to check on specific aspects of the learning or to get feedback about activities and teaching approaches that have been used.

Getting learners involved in helping each other with their learning through discussions and cooperative learning tasks is an important way to involve learners in the process of assessment for learning.

Cooperative learning tasks such as ‘Think, Pair, Share’ help learners to share and combine their ideas in a relaxed and fun way. For example, the teacher can ask the class to describe how to get from A to B on a map. Learners can take a few minutes to think and write their answers individually, then they can talk to a partner to check their answers before they share them with the class.

Peer-assessment and self-assessment opportunities enable all learners to be involved in the process of assessing progress and learning needs. These opportunities also create a culture of sharing learning and success.

Peer-assessment works best when learners are asked to give feedback to another learner on specific aspects of their learning, for example, the use of possessive ‘s’ after nouns in a short piece of writing. Learners find it difficult to give effective feedback to each other if the task is too complex.

Teachers should carefully plan for and support self-assessment activities. For example, learners keep learning diaries detailing areas that need clarification or skills that need further development

Effective feedback that moves learning forward

A teacher gets feedback on a learner’s progress through an assessment for learning activity. These activities then provide the teacher with the opportunity to give feedback to the learner on their progress. Teacher-to-learner feedback is effective if it:

  • Recognises what the learner did well;
  • Identifies challenges, and points forward to the next step.

In my view, the best model for effective feedback is Geoff Petty’s ‘medals and missions’ (the words ‘medals’ and ‘missions’ are used metaphorically to make the idea easy for learners to remember) which is explained in the following table:

‘Medals and missions’ model of feedback

In the process of assessment for learning, learners need information about their progress and not just praise. They need to know:

  • Where they are now in relation to these goals = Medals
  • How to close the gap between where they are now and the goals = Missions
  • What they are aiming for = Goals (learning objectives and success criteria, the nature of good work, etc.)

Medals: This is information about what a learner has done well. For example, teachers can write 'Your paragraphs and punctuation are good!' or 'That's a good argument!’ in the margin next to a well-made point. Grades are measurements not medals. Medals are information about what exactly was done well. It is important to understand that a medal can relate to the process of learning as well as a final product.

Missions: This is information about what the learner needs to improve, correct or work on. It is best when it is forward looking and positive. For example, 'Try to give your group more evidence for your views' or 'Use more paragraphs to show the structure of your writing'. Again, measurements such as grades do not usually give this information.

Clear goals: Teachers should give medals and missions in relation to clear goals which are usually best given in advance. This is what the first building block for formative assessment (discussed above) helps to establish. So, by sharing learning objectives and success criteria (WALTs and WILFs) with learners they know what their goals are. Goals can include success criteria such as 'Use paragraphing to show the structure of your writing' or 'Give evidence, examples for the points of view you express'.

Setting targets: Missions need to be turned into targets for learners to work on. In this way, the learner knows what they need to do with the feedback and what action they need to take. Teachers can record feedback, including the target and action planned, on Individual Learning Plans (ILPs), which can be paper-based or electronic.

Example of ‘medals and missions’ feedback

‘You gave a clear explanation of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. The details will be helpful for other learners. In your next written essay pay more attention to punctuation.’

Medal: This is: You gave a clear explanation of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Here the learner is receiving a medal that relates to language use as well as ability to explain an idea supported by subject knowledge.

Mission: This is: In your next written essay pay more attention to punctuation. This mission relates to language use and draws the learner’s attention to a specific aspect of their use of language.

Ensuring that feedback is effective is vital. If feedback is specific, frequent and moves learning forward in the way that the ‘medals and missions’ model does, then it has a significant impact on achievement.

This exploration of five key principles for assessment for learning, as well as the accompanying ideas for classroom practice, has explored ways to address the three essential questions I posed at the start: where are my learners going in their learning?; where is each learner now in their learning?; how do I help a learner move forward in their learning? The big idea underpinning these questions is that teachers adapt teaching to the needs of each learner. As I suggested at the start, this big idea can be summed up by the term responsive teaching, which might well end up being a term that we start to see being used more and more. I hope so!



About the author

Dr. Jason Skeet has worked as a consultant and trainer in CLIL at Utrecht University providing advice and training for bilingual schools throughout The Netherlands. He has also taught on the university's UTEACH Master's Programme for bilingual and international school teachers. Before that he worked for seven years as a teacher at a bilingual secondary school.

Jason is currently responsible for leading on and coordinating all academic aspects of the NILE MA in Professional Development for Language Education.

by Jason Skeet in Blogs & Articles