Book Review: “Embedded Formative Assessment” – Dylan Wiliam

Challenge

In teaching, there is often a tension between minimising the resources needed for improving teacher quality and maximising the impact on student learning outcomes. Or, as Dylan Wiliam states in the Introduction to his “Embedded Formative Assessment” (second edition), the challenge is to provide simple, practical ideas about changes every teacher can make in the classroom to develop their practice of teaching AND the evidence that these changes will result in improved outcomes for learners.

One low-expense way of improving the quality of teaching is to develop the capacity of teachers that are already in the profession to both give and receive useful feedback from students that supports them to make effective decisions about their teaching.

One high-impact way of improving the learning for all students is to provide opportunities for them to regularly receive useful feedback from teachers, peers and themselves about how they can progress along their own learning journey.

Formative assessment has the capacity to serve both of these functions as the feedback points in two directions (to the teacher and the student), and when embedded in daily practice can be implemented with little expense, effort or interruption and in a way that drives improvement.

Approach

In his “Embedded Formative Assessment” (second edition), Dylan Wiliam argues that,

It is more, and better, general education for more of the population that will guarantee a country’s future prosperity… [and]… the failure to improve education arises primarily from a failure to understand the importance of tecaher quality…

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.187-188

Rather than focussing on specialist education programs (e.g., literacy, numeracy, STEM), or recruitment/retrenchment of high-/low- quality teachers, Wiliam emphasises the benefits of focussing efforts on supporting current teachers to engage with high-quality teaching for all students across their classes, regardless of the curriculum.

If all teachers accept the need to improve practice, not because they are not good enough but because they can be better, and focus on the things that make the biggest difference to their students, we will be able to prepare our students to thrive in the impossibily complex, unpredicatable world of the 21st century.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.189-190

For Wiliam, the things that make the biggest difference to students learning are when teachers embed formative assessment in their daily practice. He then devotes the majority of his book to a review of the evidence for a range of strategies for achieving this, along with many Practical Techniques that teachers can easily apply to their classrooms with little cost, preparation or time. My review of “Embedded Formative Assessment” will consider the rationale of the first two chapters and then the utility of the remaining five chapters as follows:

  • Educational achievement and professional development (Chapters 1 & 2)
  • Five Key Formative Assessment Strategies (Chapters 3 to 7)

Educational achievement and professional development

In the first two chapters, Wiliam provides the context and rationale for the central role of formative assessment in classroom teaching. To do so he reviews an array of evidence and trends in contemporary education which I believe highlights;

  • The Importance of Developing Teaching Quality of Current Teachers,
  • The Common Problems of Current Professional Development, and,
  • The Beneficial Development and Developmental Benefits of Formative Assessment.

The Importance of Developing Teaching Quality of Current Teachers

In exploring Why Educational Achievement Matters, Wiliam outlines the economic impacts on individuals and society of educational achievement before developing a narrative of past research into school effectiveness that highlights the importance of students’ attendance and teacher quality rather than differences between schools per se. In terms of measures of ‘value added’ educational achievement:

… (the difference between what a student knew when they arrived at a school and what they know when they left). It turns out that as long as you go to school (and that’s important), then it doesn’t matter very much which school you go to, but it matters very much which classroom you’re in.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.16

He presents an array of evidence that shows that overcoming within-school differences in teaching quality by teachers already in the profession may hold the key to delivering equity in educational outcomes:

Rather than thinking about narrowing the gap, we should set a goal of proficiency for all, excellence for many, with all student groups fairly represented in the excellent. And the way to achieve this is simply to increase teacher quality.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.21

The Common Problems of Current Professional Development

In making The Case for Formative Assessment, Wiliam emphasises that the importance of professional development (p29) lies in the fact that “…the job of teaching is so difficult, so complex, that one lifetime is not enough to master it…” and that “… No teacher is so good – or so bad – that they cannot improve.” Unfortunately, so much professional development seems to ignore what is needed and instead focuses on popular areas which are of limited benefit to students and teachers alike, such as;

  • Learning Styles
  • Neuroscience, and
  • Content-Area Knowledge.

While acknowledging that in terms of Learning Styles, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, Wiliam highlights that good instruction creates ‘desirable difficulties’ (Bjork 1994) rather than just taking students’ individual learning styles into account to make learning easy.

As long as teachers vary their teaching style, then it is likely that all students will get some experience of being in their comfort zone and some experience of being pushed beyond it. Ultimately, we should remember that teaching is interesting because our students are so different, but only possible because they are so similar.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.31-32

In terms of the brain-based thrall of Neuroscience, Wiliam contends that many of the neuromyths that infect some popular professional development courses mistakenly attempt to relate brain physiology to educational matters. Instead, they offer claims that are premature or indeed disingenuous. Some of these neuromyths include;

  • left-brain (analytical) / right-brain (creative) dominance matters it doesn’t
  • we only use ten per cent of our brains we don’t
  • sugar reduces children’s attention it doesn’t
  • the learning pyramid shows accurately reflects that we learn more from doing (90%), than seeing and writing (70%) hearing and seeing (50%), just seeing (30%), just hearing (20%) or just reading (10%)it doesn’t
  • you can train your brain with ‘brain gym’ activities you can’t
  • male and female brains are different they aren’t

In fact, we know a great deal about how the brain works and what kinds of activities help students learn, but these findings come from cognitive science rather than neuroscience.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.33

In terms of Content-Area Knowledge, Wiliam emphasises research findings that suggest that while teachers having a deep knowledge of the curriculum they teach is beneficial, more advanced content knowledge of their field does not seem to confer any greater benefit to their students.

Attempts to improve student outcomes by increasing teachers’ subject knowledge appear to be almost entirely failures.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.35

In place of these popular areas of focus for professional development, Wiliam implores us to consider Formative Assessment as a laudable focus for the professional learning of current teachers.

The Beneficial Development and Developmental Benefits of Formative Assessment

Wiliam describes the history of the development of the concept of formative assessment from its first coinage in 1967 by Michael Scriven through to more recent work of his own and several others trying to pin down exactly what might be meant by this emerging approach to understanding and improving learning and teaching by using assessment to inform instruction. Much of this challenge hinged on defining both precisely what formative assessment is (and isn’t), and comprehensively what formative assessment includes (and does not):

A definition of ‘Formative Assessment’

An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted and used by teachers, learners and their peers to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of that evidence.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.48

The key to this, it seems, is for teachers to use what Wiliam calls decision-driven data collection: to collect the minimal amount of information needed to make the decision that is needed to support students’ learning (my paraphrase from p.47). This suggests a preference for a decision-pull approach to the design of assessment-interpretation-action cycles where the teacher knows what to do with the data before they collect it, helping teachers respond in real-time to their students learning needs, minute-by-minute, and day-by-day (my paraphrase from p.50-51).

Adaptation of Table 2.1: Perspectives on Formative Assessment

What is not reasonable is to claim that all kinds of formative assessment are equally effective, because the evidence is clear that the shorter the assessment-interpretation-action cycle becomes, the greater the impact on student achievement …. Long-cycle, medium-cycle and short-cycle formative assessment all have their roles to play in ensuring effective instruction. But short-cycle formative assessment has to be the priority for schools and teachers, because the impact on students is grteater.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.51

With this emphasis on short decision-driven assessment-interpretation-action cycles, Wiliam boils down ‘all teaching’ to Three Key Processes and Three Key Roles involved in the engineering of effective learning environments.

The Three Key Processes according to WIliam:

  1. Where the learner is going
  2. Where the learner is right now
  3. How to get there

While the Three Key Roles are the teacher, peers, and the learner. Aligning these into a matrix contextualises the way that formative assessment strategies (see below) can work to support the different processes and roles of learning and teaching:

Adapted from Wiliam, Thompson 2007 by Teacherhead

The key features of effective learning environments are that they create student engagement and allow teachers, learners ad their peers to ensure that learning is proceeding in the intended direction. The only way we can do this is through assessment. That is why assessment is, indeed, the bridge between teaching and learning.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.55

Five Key Formative Assessment Strategies

In the remaining five chapters, Wiliam considers the details of each of the five formative assessment strategies in turn.

  1. Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions
  2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  4. Activating students as learning resources for one another
  5. Activating students as owners of their own learning

Each chapter begins with a reflective exploration of the issues and relevant research and then these are addressed by a set of Practical Techniques drawn from his own observations and experiences which I have tried to summarise in each of the sections that follow. He also provides an index of these Practical Techniques after the epilogue for easy access.

Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions

NOTE: I have previously drawn on many of the ideas presented in this chapter in my own article on Structuring Lessons: Beginnings (Part 2 – Orientation to Learning Intentions)

Wiliam begins this chapter by reviewing some of the evidence for the importance of teachers sharing their Learning Intentions with students so that the teacher and their students understand what they are meant to be doing. As the title of this chapter suggests (this first strategy for formative assessment), he then emphasises that the learning intention must be clarified and understood as well as shared, and this cannot always be done in a formulaic way. Drawing on the work of Shirley Clake, he offers an insightful suggestion for enhancing the clarity and effectiveness of confused learning intentions by identifying and removing the context of learning from the specific knowledge or skill that is at the heart of the intended lesson.

“Learning Intentions: Detaching Context” Adapted from p 66 taken from Activating students—as learners, and as learning resources for one another Dylan Wiliam Hawker-Brownlow Education Conference Melbourne, Victoria, May 2011

WIliam then considers a set of further issues that are helpful to consider when constructing Learning Intentions and Success Criteria:

  1. Task-specific versus generic scoring rubrics:
    While task-specific rubrics are useful for summative assessment, generic rubrics are more easily applied across contexts to support the transfer of learning from lesson to lesson
  2. Product-focused versus process-focussed criteria:
    While product-focused criteria clarify the outcome for students, process-focused criteria can scaffold progress toward this goal, unless they rigidly overly constrain students’ creativity
  3. Official versus student-friendly language:
    While student-friendly language can support students when introducing new ideas, they must be encouraged to become familiar with specific and relevant academic vocabulary

Further to this, Wiliam considers whether rubrics should be used at all, given that they are so often designed for summative assessment (i.e., to support teacher judgement) rather than formative assessment (i.e., to support students learning). However, Wiliam suggests that;

… rubrics have a role to play, but the important thing with rubrics, as with all other ways of sharing learning inentions and success criteria with students, is that they communicate effectively what they should be learnoing and the basis on which the teachers will assess their work. What matters most is not what teachers put into the rubric but what students get out of it.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.73-74

He then rounds out the chapter by providing some practical techniques which I have summarised in the table below:

Practical TechniquesSummary
Strengths and weaknesses DiscussionGroups of students rank anonymous student work samples and report their reasons to the class to support the co-construction of a rubric guided by teachers’ subject knowledge and their model of progression
Model AssessmentsAfter drafting, students discuss what they believe are the important features of a small set of anonymous student work samples that the teacher has identified as the best exemplars before inviting all students to redraft/resubmit their work
What Not to WriteAfter a discussion of common weaknesses in anonymous student work samples, students identify a list of common pitfalls and misconceptions as recommendations for other students (and themselves)
Immediate and Delayed Post-TestsStudents consider both correct and incorrect responses to a ‘test’ conducted immediately after learning to support them in identifying common misconceptions, improving their performance on a delayed test, supporting their retention
Test-Item DesignStudents design test questions with correct answers about the topic they have been learning and receive feedback on these from their teacher (also providing feedback to the teacher about what students have learned) before undertaking an actual test
Daily Sign-InFoundation Year students sign in each day of the week and then, on Fridays, reflect on which signature is the best for the week …
Choose-Swap-ChooseStudents practice a short task multiple times, then choose their best trial before they swap with a neighbouring student who must then also choose which they believe is the best trial – if they differ they discuss their reasons why
WALT, WILF, TIBUsing acronyms as a writing frame to scaffold and structure the construction and communication of learning intentions and success criteria with students:
We Are Learning To …, What I’m Looking For…, This Is Becasue …
Summary of Practical Techniques for “Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions”

Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning

Wiliam begins this chapter by encouraging us to challenge our assumptions about how we know when and what students have learned as a result of our teaching by exploring students’ thinking:

Whether to go over something one more time or to move on is a professional decision that the teacher must make … I am not saying that this is right of wrong. It is a professional decision that each teacher needs to make for themselves. What is unprofessional is to make that decision without finding out what the students in the class know. Questions that provide a window into students’ thinking are not easy to generate, but they are crucially important if we are to improve the quality of students’ learning.

Dylan Wiliam Embedded Formative Assessment p.89

Wiliam suggests that there are only two good reasons for teachers to ask questions of students: 1) to get students thinking, and 2) to help the teacher decide what to do next. He then offers some practical techniques for assisting with this task, which I have summarised in the table below:

Practical TechniquesSummary
Student Engagement TechniquesVarious approaches to managing the random selection of students to respond to questions as part of a “no hands up except to ask a question” policy, or no opt-out cold calling, to maximise the eliciting evidence of students’ thinking
Wait TimePausing for thinking time between teacher question and student answer (including e.g., think-pair-share) AND elaboration time between student answer and teacher evaluation (for around three seconds allowing for extensions)
Evaluative and Interpretive ListeningWhen listening to student responses, shifting from the teacher making evaluative comments (e.g., “almost”, “close”, “nearly; try again”) to more interpretive comments which interrogate the thinking of the students
Question ShellsShifting from asking closed questioning such as “Is a square a trapezium?” to more thought-provoking reasoning-based questions such as “Why is a square a trapezium?” or “Why is a square a trapezium but a kite is not?”
Hot-Seat QuestioningAsking a sequence of questions of one student to probe their ideas in depth and then calling on another student to summarise the first student’s responses (all students are aware that anyone might be randomly selected to summarise)
All-Student Response SystemsAsking all students to answer in real-time, such as thumbs (positive-negative), fist-to-five (0-5), with cognitive questions that reveal students’ understanding, then inviting individuals to share elaborations of their responses with the class
ABCD CardsA variant All-Student Response System in which students have multiple cards, labelled with letters for multiple choice options, that they can hold up for answers with potentially multiple correct answers, supporting differentiation
Mini WhiteboardsAnother variant All-Student Response System where students are provided with the means for sharing more elaborate responses (drawings, words, formulae) such as mini whiteboards or even a white card inside a plastic pocket protector
Exit SlipsAnother variant All-Student Response System where students write more elaborate responses to questions and the teacher takes the time to read through them and responds to them at a later stage (e.g., next lesson)
Discussion Questions and Diagnostic QuestionsEmphasises that discussion questions require discussion time while diagnostic questions in which it is ‘very unlikely that the student gets the correct answer for the wrong reason’ e.g., multiple correct or partially/plausibly correct answers
Alternatives to QuestionsFraming a class discussion by making a statement and asking for reasons why students might or might not agree with it.
Summary of Practical Techniques for “Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning”

Providing feedback that moves learners forward

Wiliam takes the time through much of this chapter to highlight that while feedback can have an enormous positive impact on student learning, it often does not. He explores some of the reasons for this highlighting how students respond is a key part of what transforms ‘information’ about performance into ‘feedback’ that moves learners forward. In considering a matrix of possible student responses to ‘feedback’ about students’ successes or failures, Wiliam notes that only two of the response categories (highlighted in the table below) are likely to improve performance:

  • When Feedback that Indicates performance exceeds the goal and the student responds by changing their goal, increasing their aspirations
  • When Feedback that Indicates performance falls short of the goal and the student responds by changing their behaviour, increasing their effort
The Possible Responses to Feedback Adapted from Dylan Wiliam

For the feedback to be interp[reted by the student as useful, they need to make an attribution that the performance was within their control (internal rather than external) due to transient factors such as their effort this time (unstable rather than stable), and related to the details of the task at hand (specific rather than general). And there is a balance to be struck between immediate feedback that enhances motivation and delayed feedback that encourages students to struggle with desirable difficulties. But most importantly, feedback, a term taken from engineering, must close the ‘feedback loop‘ to provide a recipe for future action. Wiliam outlines some practical techniques for closing this loop, which I have summarised in the table below:

Practical TechniquesSummary
Minus, Equals, PlusUsing symbols to compare current performance to previous performance (‘-‘: “not as good”, ‘=’: “about the same”, ‘+’: “better”) rather than to others’ perfomance
Feedback for Future ActionFraming feedback as guidance on “what’s next” for students and providing time in class for them to respond to this feedback to improve their work
Three questionsAsking students to reflect and respond to a small but equal number (3) of questions about specific aspects of their work that is equitable and differentiated
Techniques for utilising feedback– “feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor”
– “feedback should be focused”
– “feedback should relate to the learning goals that the teacher has shared with the students
Marking After LearningAvoid summative assessment when formative assessment can be used instead … “As soon as students get a mark, the learning stops”
Marking by Learning NeedsIdentifying component skills and recording when evidence of mastery has been observed for each of these for each student, allowing more specific feedback
Allowing Marks to DecreaseAssigning some proportion of the marks for students’ responses to feedback and the degree to which they improve in resubmissions of their work
Summary of Practical Techniques for “Providing feedback that moves learners forward”

Activating students as learning resources for one another

Here, Wiliam focuses on Collaborative and Cooperative learning and considers the varying degrees of impact on learning of factors such as motivation, social cohesion, personalisation and cognitive elaboration. He then identifies two critical elements for cooperative learning: a common goal and individual accountability. Teachers, he argues, find it challenging to balance these two elements and seem to particularly struggle with effective accountability within academic tasks. He then offers a range of Practical Techniques to assist with this (summarised below):

Practical TechniquesSummary
C3B4MERequiring students to “see three before me” prioritising peer support
Peer Improvement of HomeworkAssigning students’ homework to peers for checking, marking and feedback
Homework Help BoardStudents indicate assistance required so that peers can offer support
Two Stars and a WishPeer assessment structured as two highlights and an area for improvement
End-of-Topic QuestionsIn groups, students discuss and record any lingering questions they may have
Error ClassificationMatching students with complementary errors and strengths for peer support
Student ReporterPlenary group reflection listing and then sharing things learnt within the lesson
Preflight ChecklistRequiring students to have a peer review their work against a list of critical features
I-You-We Check ListStudents reflect on their own, a peer’s, and the whole group’s work after a task
Reporter at RandomAssigning the role of group reporter only at the end of a task for sharing reflections
Group-Based Test PreparationAllocating sub-topics to individuals to revise and present to a group for review
“If You’ve Learnt It, Help Someone Who Hasn’t”Emphasising the benefits of practising communication when supporting peers
Summary of Practical Techniques for “Activating students as learning resources for one another”

Activating students as owners of their own learning

In the final chapter, Wiliam compares and contrasts Student Self Assessment, Self-Testing and Self-Regulated Learning. In terms of Student Self Assessment, he emphasises the need to support students to develop skills in monitoring and directing the progress of their own learning. In reviewing the evidence (Dunlosky, Rawson, Marsh, Nathan & Willingham, 2013) for different techniques that students can use to improve their own learning, he identifies distributed and practice testing as especially effective, followed by elaborative interrogation, self-explanation and interleaved practice, but only limited evidence for the effectiveness of summarisation, imagery, mnemonics, highlighting/underlining and rereading. The reason for much of this, he argues, is that effective ‘self-testing’ supports students to develop skills of Self-Regulated Learning: metacognition and motivation. Drawing on the Boekaerts concept of dual pathways, where students chose to either preserve their well-being or challenge themselves to grow, Wiliam argues that the key to developing self-regulated learning is to support students to select the growth pathway by pre-empting and protecting student well-being concerns by (my paraphrase);

  1. Sharing learning goals for students to monitor
  2. Promoting the incremental nature of learning
  3. Reducing students’ comparison of their progress with others
  4. Future-focussed feedback to guide student action
  5. Encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning

Admitting that this presents a distinct challenge for teachers he again offers some practical techniques to support self-regulated learning:

Practical TechniquesSummary
Traffic LightsStudents assess their progress toward the learning intention as either “confident/complete” (Green), “ambivalent/partial” (Yellow) or “not learnt/incomplete” (Red) and assigning consequential tasks/supports for each group of students
Red or Green DiscsEach student has a bicoloured disc at their desks (one side red, the other green) allowing them to indicate their feedback to the teacher (e.g., normally set to green-side up, unless they turn them to red; ‘too fast’, ‘confused’, ‘help needed’)
Coloured CupsA variant of Red or Green Discs and Traffic Lights but with stacked party cups, with the outer cup displaying the students’ feedback: Green= default, Yellow= ‘too fast’, Red= ‘I have a question’, which a ‘green’ student is then randomly selected to attempt to answer
Learning PortfoliosSimilar to a performance portfolio (which shows a sample of one’s best work) but adding incrementally improved work samples to an archive of past work samples (rather than replacing them) to show, emphasise and celebrate the students’ learning journey
Learning LogsStudents reflect on their learning at the end of a lesson by responding to no more than three reflection prompts, such as; “Today I learnt …”, “I was surprised by …”, “I was interested in …”, “One thing I’m not sure about is …”, or “After this session, I feel…”
Summary of Practical Techniques for “Activating students as owners of their own learning”

Reflection

In reflecting on Dylan Wiliam’s work, “Embedded formative assessment” appears to offer an approach to resolving the tension between minimising the resources needed for improving teacher quality and maximising the impact on student learning outcomes. The emphasis that he places on providing professional development for current teachers across the curriculum is supported by the both the more abstract evidence base and conceptual considerations as well as the more concrete applicability of observations and recommended practical techniques. The effectiveness of embedding of formative assessment as the focus for this resolution is made clearer by consideration of Wiliam’s definition of Formative Assessment which focuses on the following elements (see above and page 48);

Formative Assessment is;

  • evidence about student achievement
    – showing what students do, know or understand
  • elicited, interpreted and used
    – enthusiastically and purposefully interrogated
  • by teachers, learners and their peers
    seen as a collective and collaborative effort
  • used to make decisions about the next steps in instruction
    has definite consequences
  • likely to lead to better instruction
    reviewed and then refined, reinforced or rejected

The Theory of Action here is that when teachers engage students and their peers to seek evidence about their learning to guide their instruction, then the quality of that instruction improves as does the learning of students.

Furthermore, I am drawn to three areas of further consideration of how this work resonates with my own practice;

  • High Impact Formative Assessment Strategies
  • Feedback goes both ways…
  • Embedding Comprehensive and Comprehensible Learning

High Impact Formative Assessment Strategies

Firstly, in my context as a teacher in the government system in Victoria, Australia, any mention of ‘teaching strategies’ triggers an immediate consideration of the Victorian Department of Education’s High Impact Teaching Strategies (HITS). To my reckoning, Wiliam’s five principle strategies for Embedding Formative Assessment connect fruitfully with pairs of the ten HITS. These pairings also offer a suggestion for the focus of teacher action which I have tabulated and summarised below:

Five Key Strategies for Formative AssessmentHigh Impact Teaching Strategies (DET Vic.)Active Teacher Focus
1. Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions(1) Setting Goals &
(3) Explicit Teaching
Sharing Learning Intentions
2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning(7) Questioning &
(2) Structuring Lessons
Checking For Understanding
3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward(8) Feedback &
(10) Differentiation
Providing Useful Feedback
4. Activating students as learning resources for one another(5) Collaborative Learning &
(4) Worked Examples
Guiding Peer-Support
5. Activating students as owners of their own learning(9) Metacognition &
(6) Multiple Exposures
Developing Self-Regulation
Mapping of Dylan Wiliam’s “Five Key Strategies for Formative Assessment” and the Victorian Department of Education’s “High Impact Teaching Strategies”

For convenience, below I have presented the names of the Practical Techniques described by WIliam with respect to each of the Key Strategies he relates them to:

Five Key Strategies for Formative AssessmentPractical Techniques
1. Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentionsStrengths and weaknesses Discussion | Model Assessments | What Not to Write | Immediate and Delayed Post-Tests | Test-Item Design | Daily Sign-In | Choose-Swap-Choose | WALT, WILF, TIB
2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learningStudent Engagement Techniques | Wait Time | Evaluative and Interpretive Listening | Question Shells | Hot-Seat Questioning | All-Student Response Systems | ABCD Cards | Mini Whiteboards | Exit Slips | Discussion Questions and Diagnostic Questions | Alternatives to Questions
3. Providing feedback that moves learners forwardMinus, Equals, Plus | Feedback for Future Action | Three questions |
Techniques for utilising feedback | Marking After Learning | Marking by Learning Needs | Allowing Marks to Decrease
4. Activating students as learning resources for one anotherPeer Improvement of Homework | Homework Help Board | Two Stars and a Wish | End-of-Topic Questions | Error Classification | Student Reporter | Preflight Checklist | I-You-We Check List | Reporter at Random | Group-Based Test Preparation | “If You’ve Learnt It, Help Someone Who Hasn’t”
5. Activating students as owners of their own learningTraffic Lights | Red or Green Discs | Coloured Cups | Learning Portfolios | Learning Logs
Dylan Wiliam’s “Five Key Strategies for Formative Assessment” and his recommended “Practical Techniques”

Many of these techniques require only very little preparation and allocation of time/effort/resources and can easily be applied regardless of the content, context or stage of learning making them ideal for consideration into embedding into teachers’ regular practice.

Feedback goes both ways…

A key insight that permeates much of Wiliams work is the extent to which feedback is useful when it points in two directions – to the student and to the teacher. To emphasise this I am drawn to consider one of the Practical Techniques from the chapter on Providing feedback that moves learners forwardMarking by Learning Needs. One of the first things I do when setting up for a new class is to generate a spreadsheet that identifies a set of learning focus statements and allows me to record and compile when I have seen evidence for each student’s progress on these.

A sample of my marking spreadsheet linking individual tasks as evidence to student progress on learning focus statements

Column ‘A’ lists the students (hidden above in purple), Columns ‘B’-‘J’ show the complied measures of progress toward a set of nine Learning Focus Statements, while the remaining columns (truncated …) record scores (0-5) that reflect my judgement (or actual scores) for various forms of evidence that students have presented for assessment as they load toward each of the Learning Foci.

The details of how I generate a summary judgement (Columns ‘B’-‘”‘J’) from the individual pieces of evidence are less important here than how I use them for myself and my students. Below I consider some examples of how this approach can support each of Wiliam’s five Key Formative Assessment Strategies:

  • Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions
    Identifying which Learning Focus Statement each task ‘loads’ to, encourages me to specify for students what a ‘3’ or ‘5’ looks like for a specific task in relation to the learning intention
  • Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning
    Focussing on how tasks provide evidence for learning rather than on the marks for the task, prompts me to triangulate and probe students understanding through a variety of activities
  • Providing feedback that moves learners forward
    Referencing both the task and Learning Focus allows me to determine whether students need feedback about specific tasks or the broader skills/knowledge more generally
  • Activating students as learning resources for one another
    Auto-formating Learning Focus Progress allows rapid identification of if, and which, peers have mastered a skill supporting the allocation of groups for follow-up activities
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning
    Asking students what they would give themselves out of five, why is it better than 1-lower, what would you need to do to make it 1-higher, builds student’s self-regulation of learning

Embedding Comprehensive and Comprehensible Learning

With the litany of Practical Techniques covered in Wiliam’s work, it is hard for me not to think of the last two books that I have reviewed here which, in their own way, communicate a catalogue of teaching techniques;

In my review of “Teach Like A Champion 3.0” I compared these in terms of where they fit along the comprehensive-comprehensible spectrum suggesting that Lemov’s work has a more balanced approach (though not necessarily better depending on the readers’ needs). In contrast, Dylan Wiliam’s “Embedded Formative Assessment”, which I would place somewhere between the two, takes much more time to develop a framework within which the “Practical Techniques” can be conceptualised and does so with considerable consideration of the educational evidence for their effectiveness and without excessive recourse to ‘Information Processing’ psychologising. The principles that Wiliam implores us to embrace are concrete features of classroom experience – Learning Intentions, Class Discussions, Student-Teacher Feedback, Peer Support and Self Assessment. Linking these practical techniques for keeping the teacher in touch with students’ progress to tangible features of daily practice should certainly assist with embedding formative assessment, improving both teaching quality and student learning outcomes.


John Hattie – Visible Learning

Doug Lemov – “Teach Like a Champion 3.0”

Dylan Wiliam – “Embedded Formative Assessment” (2nd ed.)

Tom Sherrington & Oliver Cavilglioli – “Teaching WalkThrus”
Updated Comprehensive – Comprhenisble Spectrum

Further Reading

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