Assessment for Learning I: An Introduction

This site designed and maintained by
Prof. Glenn Fulcher



Formative Assessment

This is the first in a series of features on Classroom Assessment. See also:
Assessment for Learning II: Effective Questioning &
Assessment for Learning III: Effective Feedback

Classroom assessment is said to be formative rather than summative. That is, it takes place during the process of learning, rather than at the end of a period of learning. And its purpose is to inform and improve learning, rather than simply to assess whether the learners have mastered the learning objectives. The role of formative assessment is therefore to generate information to help improve learning and teaching.

The Assessment for Learning Movement argues that formative assessment can help teachers to understand what learners need to do next in order to develop their knowledge, skills and abilities. That is, it provides the data which teachers need to make instructional decisions. But perhaps more importantly, it allows teachers to give the kind of quality feedback that is necessary for learners to understand where they are now, where they want to be in the future, and how to get there. Assessment for learning is therefore fundamentally concerned with change. In fact, assessment in the classroom is intended to be a vehicle for change, by getting learners to 'notice the gap' between their current performance, and the target performance.

One of the founding documents of the Assessment for Learning movement was written by Black and Wiliam in 1998, entitled Inside the Black Box. Black and Wiliam argue that:

    ...the term 'assessment' refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes 'formative assessment' when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet the needs.
They conducted research to show that such assessment improves learner success when used appropriately, the results of which were published in Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom.

In this video, Paul Black and Christina Harrison (with colleagues) discuss their approach to assessment for learning, which has been widely used in the language classroom as well as in learning maths and science. Their approach is designed to 'instil a culture of success', where every learner is encouraged to believe that they can achieve their goal. Indeed, the empirical evidence shows that the methods they use are particularly successful with lower-achieving learners, as their motivation and confidence grows over time. All assessment is descriptive rather than evaluative, helping learners to 'notice the gap'.

[The link to this video is made with the kind permission of Teachers' TV]

As you watch the video you may wish to use these focus questions to make notes, and discuss issues with colleagues in a seminar:

  • What is a key feature of assessment for learning according to Black?
  • What does Harrison say are the most important features of formative assessment?
  • The teachers in the school talk about what they try to get children to think about in their learning. What do they try to achieve?
  • List the key skills that teachers need to develop to implement assessment for learning.
  • What are the advantages of peer- and self-assessment?
  • How does peer-assessment work?
  • Can summative assessment have value in the classroom?

Formative Assessment and Language Learning
The principles of effective questioning have long been recognized in language learning and teaching, as a result of studies like those of Sinclair and Brazil (1982), which led to a concern for a wider variety of classroom interactions. Similarly, the use of a variety of performance tasks for assessment in the classroom was recommended by Canale and Swain (1980) so that learners would have the opportunity to develop sociolinguistic, discourse, and strategic competences. Our developing understanding of the multi-componential nature of communicative language ability means that we cannot expect all abilities to be acquired simultaneously, or in response to a single approach to learning. A variety of tasks in conjunction with the skillful use of assessment for learning is required to target, practice, and give feedback upon, different components of communicative language ability.

A Group Discussion Task
The Assessment Reform Group in the United Kingdom has published Assessment for Learning: 10 principles. Research-based principles to guide classroom practice Download this document. Which of these principles are most applicable to your own teaching context? Are there any that could not be implemented? If not, what are the constraints that would make implementation difficult?

Useful Web Sites

Also look at:

This web site has links to many forms that you can use for classroom assessment, including performance records, self-evaluation tools, and so on. There are also links to excellent practical guides for conducting assessment for learning, including portfolio assessment, making accommodations for assessments, and preparing learners for tests.

More video:

Very useful videos on classroom and formative assessment from Wisconsin.


In Language Testing Bytes Issue 10 I discuss classroom assessment with Kathryn Hill, following the publication of her article and book on the topic in 2012 (see further reading).


Teachers College Columbia University held a Roundtable on Learning-Oriented Assessment in 2014. The sessions were videoed and the presentations made available at this web link.

Further Reading

Black, P. Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2003). Assessment for Learning: Putting it Into Practice. Buckingham, U.K.: Open University Press.

Black, P. Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. and Wiliam, D. (2004). Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan 86.

Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80.

Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to langauge teaching and testing. Applied Linguistics 1, 1 - 47.

Fulcher, G. and Davidson, F. (2007). Language Testing and Assessment: An Advanced Resource Book. London and New York: Routledge. Units A2, B2 and C2.

Fulcher, G. (2010). Practical Language Testing. London: Hodder Education. Chapter 3.

Hill, K. (2012) Classroom-Based Assessment in the School Foreign Language Classroom. Bern: Peter Lang.

Hill, K. and McNamara, T. (2012). Developing a comprehensive, empirically based research framework for classroom-based assessment. Language Testing 29(3), 395 - 420.

Leung, C. and Scott, C. (2009). Formative Assessment in Language Education Policies: Emerging Lessons from Wales and Scotland. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 29, 64 -79.

Rea-Dickins, P. (2006). Currents and eddies in the discourse of assessment: a learning-focused interpretation. International Journal of Applied Linguistics 16, 2, 163 - 188.

Rea-Dickins, P. (2008). Classroom-Based Language Assessment. In Shohamy, E., and Hornberger, N. H. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of Language and Edcuation, Vol.7, Language Testing and Assessment. New York: Springer, 257 - 271.

Sinclair, J. McH. and Brazil, D. (1982). Teacher Talk. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glenn Fulcher
April 2010 (Updated October 2015, January 2016)