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Recently, researchers have increasingly recognised the importance of formative assessment in improving children’s progress and attainment (Bone, 1999; Wiliam et al., 2004). Although evidences provided in this work suggest that policies have underestimated the complexity of this kind of assessment- and that some teachers find it difficult to do- the benefits of formative assessment can far outweigh the disadvantages.

Assessment has become a very important part of education process and it has advanced considerably over the past years (Johnston et al., 2009; Hall and Burk, 2004) and, as our education system becomes more curriculum focused, the emphasis moves increasingly to how teachers teach and how children are taught (Butt, 2010). In this view, learning is concerned with the construction of understanding, skills and attitudes (Johnston, 1996; Pritchard, 2005). In other words, it is concerned with the type of learning pupils become involved with.

In addition, why and how we assess pupils has an enormous impact on their educational experience and consequently on how and what they learn (Wynne, 2007). In the light of these, this work aims to define what assessment is, placing particular focus in the formative assessment. It will also critically analyse how formative assessment may support pupils’ learning, supporting the analysis with theories on child development and children’s learning, as well as observations and evidence from school experiences.


‘ The assessment of children has to serve a variety of purpose, but it is principally to inform decisions made by the teacher about what work a child is capable of managing’.

Hayes (2006)

Assessment means different things in different contexts and it is also carried out for different purposes (Arthur et al., 2006). During my preliminary attachment I noticed that teachers were assessing all the time and some of those assessments were going on also during teaching. For example, while teaching, teachers picked up information about children’s knowledge through eavesdropping (where in group discussion, the teacher would stand by a table, but listening to the other table discussion instead) or questioning and they also assessed the level of understanding of the class through a quick quiz or game at the beginning or end of the lesson. Those assessments have helped teachers to see what works and what does not in terms of student learning. However, they usually used this information to assess their own lesson and/or the level of knowledge and understanding of the class, rather than to make formal assessments which could be fed back to pupils (Preliminary Attachment, 2010). From reflecting in examples from theory and practice, it is possible to say that assessment in education involves making judgements about pupils’ attainments (Alexander, 2010; Preliminary Attachment, 2010). In other words, it involves teachers deciding on how they will collect information, what information is relevant, how they will come to a judgement and then how to report and comment a judgment to those who want to know how pupils are achieving (Arthur et al., 2006; Aldgate et al., 2006; Hayes, 2006; Hughes, 2008).

In addition, assessment is often divided into summative and formative categories for the purpose of considering different objectives for assessment practices (Pollard et al., 2005; Arthur, et al., 2006; Butt, 2010). Yet, debate continues over whether and how summative and formative assessment should be distinguished (Threlfall, 2005; Wynne, 2005). In its summative role, the purpose of assessment is to judge pupils’ quality and characteristics, summarising these in a clear and widely acceptable format. Summative assessment is also known as assessment of learning (Threlfall, 2005; Arthur et al., 2006) and evidence for this type of assessment may come from formal testing of what has been learnt, aiming to produce marks or grades which may be used for different purposes, such as reports of various types (Pollard et al., 2008). Moreover, studies indicate that summative assessment can have a negative impact on students’ motivation for learning, as rather than promoting ‘intrinsic’ motivation- in which they perform because they are interested and engaged with the work, summative assessment is believed to promote ‘extrinsic’ motivation, in which pupils simply respond to the promise of some kind of reward (Crooks, 1988; Sansome and Harackiewicz, 2000; Wynne, 2001).

On the other hand, assessment also has a formative function. In this role, assessment is intimately linked with students’ learning processes, diagnosing students’ strengths and weaknesses, helping students to develop self-awareness; providing feedback on areas of learning requiring further work; helping to guide them in their studies and generally motivating them and promoting the desired learning outcome (Pollard et al., 2008; Alexander, 2010).


‘Assessment for learning is any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting pupils’ learning. It thus differs from assessment designed primarily to serve the purposes of accountability, or of ranking, or of certifying competence’.

(Black et al., 2002, p.7)

Furthermore, according to researches, some of the key elements of formative assessment include the identification by teachers and students of learning goals, intentions or outcomes and criteria for achievement; conversations, with feedback, between teachers and students that build on what is known and what is to be learned; active involvement of students in their own learning and also teachers responding to identified learning needs and strengths by modifying and/or adapting teaching strategies, materials and approaches (Stiggins, 1992; Stiggins and Conklin, 1992; Fontana and Fernandes, 1994; Fredrickson and White, 1997; Black and Wiliam, 1998a; Shepard, 2000; Boston, 2002; Guskey, 2003; Liang and Creasy, 2004). In the light of these, teachers can use the information of where students are having trouble and how they are progressing, to make necessary adjustments, such as re-teaching and trying alternative instructional approaches. These activities can lead to improved pupils success.

According to Pryor and Crossouard (2005, p. 2) formative assessment occupies a ‘curious and slightly paradoxical’ position within educational theory. Although may be argued that formative assessment has always been a central part of educational practice it was only in the late 1960s and 1970s that the term was invented (Black and Wiliam, 2003). Moreover, as a result of a growing international dissatisfaction with current forms of assessment, formative assessment was one of a number of ideas that attracted the attention of educational researchers (Bloom et al., 1971). Since the beginning of the 1990s it has enjoyed considerable attention, especially in schools, under the title of Assessment for Learning, following Caroline Gipps’s distinction from assessment of learning (Gipps, 1994). Part of this interest has involved a recognition that dominant forms of summative assessment did not have a good fit with constructivist learning theories, whereas formative assessment seemed to offer distinct possibilities. Since then a substantial number of studies, particularly in the UK, at all levels of education have attempted to align formative assessment with contemporary psychological theories of learning (Gipps et al.,1995; Boud 1995; Black et al., 2002; Hall and Burke 2003) and others have also taken account of sociological perspectives (Torrance and Pryor 1998; Filer and Pollard 2000; Ecclestone 2002).

In addition, in order to integrate formative assessment into classroom practice, a range of assessment strategies and techniques are currently in place aiming to improve pupils’ learning. Some of those strategies, which I have had the opportunity to observe and critically analyse during my preliminary attachment, are: feedback, self- assessment and classroom discussion.


‘Unless students are able to use the feedback to produce improved work, neither they nor those giving the feedback will know that it has been effective’.

(Boud, 2000, p.158)

Black and Wiliam (1998a) research on whether formative assessment raises academic standards in the classroom, shows that efforts to strengthen formative assessment can produce significant learning gains (Black and Wiliam, 1998b) and their analysis of these studies has shown that feedback resulted in positive benefits on learning and achievement across all content areas, knowledge and skill types and levels of education (Black and Wiliam, 1998a).

Moreover, when feedback is given as part of formative assessment, it helps to guide pupils through the actions they need to achieve their goal, making them aware of any gaps existent between their current knowledge, understanding or skill and their desired goal (Ramaprasad, 1983; Sadler, 1989). Also, it is taken for granted by constructivist theory that providing information or feedback to students in an on-going manner, such as that which formative assessment should provide, will produce positive results (Shepard, 2000). Yet, during my preliminary attachment, I have observed a year 2 teacher giving students feedback information on their work. The strategy in place was called ‘two stars and a wish’, where the teacher collected pupils’ work and compared their performance to the learning goals, highlighting two good points about their work and one point needing improvement. The teacher gave pupils their work back, requesting pupils to put their initials below the feedback to demonstrate that they have understood what needed to be improved. However, I have observed that some pupils, who put their initials below the feedback, found the feedback difficult to understand, especially when the learning goals had not been assimilated in first place. For example, a particular pupil had the feedback: ‘Make sure you use two adjectives in your sentence to describe people and places’ (Preliminary Attachment, 2010). This feedback given by the teacher was not sufficient to help this particular pupil to close the gap, as he did not fully understand what adjectives were in first place and was still unable to apply this knowledge in his future work. Black and Wiliam (1998a) further elaborate on this communication issue when they discuss the links between the way a feedback message is received and what students do with that message. Also, Hayes (2006) argues that in offering feedback, teachers must use comments which ensure that pupils understand their significance. He also suggests that, ideally, children should be given time to think and respond to the teacher’s comment and be involved in the assessment process, rather than passive recipients, as these give them a sense of ownership in their learning. This view is shared by Piaget, who is concerned with the knowledge and understanding and the way which new information is dealt with by young learners (Sullivan, 1969). Furthermore, the learning theory of Piaget and Inhelder (McCarthy Gallagher and Reid, 2002), which is the first attempt to gather together concepts and research studies of Piaget’s cognitive theory that direct relates to learning theories, also suggest that the growth in knowledge is often sparkled by a feedback process that results from questioning, contradictions and consequently reorganisation. This way, it is crucial that any model of feedback must take account of the way students make sense of, and use, feedback information, as suggested by Black and Wiliam (1998a).

On the other hand, another observation on teacher’s feedback, evidenced during my preliminary attachment, in a year 6 class, had a more positive outcome. The teacher sat beside the pupil while giving him feedback and she explained to the pupil what needed improving, clarifying any misconceptions. Also, when written feedback was given, children were encouraged to respond with a written comment of their own. It was observed that this strategy has helped children to fill the gaps and progress in their learning, as the feedback to pupils was focused on achievement and had identified the next steps in learning, in ways that pupils could understand and act upon (Preliminary Attachment, 2010). This is supported by Duschl and Gitomer (1997), who argue that collections of student work may also be used formatively if students as well as teachers annotate their comments and continually observe their progress. These show that the most helpful type of feedback on homework and tests are the ones which teachers provide pupils with specific comments regarding to errors, offering specific suggestions for improvement and also encouraging pupils to focus their attention on their task, rather than simply being concerned if their answers are right (Bangert-Drowns et al.,1991; Elawar and Corno, 1985; Irons, 2007).


‘It is clear that self-esteem, so central to success both in school and in life more generally, according to recent research, is all too often eroded by the experience of negative evaluations.

(Weeden et al., 2002, p. 152)

Learners can also play an important role in formative assessment through self-evaluation. This view is supported by experimental research studies which have shown that when students understand the learning objectives and assessment criteria and are given opportunities to reflect on their work, they usually show greater improvement when comparing with those who do not (Fontana and Fernandes, 1994; Frederikson and White, 1997). In addition, studies show that performance gains were also witnessed among students with learning disabilities who are taught to use self-monitoring strategies related to their understanding of reading and writing tasks (McCurdy and Shapiro, 1992; Sawyer et al., 1992).

During my preliminary attachment, year 6 pupils were encouraged to assess their work by writing a comment stating if they found their work easy, average or hard. Pupils were also encouraged to set targets for themselves and note what aspects needed improvement. In this occasion, pupils demonstrated to be actively engaged with their self-assessment and were able to construct their knowledge and set challenges for themselves in order to achieve their goals (Preliminary Attachment, 2010). Piaget suggests that children should be free to work in different ways and learn through active exploration and personal discovery (Sullivan, 1969) and from a constructivist point of view, learning is not a passive process and so, engagement must be at the start of the process of learning (Pritchard, 2005). In other words, students learn most effectively when they actively construct their own knowledge, understanding and skills based on their own exploratory activities and reflection. In addition to this, active engagement is an indicator that real learning takes place and knowing that they can cope with difficulties makes pupils seek challenges and overcome further problems (Clark, 2008). Also, Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky, 1978; Smidt, 2006) shows that pupils learn best when they have a slightly difficult task which they have to work at and which leads them to a state of ‘flow’. Claxton (2002) suggests that ‘flow’ describes how engaged a person is in an activity, the level of absorption and how engaged they are in their learning.

However, in the same school, year 1 pupils were asked to assess their work by putting their work in the respective trays: smiley face if the work was easy, neutral face if the work was ok and sad face if the work was hard. While standing beside the trays, observing the pupils while they assessed their work, I notice a child saying: ‘I found this work hard, but I don’t like sad faces!’ The child them put her work in the tray with a smiley face (Preliminary Attachment, 2010).

Over the last decade there has been an increasing interest in strategies that encourage students to take a more active role in the management of their own learning (Falkchikov, 1995; Hyland, 2000). Black and Wiliam (1998a, p.54) make the argument that ‘a student who automatically follows the diagnostic prescription of a teacher without understanding of its purpose will not learn’, while Sadler (1989) argues that the purpose of formative assessment should be to equip students gradually with the evaluative skills that their teachers’ possess. On the other hand, the fact that the student found the work hard, yet placed it inside the smiley face tray, can be related to the child’s self-esteem. Clark (2008) argues that children love to be praised for their intelligence and talent, but if this is the norm, the minute they encounter an obstacle, their confidence drops. If success means that they are clever, than, failure can only mean they are not. In the light of this, pupils cannot work with the message that they can achieve their targets by putting things right when they are clouded by overtones about ability, competition and comparison with others (Black and Wiliam, 1998b; Miller and Lavin, 2007). Studies show (Elliot and Dwenck, 1988; Dwenck, 1989) that strategies based on performance goals, such as smiley faces, adversely affects performance and they tend to lead pupils to attribute difficulty to low ability and become upset when faced with difficulty or failure (Clark, 2008).

Miller and Lavin (2007, p.6) argue that there is limited research evidence which shows that formative assessment will not necessarily have beneficial effects on self-esteem. However, they suggest that there is a need to investigate contexts where teachers are making use of formative assessment as an integral part of their day-to-day teaching, such as: ‘in busy primary classrooms, over longer periods of time and using a range of different strategies and techniques currently endorsed as ‘good practice’, in order to find out whether formative assessment processes might affect children to different degrees or in different ways.


‘What a child can do in co-operation today, he will be able to do alone tomorrow’.

(Vygotsky, 1962)

Since the goal of formative assessment is to give teachers an understanding of what students know, or don’t know, and use this information to make responsive changes in teaching and learning, strategies such as classroom discussion and teacher observation have an important place alongside analysis of tests and homework (Spendlove, 2009). Moreover, the use of questioning and classroom discussion as opportunities to improve pupils understanding and increase their knowledge is also encouraged by Black and Wiliam (1998b). However, they caution that teachers need to ensure that thoughtful and reflective questions are asked, rather than simple and factual ones, and students must be given adequate time to respond.

During my preliminary attachment I had the opportunity to observe two classes where the teachers had in place a strategy called think-pair-share, where the teachers gave the class a topic and asked children to discuss their thinking in pair or in groups of four. If in groups, pupils had to choose one representative to share the thinking with the class. The teachers took into account children’s previous knowledge of the subject and built on it to scaffold children’s learning. Regarding to cognitive development, the discussion was very productive and led to higher quality writing, a higher level of speaking and listening and it has also increased pupils confidence in their ability to contribute. However, although some teachers in the school acknowledged that discussion and scaffold dialogue have a great cognitive potential, they found this strategy very difficult, as it demanded much on teachers’ skills and subject knowledge (Preliminary Attachment, 2010).

Spendlove (2009) argues that although the think-pair-share strategy requires preparation from the teacher, when used effectively, it engages the whole class in thinking, speaking and listening through discussion and sharing co-operative learning with peers. In addition, Torrance and Pryor (1998, p. 131) suggest that a focus group assessment can generate a great deal of information about children’s knowledge skills and understanding while at the same time contribute to the process of creating understanding. Every child is unique (DfES, 2004), develops in different pace (DCSF, 2008) and has his/her own storage of knowledge (Fisher, 1995). Children can do a lot of talking when given time and space by a teacher prepared to listen and observe (Robson, 2006). Such talk provides evidence of children’s progress to date but also scaffolds the learning of the group as they interrogate each other about the nature of the task and collaborate to accomplish it (Hill and Hill, 1996; Shepard, 2005). Moreover, for Vygotsky, social interaction has a vital role in a child’s education (Vygotsky 1962; 1978; Daniels, 1996). Also, Bruner states that ‘making sense is a social process’ (Bruner and Haste, 1987).This means that we become who we are through participating in the communities around us and our learning is reconstructed through engagement with others (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Kehily, 2005; Smidt, 2006). This is because, with others, we can do more and achieve more than we can do on our own.

Furthermore, Shepard (2000) links this type of classroom assessment with the constructivist movement, which suggests that learning is an active process, building on previous knowledge, experience, skills and interests. So, since learning is highly individualised, constructivism recognises that teaching must be adaptive to the context, involving complex decision-making, and requiring that a teacher draws upon a range of techniques (Giebelhaus and Bowman, 2002). Also, Fisher (1995) argues that children should be provided with challenges that extend their cognitive potential. For Vygotsky (1978), this potential (Zone of Proximal Development) exists not only in the child’s mind, but it also lies in the skills, ideas, experiences and from the child’s social interaction with his/her peers.


‘When teachers’ classroom assessments become an integral part of the instructional process and a central ingredient in their efforts to help students learn, the benefits of assessment for both students and teachers will be boundless’.

Guskey, (2003, p. 11)

Evidence from researches clearly indicates that good, well-developed and effective formative assessment does have a powerful impact on student learning and can be a vital component in our efforts to improve education (Assessment Reform Group, 1999; Guskey, 2003). Further, formative assessment changes the cycle’s effect where pupils attribute poor performance a lack of ability, which discourages them to invest in their future learning. It also supports the expectation that all can learn to high levels (Ames, 1992; Vispoel and Austin, 1995). Yet, some teachers argue that assessing students for the purpose of informing future planning and teaching cannot be easily accommodated alongside assessing pupils for the purpose of class/school accountability. This is because, in order to report grades and meet accountability, teachers generally need to take part in or undertake some summative assessment. This way, the purpose of summative assessment remains quite different from the purpose of formative assessment in monitoring and improving progress (Herman et al., 1992).

In addition, evidences in this work suggest that considerable enhancements in student achievement are possible when teachers use assessment, daily, to adjust their teaching to meet their students’ learning needs. However, it is also clear that making such changes is much more than just adding a few routines to one’s normal practice. It involves a change of focus from what the teacher is putting into the process and to what the learner is getting out of it. Also, the radical nature of the changes means that teachers need additional support for discovering and/or developing formative assessment tools, which not only inform students and teachers about progress, but provide assistance on where the gaps are and how to proceed.

Moreover, it is crucial that teachers acknowledge that every child is unique (DfES, 2004; Aldgate et al., 2006; DCSF, 2008) and that development is a process which involves interaction between the growing child and his/her social environment (Vygotsky, 1978). So, if learning is to take place, it is essential that teachers take child development and learning theories seriously and apply this knowledge in their assessment and interventions (Department of Health et al., 2000).

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