Empowering Learning Through Formative Assessment: Insights From Dylan Wiliam


Even when instruction is well-designed, and students are motivated, increases in student capabilities are generally impossible to predict with any certainty. 

The relationship between instruction and what is learned as a result is complex. Even when instruction is well-crafted and students are motivated, accurately predicting the learning progress is challenging. This challenge persists across various learning theories, whether within the constructivist perspective, where the misalignment between teaching and learning is emphasized or in associationist views, where the unpredictable nature of establishing associations between stimuli and responses complicates outcome prediction. In situated perspectives on learning, failures to demonstrate learning are attributed to the environment for cognitive processes. Regardless of the theoretical lens, any approach to studying human learning must grapple with the “brute fact” that students may not necessarily, or generally, learn precisely what they are taught.

While the notion of incorporating frequent “checks for understanding” ineffective instruction has a long history, approximately 50 years ago, educators and researchers explicitly began framing this process as a form of assessment. Indeed, assessment can be seen as the crucial link between teaching and learning—only through some form of assessment can we ascertain whether instruction has achieved its intended impact. While traditional assessment is often conducted after an instructional sequence, there is a growing interest in the idea that assessment can play a proactive role in enhancing the educational process rather than solely evaluating its outcomes.

Classroom assessment assumes a crucial role across various curricular domains, and the influence of technology in this realm is undeniable. The intricacies of technological areas, contexts and the identification and operationalization of related variables contribute to the complexity of the assessment task. This complexity, in turn, shapes the approach to determining what and how to assess. To formulate effective strategies for evaluating technology-related tasks and activities, educators need a comprehensive understanding of the essence of technology and the conceptual and procedural facets inherent in different technological domains.

Self-regulated learning is integral to productive formative assessment, especially concerning strategies such as “clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success” and “activating students as owners of their learning.” The synergy between formative assessment and self-regulated learning is a theoretical alignment and a practical and grounded approach that holds significant promise for educators and researchers.

Formative assessment, in particular, serves as a crucial tool for teachers to discern the next steps in learning by sifting through the wealth of data generated when students engage with technology.

In science education, the term “formative” should pertain not only to the assessment itself but also to the purpose served by the evidence derived from the assessment. To illustrate, consider a scenario in a seventh-grade Science class where a teacher administered a test on a specific science concept under test conditions, collecting student responses. Typically, teachers might grade the responses, offer feedback, and return the papers the next day. However, in this instance, the teacher refrained from grading the papers immediately.

Instead, the teacher swiftly reviewed the responses and decided each student would receive their paper the following day. Furthermore, the teacher grouped students into four groups, providing each group with a blank response sheet. The aim was for the groups to collaboratively produce the best composite paper. Once the groups completed this task, the teacher facilitated a plenary discussion where each group reported their collectively agreed-upon responses. What makes this example noteworthy is that the assessment, initially designed for summative purposes, was ingeniously repurposed by the teacher to serve formative goals.

In alignment with the broader goals of assessment in higher education, effective feedback practice should benefit students and offer valuable information to teachers. This information is intended to be utilized in refining and improving subsequent activities and courses, creating a cyclical process that contributes to the overall enhancement of teaching and learning experiences.

The efficacy of formative feedback is contingent on various factors. These include the students’ capacity for self-assessment, establishing clear goals and criteria, and clearly outlined expected standards. Furthermore, promoting constructive dialogues between teachers and peers regarding learning, closing the ‘feedback loop,’ delivering high-quality feedback information, and fostering positive motivational beliefs and self-esteem in students all contribute significantly to enhancing the impact of formative feedback.

Constructive Formative Feedback:

While feedback is often regarded as the core element of formative assessment, it becomes evident that the effectiveness of the feedback is contingent upon the quality of the evidence gathered initially. Simply being aware that a student has achieved a 30% score on a test provides limited insight into the specific learning needs of that student, except for the indication that they have yet to grasp a significant portion of the expected content.

Constructive feedback is characterized by its actionable nature, guiding students to take specific actions that contribute to maintaining excellence and enhancing behaviours, skills, or attitudes.

Effective Constructive Feedback Should:

  1. Acknowledge Achievements: Clearly articulate what students have done well, acknowledging their successes.
  2. Identify Areas for Improvement: Provide insights into areas where students could enhance their performance, specifying what and how improvements can be made.
  3. Encourage Self-Reflection: Promote self-reflection by allowing students to assess their work, helping them recognize strengths and identify areas for growth.
  4. Provide Guidance: Offer clear guidance on how to improve, ensuring that the feedback is not only evaluative but also instructive.
  5. Facilitate Action Planning: Engage the learner in developing an improvement plan, empowering them to take proactive steps toward enhancing their skills or addressing areas that need attention.

Research findings highlight that careful and concrete structuring of performance-based assessments enables students to surpass basic demonstrations of their abilities. The thoughtful structuring challenges students to reach higher levels and motivates them to actively seek improvements in their work. Additionally, teachers stand to gain substantial benefits by skillfully designing formative assessment measures and utilizing them as diagnostic tools. This approach fosters a more reflective and intentional approach to pedagogical practices.

Similarly, students who actively participate in self-assessment take on greater responsibility for their learning journey. They become more accountable for their academic progress by self-reflecting and evaluating, contributing to a more empowered and self-directed learning experience. This synergy between well-structured assessments, formative measures, and student self-assessment establishes a foundation for a more enriching and dynamic educational process.

Educators should prioritize the delivery of meaningful formative assessment when aiming for transfer and comprehensive understanding in teaching. 

According to the argument, the key lies in a balanced combination of active engagement or performance by students and the consistent, detailed, and pertinent feedback provided by the instructor. This approach ensures a dynamic and interactive learning environment, promoting participation and fostering a deeper comprehension of the subject matter.

Peer Feedback:

Peer feedback is crucial in formative assessments, contributing to a dynamic and interactive learning environment. In the context of formative assessments, designed to provide ongoing feedback to guide and enhance the learning process, peer feedback offers a unique perspective. It involves students providing constructive input to their peers based on a shared understanding of learning objectives.

One of the key benefits of incorporating peer feedback in formative assessments is the diversity of insights it brings to the learning process. Having navigated similar learning experiences, Peers can offer valuable perspectives and alternative approaches that resonate with their fellow students. It not only broadens the understanding of the material but also fosters a collaborative learning community.

Peer feedback is a form of social interaction beyond the traditional teacher-student dynamic. It encourages students to articulate their thoughts, critically analyze their peers’ work, and express constructive opinions. This process strengthens the understanding of the subject matter and cultivates essential skills such as communication, critical thinking, and empathy.

Moreover, integrating peer feedback aligns with the principles of active learning. Students actively engage with the material when completing their assessments and providing feedback to their peers. This active involvement enhances retention and comprehension of the content, contributing to a more effective learning experience.

Students should be actively engaged and assessed across various areas, contexts, and variables. Hence, teachers must concentrate on assessments within their subject areas and consider the broader spectrum of student learning experiences across the curriculum. 

Feedback, encompassing peer and self-assessment, plays a pivotal role in this process. When utilized effectively, formative assessment can lead to substantial learning gains. Productive practice is fundamentally about guiding improvement, with learners requiring ongoing feedback to reshape their understanding and thinking during the learning process. It necessitates teachers to scrutinize evidence in students’ work that demonstrates their comprehension, allowing for a more nuanced approach in subsequent learning events, whether in ensuing discussions or follow-on activities.

Determining the next steps in learning may initially seem straightforward, but as teachers delve into children’s understanding, they become attuned to the misconceptions that need addressing, the need for differentiated approaches with various learner groups, and how the pace of future learning hinges on confidence in current learning. Teachers also must create opportunities for learners to respond to feedback and allocate dedicated time for reviewing their work, facilitating the clarification of partially understood concepts and consolidating correct ideas.

While the starter activity can offer insights into the level of understanding, it is often during the lesson’s progression, mainly when students are engaged in drawing, designing, and making activities, that teachers can identify emerging ideas. Teachers must work alongside students to interact actively with their evolving ideas during these activities. Leaving students to work unassisted may convey the misconception that design and technology are solitary, potentially discouraging collaborative exploration of ideas. Through discussions and peer interactions, students can assist each other by clarifying, developing ideas, and critiquing in a supportive environment.

Research suggests that effective formative interactions involve guiding students to think continually and prompting them to consider conceptual, procedural, technical, and societal aspects. New learning commences from a learner’s existing understanding, emphasizing the importance of active learner involvement. Assessments for Learning activities align with these principles and embody that teachers should develop learners’ understanding of quality achievement, foster self-assessment, and encourage social learning through peer discussions.

Teachers employ many familiar strategies to facilitate formative teaching. For instance, the “Think-pair-share” method encourages active classroom talk, enabling students to discuss questions with their peers before sharing with the whole class. The effectiveness of such strategies lies in how teachers orchestrate them to create an environment where learners can collectively assess their current understanding, share ideas, and map their evolving comprehension as the learning activity progresses. It necessitates proactive efforts from teachers in setting up activities that foster co-construction of knowledge.

Formative assessment encompasses a set of seven strategies designed to enhance the learning process:

  1. Provide Clear Learning Targets: Communicate learning objectives to students, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of what is expected.
  2. Use Exemplars: Illustrate solid and weak examples of work, offering students a model for comparison. Consistently provide descriptive feedback to guide improvement.
  3. Frequent Feedback: Regularly offer constructive feedback to students, aiding their understanding of their progress and areas for improvement.
  4. Teach Self-Assessment: Equip students with the skills to self-assess and set goals, fostering a sense of autonomy and ownership in their learning journey.
  5. Focused Lesson Design: Design lessons with a singular focus on one learning target or aspect of quality at a time, facilitating a more concentrated and effective learning experience.
  6. Teach Revision Skills: Instruct students on focused revision, encouraging them to refine their work systematically based on feedback and self-assessment.
  7. Encourage Self-Reflection: Engage students in reflective practices, allowing them to track and share their learning progress. It promotes metacognition and a deeper understanding of their learning processes.

Formative assessment empowers students to exercise a range of essential skills. It includes setting goals for knowledge improvement, strategic decision-making to balance progress against unwanted costs, and ongoing monitoring of the cumulative effects of their engagement. Notably, effective formative assessment recognizes the pivotal role of learners and their peers, highlighting their active involvement as crucial for productive understanding and the potential improvement of learning outcomes in the classroom.

Dylan Wiliam identifies and emphasizes five core strategies crucial for successful formative assessment practices in the classroom:

Empowering Learning Through Formative Assessment: Insights From Dylan Wiliam

Clarifying, Sharing, And Understanding Learning Intentions And Criteria For Success:

  • Objective: Ensure students comprehend the purpose of the classroom experience and the metrics used to measure success.
  • Implementation: Teachers articulate and share with students the intended learning outcomes and criteria for success.
  • Purpose: Students clearly understand expectations, fostering engagement and focused learning.

Engineering Effective Classroom Discussions, Activities, And Learning Tasks:

  • Objective: Develop strategies that elicit evidence of learning through discussions, activities, and tasks.
  • Implementation: Teachers design instructional strategies that actively involve students, allowing for the assessment of their understanding.
  • Purpose: The classroom becomes a dynamic environment where evidence of learning is continuously generated, providing valuable insights for instructional adjustments.

Providing Feedback That Moves Learning Forward:

  • Objective: Offer constructive feedback to guide learning progress.
  • Implementation: Teachers collaborate with students, providing information that enhances their comprehension of problems and potential solutions.
  • Purpose: Feedback catalyzes improvement, enabling students to refine their understanding and skills.

Activating Learners As Instructional Resources For One Another:

  • Objective: Encourage peer-to-peer learning and collaboration.
  • Implementation: Teachers facilitate discussions and group activities where students actively engage with each other to enhance collective learning.
  • Purpose: Peer interaction becomes valuable, promoting a collaborative learning environment and reinforcing individual understanding.

Activating Learners As Owners Of Their Learning:

  • Objective: Empower students to take responsibility for their learning journey.
  • Implementation: Teachers guide students in monitoring and regulating their learning processes.
  • Purpose: Students become active participants in their educational experience, leading to increased motivation and a sense of ownership over their learning.
  • These strategies aim to create a student-centred, dynamic learning environment where assessment is seamlessly woven into the instructional fabric. The ultimate goal is to leverage assessment practices to inform teaching strategies, empower students to actively engage in learning, and facilitate continuous improvement.

The Big Idea:

The overarching concept that ties these strategies together is using evidence of student learning to adapt teaching and learning strategies. The goal is to create a responsive educational environment where assessment data informs instructional decisions, ensuring that teaching methods align with student needs, leading to continuous improvement and enhanced learning outcomes.

When educators focus on clarifying learning objectives and success criteria, they provide students with a roadmap for their learning journey. This transparency empowers students to take ownership of their learning, fostering self-regulated learning skills. Activating students as owners of their learning aligns with the principles of self-regulated learning, where individuals proactively set goals, monitor their progress, and adapt their strategies based on their understanding and needs.

The relationship between formative assessment and self-regulated learning becomes most productive when practitioners and researchers collaborate. The practical nature of formative assessment, emphasizing real-time feedback and adjustments, complements the theoretical perspectives offered by self-regulated learning. By combining these strengths, educators and researchers can engage in meaningful conversations that enhance the application of formative assessment in the classroom and the theoretical understanding of self-regulated learning.

Empowering Learning Through Formative Assessment: Insights From Dylan Wiliam


Formative assessment and self-regulated learning create a powerful dynamic. It empowers students to become active participants in their learning journey, encourages continuous improvement, and provides educators with valuable insights into the effectiveness of their instructional strategies. This integrated approach lays the foundation for a holistic and effective educational experience.