Rethinking “Formative Assessment”

I got to see Dylan Wiliam speak at NCTM last week. I’m a big fan of his work and I think Embedding Formative Assessment may be the book I have learned the most from in my teaching.


I’ve also increasingly realized that formative assessment is misunderstood. I had one conversation with a teacher who told me that their school’s formative assessments are the exams students take each quarter. In another conversation, a teacher described formative assessment as a diagnostic assessment that happens at the start of a unit to see what students know and don’t know.

Both of these can be valuable formative assessment opportunities. At the same time, one big lesson I have learned from Wiliam’s work is that formative assessment is something that happens at multiple levels, using multiple strategies, to constantly measure the goals of teaching against the learning that is actually happening and attempt to do a little better the next day. In his book, Wiliam identifies five strategies of formative assessment, each of which consists of a chapter full of techniques to try in the classroom:

  • Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and success criteria
  • Engineering effective discussions, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing feedback that moves learning forward
  • Activating students as learning resources for one another
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning

I think each of these strategies is an important element of effective teaching. At the same time, Wiliam’s book could easily be criticized for trying to capture too much of what happens in classrooms under the umbrella of formative assessment, as well as presenting a framework that is complicated and difficult to get one’s head around.

In Wiliam’s talk, he spoke about two core ideas that underlie much of his thinking on formative assessment: that teachers need to have purposeful pedagogies of engagement and pedagogies of responsiveness.

I really like these phrases. They are focused on pedagogy — what I’m doing in my classroom, and the actions I’m taking to further student learning. They are broad, yet at the same time capture what I think are key ideas of impactful teaching. And they offer a useful synergy: if students are fully engaged but teaching is not responsive to their needs, or if teaching responds brilliantly to where students are but does not engage them in meaningful thinking, learning seems unlikely. I’m going to go ahead and define them more precisely for my purposes. Just drafts here, still working out my thinking.

Pedagogies of engagement: a variety of strategies that cause students to think deeply about content, practice essential skills, and invest themselves in their learning.

Pedagogies of responsiveness: a variety of strategies designed to elicit information about where students are and where to go next so that teaching can be responsive to the needs of students and classes.

These seem like useful questions to ask myself while either planning for or reflecting after a lesson. Am I using effective pedagogies of engagement? Am I using effective pedagogies of responsiveness?

Maybe the difference between these pedagogies and formative assessment is just semantics. At the same time, more than a week after NCTM, these are the ideas I have reflected the most on, and these are the ideas that seem to me to have the most potential to impact my teaching.

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