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Why continual and planned formative assessment generates learning gains and develops character

The Problem: Are we measuring performance or learning?

One of the poorest proxies for assessing learning is summative assessment because it might only measure performance as opposed to learning.

This is not to say that summative assessment does not have a place; it is a widely accepted empirical measurement of performance. This data can identify learning has taken place if the knowledge and skills assessment requires transference to new contexts. We can share this data nationally and compare students to each other.

But this is the rub: learning is not a competition.

No one wins at learning and yet some students are frequently judged on their performance based on what educators can measure and plot.

Learning is an on-going process and sometimes educators will find some students that ace summative assessments have only short-term retention of the knowledge and skills tested in that one test shot. I was this student. I can see now that I was highly skilled at regurgitating what my teachers had taught me and could apply this ‘remembering’ to questions I had been told to anticipate.

This required almost zero thought.

The fact I had a short-term photographic memory only spurred me and my teachers on to believe I was an effective learner, but the truth was that I was very good at visualising my notes and rote memorisation.

As a teacher I’ve developed strategies to identify these poor proxies for learning with my own students. Some students can present as uber-academic and high achieving, but they can exhibit a fixed mindset where they believe themselves to be ‘clever’ because the summative data has reflected this perspective of themselves. When I first started teaching I was encouraged to focus my efforts on the students that were not performing in summative assessments.

As a result, I left the summative high flyers to their own devices and everyone was seemingly happy about that. However, over time I began to realise that something was amiss. When I challenged these high flyers, some crumbled and the relationship they had with me as their teacher soured. I pushed on despite push back from some parents who seemed entirely convinced my sole function in the classroom was to generate top grades.

This is the issue when education is deemed transactional: I teach you the content and skills that will appear in the end of year exam and you parrot that back to me for the A grade.

Deal done.

Except, that’s a really bad deal.

The Solution: Revitalising Assessment in Action

What educators need is a deep understanding of how to support their students to move information and skills from their short to long term memory. They need to demonstrate how to build schema so that their students develop the ability to transfer what has been learned to a different context.

To demonstrate the value of formative assessment as a means to demonstrate learning as opposed to performance, I might ask my class (either cold calling one student or pose the question to the whole class and wait for a volunteer):

‘What might be an argument in support of Scottish independence?’

A student might give me a possible ‘correct’ response to this question, so I now need to check this is not simply performance, but evidence of understanding and learning. To do this, I would ask a follow-up question such as,

‘What evidence is there to support this point of view?’

And then another,

'What would be a counter argument to this point of view?’

And then,

‘Are independence and devolution the only two viable scenarios for the governance of Scotland?’

Had I stopped at the first question and not continued my Socratic questioning, I would have been assessing for performance only because the student could simply parrot back what they had remembered or read in their notes seconds after I had posed my question.

I would argue that using this simple questioning technique, I can continually assess depth of understanding, learning, and misconceptions much more effectively than relying only on summative assessment data.

My students give me feedback on the depth of their learning in real time and I can respond accordingly, deciding to move on, recap or reteach an aspect that has not been learned or taught effectively. This comes down to teachers not assuming that just because they have taught something, that something has been learned. It also relies on teachers not assuming that because a student can perform in a basic verbal recall-based question or an end of unit test that effective and meaningful learning has taken place. Perhaps it has been covered and no more for some students. Perhaps there is ‘evidence’ of this covering in their copious notes. The fact is that this is not evidence of learning.

The Solution: Assessment Informing Learning and Teaching

If we consider the purpose of assessment as being a tool to identify where students are, a means to facilitate student learning and inform next steps in teaching practice, we can see that continual low-stakes formative questioning in a classroom setting is a valid and reliable option. While it will not generate data for a spreadsheet, it offers something even more valuable to the teacher who can iterate, pivot, and offer a more adaptive teaching and learning experience.

Waiting until the end of unit test or final exam is too late to offer this kind of instructional model. The moment to check learning has passed as this is the moment performance is assessed.

Students need their teachers to be responsive to their changing needs so they can move them forward. This is what Stiggens (1991) calls ‘assessment literacy’.

Thinking of assessment in these terms and taking intentional action has led to me experiencing a greater sense of agency and confidence in my ability to guide my students using this adaptive process. This didn’t happen overnight and I did have to work on my agility of mind to keep coming back with hinge questions.

At the beginning, I planned these out and projected them in turn on my whiteboard. Now, it is second nature to delve beyond student performance and get to the authentic learning element. I find continual formative assessment even more impactful when combined with spaced practice and interleaving. (spaced practice refers to revision throughout the course of study. Interleaving refers to the switching between ideas while students learn).

The Benefits of Continual Formative Assessment for Learning and Teaching

The information gleaned through continual formative assessment is what we should value highly as opposed to test scores. What educators can do with the formative ‘data’ is much more impactful than what they might do with summative test scores, such as set students according to ability (the evidence is scant in this area, but anecdotally, this can negatively impact a student’s sense of self-worth and be de-motivating. Some research has shown that setting can benefit high attaining students. David Didau writes more on this issue in his article, ‘To set or not to set?’) or make flawed judgements about what a ‘good’ student is.

An additional benefit of the Socratic questioning technique is that it helps students to manage unpredictability which helps them to practise self-regulation and metacognitive skills.

These skills underpin all learning and as such, teachers need to create opportunities for their students to grow consistently in these areas.

I am not an advocate of the teaching of resilience, self-esteem, metacognition etc in isolated PSHE lessons. This can come across as a ‘tick box’ task, when what students need is continual exposure to desirable, context-driven challenges. Subject teachers can quite simply embed situations to which their students must respond.

Getting students comfortable being uncomfortable is what is needed.

This should take place in a psychologically safe space which classrooms can absolutely be when the teacher takes time and care to build from the beginning supportive relationships with every student.

This is about intentionally building a culture of thinking and action by the student and teacher.

The Framework

To begin thinking in this way, I used the recommendations of the Education Endowment Foundation for metacognition and self-regulated learning (2018) as a framework. The EEF advise that metacognition and self-regulation approaches to teaching support pupils to think about their own learning more explicitly, often by teaching them specific strategies for planning, monitoring, and evaluating their learning. Interventions are usually designed to give pupils a repertoire of strategies to choose from and the skills to select the most suitable strategy for a given learning task.

Self-regulated learning can be broken into three essential components:

  • cognition – the mental process involved in knowing, understanding, and learning

  • metacognition – often defined as, ‘learning to learn’

  • motivation – willingness to engage our metacognitive and cognitive skills.

Interestingly, the EEF report that the potential impact of the low-cost metacognition and self-regulation approaches is seven months of additional progress over the course of a year and as these approaches can be very effective in groups because students can support each other and make their thinking explicit through instruction, this really is a North Star for any classroom teacher.

Predominantly relying on and valuing highly summative performance data as an indicator of ability is deeply flawed and cannot bring about the rates of learning progress that formative assessment can engender for students of all abilities.

Summative assessments for me, indicate attainment in one moment in time. The EEF also point to evidence that suggests that disadvantaged students are less likely to use metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies without being explicitly taught them.

Once a teacher models and scaffolds such strategies, students are more likely to use them independently and habitually, enabling them to manage their own learning and overcome challenges in the future. Using such strategies could therefore play a role in closing the disadvantage gap.

Case Studies

If you want to see a worked example of how I incorporated self-regulated learning, read my blog post, ‘How to boost real learning in the History classroom’. You can read more about my journey with metacognition in the classroom and with supra-curriculums here. I also built this free critical thinking programme driven by metacognition and self-regulation.


For some, formative assessment is unreliable and invalid. I accept that there is a significant reliance on human judgement, which of course, can be flawed. It takes intention and experience to create this kind of learning setting, but being aware of the benefits and how to move forward with such an approach is the first step.

Some teachers may lack confidence in Socratic questioning. This is understandable, especially for early-stage teachers.

Inspection and Assessment

Ofsted inspects the quality of implementation which is about what you do every day to help your students make progress. It's about the resources you make available, the way you interact with children and the opportunities you provide. Ofsted is looking for evidence of good practice which includes:

208. Research and inspection evidence suggest that the most important factors in how, and how effectively, the curriculum is taught and assessed are the following:

  • Teachers have expert knowledge of the subjects that they teach. If they do not, they are supported to address gaps in their knowledge so that pupils are not disadvantaged by ineffective teaching.

  • Teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly and encourage appropriate discussion.

  • Teachers check pupils’ understanding effectively, and identify and correct misunderstandings.

  • Teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory and apply them fluently.

  • The subject curriculum is designed and delivered in a way that allows pupils to transfer key knowledge to long-term memory. It is sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and pupils can work towards clearly defined end points.

  • Teachers use assessment to check pupils’ understanding in order to inform teaching, and to help pupils embed and use knowledge fluently and develop their understanding, and not simply memorise disconnected facts.

Ofsted also identifies the salience of transference of knowledge and skills from short to long term memory:

209. Learning can be defined as an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned. However, transfer to long-term memory depends on the rich processes described above. In order to develop understanding, pupils connect new knowledge with existing knowledge. Pupils also need to develop fluency and unconsciously apply their knowledge as skills. This must not be reduced to, or confused with, simply memorising facts. Inspectors will be alert to unnecessary or excessive attempts to simply prompt pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts.

In terms of the school’s use of assessment, Ofsted points to:

210. When used effectively, assessment helps pupils to embed knowledge and use it fluently, and assists teachers in producing clear next steps for pupils. However, assessment is too often carried out in a way that creates unnecessary burdens for staff and pupils. It is therefore important that leaders and teachers understand its limitations and avoid misuse and overuse.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, when teachers are aware of the limitations of summative assessment to evaluate learning, understand the steps required to create a psychologically safe culture of thinking and action, and model and scaffold metacognitive skills, they are able to be the teachers their students need.

Teachers can give high quality, ‘live marking’ (Elliot et al, 2016) or personalised feedback using continual formative assessment. It doesn’t feel like assessment to the students because it feels lower-stakes and there are only positive implications to not getting something quite right. This is because effective teachers will take this information and use it to inform their instruction thereby supporting their students learning and mindset growth. It is less onerous and more impactful than relying solely on summative assessment performance data.

Perhaps what this leads to is not only academic learning gains but character development that has transference and sustainability…and isn’t that one of the main purposes of schools?

If you would like to discuss strategies to support you or your teachers in developing robust frameworks of formative assessment, contact me for an informal chat by emailing at


Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) (2018) Metacognition and self-regulated learning guidance report. Available at: (Last Accessed 06/01/2022)

Elliot V, Baird JA, Hopfenbeck TN et al. (2016) A Marked Improvement? A review of the Evidence on Written Marking. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

Stiggens, R. (1991) Assessment LITERACY. Phi Delta Kappan 72: 534-539.

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