According to William (2018) Assessment for Learning (AfL) is a classroom approach which creates opportunities for continuous feedback with the ultimate goal of optimising teaching and learning. This term has been a buzzword in ELT for some time now because educators all around the world have come to realise that Assessment of Learning, despite providing invaluable data on students’ achievements, may still be failing us in one respect – it doesn’t give us a chance to go back and make teaching and learning even more meaningful and effective.
AfL has plenty of benefits to offer for learners, teachers and schools:
- For learners, it creates a deeper understanding of what is being learned and why, thus contributing to greater engagement and learner autonomy.
- For teachers, it helps establish two-way communication with learners, while being more responsive to their needs and learning preferences.
- For schools, it can develop a more collaborative culture in which students, teachers, and school authorities work together to improve academic attainment.
- Last but not least, AfL can hopefully result in raising a generation of adults who are both comfortable taking feedback on board and are able to think for themselves.
AfL essentially invites us to create and implement the tools that can continuously provide information (to teachers and students) about the following three areas:
- Where the learners are now (current development of knowledge, skills and understanding)
- Where the learners are going (learning objectives and success criteria)
- How the learners can get there (tips and strategies to facilitate learning)
AfL in practice
Assessment for Learning doesn’t come without its challenges, though. Teachers comment on the lack of clarity regarding what AfL actually is. Even if they do understand what it entails, they mention the pressure of time and external examinations that limit the amount of effort they would be willing to put into developing the AfL skills in class. Here are three ideas for easy-to-implement AfL activities in class that have helped me to start down the path of making my lessons more reflective and student-centred.
1. Integrate more wait time (Where the learners are now)
As we all know, silence is particularly hard for teachers to handle, especially if it follows a straightforward question and you expect multiple hands to go up to provide the answer. But what we need to remember is that our students may need to go through several mental operations before they would be willing to have that hand raised: understanding the language you used in the question – arriving at the possible answer using their knowledge – finding the right language to formulate the response – finding the courage to speak in front of their peers … the list can continue. According to Valentina Gonzales (2021), it is crucial to provide more wait time between asking the question and accepting the responses AND after the students answer the question to encourage a more extended response.
Here is one way to integrate wait time naturally into your teaching:
- Ask a question and tell students they will have 10 seconds to think about the answer.
- Count to 10 (as slowly or quickly as you feel is appropriate for your class).
- Ask students to raise their hands if they feel they may have the answer, e.g., say “Great. I can see Mary thinks she may have an answer. Peter too. Thank you, Bobby! Who else?” Do not accept any answers at this point.
- Encourage the students who haven’t raised their hands to do so, e.g., say ‘’Raise your hand if you have an idea about the question I asked. It doesn’t have to be an answer to my question.”
- Give everyone a chance to contribute what they wanted to say and put some/all of the ideas on the board.
- Ask follow-up questions about what the students have said if needed. Reveal the correct answer.
Of course, this activity can be quite time-consuming but if used as a diagnostic stage at the beginning of a new unit, it really pays off to spend this time, because it will enable you to tap into the students’ current knowledge and their thinking process and decide on the next step in teaching based on what the learners have said.
2. Negotiate success criteria (Where the learners are going)
I am very much not in favour of starting the lesson by reading out the learning objectives mechanically from a whiteboard as I believe there is no better way to kill the curiosity and joy in class, especially with primary students. If students cannot understand and appreciate the goals they should aspire to, it will be challenging for them to receive feedback and act on it to show progress. In my opinion, the best way to get learners truly engaged with the lesson goals is to get them to identify these goals themselves. This is what has worked well for me in the past:
- Show your students two models: one of an exemplary task completion and one which is less successful.
- Ask the students to compare two models and identify what makes one better that the other.
- Elicit all of the ideas on the board and put them in categories if needed, e.g., Language Use, Layout, etc.
- Ask students to vote for three areas they would like to focus on when completing a similar task.
- Turn these three areas into the success criteria and/or a checklist students will use to assess their own work at the end of the unit.
The best thing about negotiating success criteria is that it can be a highly personalised process, i.e., each student may come up with their own checklist, which naturally creates differentiation and increases engagement.
3. Offer options (How the learners can get there)
One principle of effective feedback states that it is better to offer strategies rather than solutions. It encourages students to try them out which promotes a deeper cognitive involvement in the learning process. This activity can help your students develop critical thinking and reflection skills.
- After your students have finished working on a task, think of 2 strategies/learning tips that they could use to make task completion even better.
- Present the strategies and ask your students to redo the task applying each strategy one at a time.
- Offer a simple reflection sheet to complete, e.g.,
- Pair students up to discuss how they felt about each strategy and decide which one worked better for them personally.
- Do a whole group discussion summarising what students have spoken about.
Focusing students on the process of learning rather than just the learning products is a great way for them to become more independent in planning and self-assessing their learning efforts in the future.
What are your ‘go to’ activities to promote Assessment for Learning? Can the activities above be adapted for use with lower primary students? Please let us know in the comments below.
Gonzalez, V. (n.d.). Infographics. Serving Multilingual Learners of All Ages. Retrieved from https://www.valentinaesl.com/infographics.html
Wiliam, D. (2018). Embedded formative assessment (2nd Edn). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.