Monday, October 20, 2008

Teaching in the UK: Assessment for Learning Explained

Assessment for Learning process (or AFL) is now quite a common and popular means of assessing students in London schools.

The Assessment Reform Group defines it as “the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.” This is not to be confused with Assessment OF learning.

Assessment of learning is for the purpose of grading and reporting, whereas Assessment FOR learning calls for a new way of seeing assessment in the classroom. AFL puts the responsibility of learning into the hands of the learners, providing them clear information about how they are doing and what they specifically
need to do in order to improve their learning.

This might sound very similar to the idea behind rubrics. I tried to explain the use of rubrics in my
teaching in London, but found that the other teachers didn’t quite know what I was talking about. Rubrics (while they don’t use the term) would be seen as simply one aspect of AFL (similar to the Learning Objective that each lesson must have). It’s important that you understand the philosophy behind AFL in order to really put it into practice in your teaching.

The Assessment Reform Group wrote a paper called “Beyond the Black Box” which you can find
here. In it, they argue that there are distinct characteristics of the kind of assessment that actually promotes learning. Assessment of learning tests existing learning, or marking and feeding grades back to students. When Assessment for Learning is utilized instead, the students are directly involved in their learning, understand what they are learning and what they need to do in order to improve.

As you learn how to use AFL, your teaching will change. This is a very important skill in your teaching and should not be ignored. Some schools offer excellent professional development workshops on AFL and how they use it in their schools. Some schools will not be using AFL yet, but are likely heading that way.

Also important to note is that many schools in Canada are starting to use AFL and whole boards are implementing AFL as a mandatory school system of assessment. I spoke with some recruiters from BC school boards about it and they are indeed heading that way with AFL.

So what does this look like in practice?
  • Observing your students. Listening to how they describe their work and their reasoning.
  • Using open-ended questions phrased to invite students to explore their ideas and reasoning.
  • Preparing activities that require students to utilize certain skills or apply ideas.
  • Asking students to communicate their knowledge through drawings, actions, role play, concept mapping and writing.
  • Discussing words and how they’re being used.

See, the issue with traditional assessment is that teachers often assess written work and circle all the spelling and grammatical errors, forgetting what the actual learning outcome was meant to be.

That’s not to say that spelling & grammar don’t matter, mind you.

But in assessing whether a student understood a particular science lesson and getting side tracked by their grammar is not an effective assessment FOR learning. The student receives their paper back and sees all the red ink about their terrible spelling, but doesn’t actually learn whether they showed that they learned the science.

So, AFL takes that and turns it on its head. Instead of marking spelling, you’re now highlighting their work to show when they achieved the lesson objective. Their work is now evidence of their learning, and you are simply showing that they learned what you set them out to learn.

This is why your Lesson Objective is so critical!

To understand more about AFL, please read
Guide to Teaching in London: A Survival Guide for Canadians.

I can't stress this enough - you need to understand what AFL is in practice and how to use it in your teaching so that you are teaching students in the way they are familiar with. When Canadian teachers complain about the behaviours of the students in London, many times it's actually that the teachers aren't using the systems in place so the students become unruly. You'll get there in the end!

So, get the
Guide to Teaching in London and read the chapter on AFL over & over again until it's stuck in your head. Then, go to and watch as many programs as you can about assessment in the UK for your age group. It's the best way to learn what you need to know.


  1. I just took an entire university course on the difference between Assessment OF learning and Assessment FOR learning - and it did takr that long to get those traditional ways of assessment out of our systems! iT was so hard for some of us to grasp, after having always been graded the way we were in our own schooling, but once you realize how much more beneficial Assessment for learning is, and how much more SENSE it makes than simple check makes than simple checks and x's, it starts to become habit.
    State your objective, teach to that objective, check whether students met that objective.
    Simple right? Not always, but it is so much more effective, and helps you keep focused on what it is you are trying to get across to students during a given lesson.

  2. That's exactly it! It's so simple, yet so hard for us to implement after being trained with assessment of learning for all these years. I kind of see the lesson objective as a "thesis statement" in a way - the point that you're trying to get across in an essay, and all the other stuff is just the proof & the filler. Without the thesis statement, you have nothing. And it's the hardest for us teachers to get, and by far the most important.

    What university did you take the course in? Do you have any texts that you would recommend to our readers here? Thanks for sharing!

  3. Whew! I just read over what I had written before - I really need to start reading over these things before I post them! haha

    I took the course as part of my BA in Educational Studies at Bishops University, and the text was actually really great! I've left it at school though unfortunately, so I'll have to check the name/author when I get back to QC. It was just really clear and simply laid out, and gave tons of examples of how to go about developing assessment tools. I'll post it up here when I get back!

  4. Hi Tarrah
    Sounds great! Thanks for sharing with us here :-)


Thanks for sharing your two pence!


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