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Assessing students’ learning

‘Good teachers assess students’ learning and progress regularly and accurately. They ensure that students know how well they have done and what they need to do to improve.’

Ofsted, 2013

Topics on this page:

  • The purposes of assessment
  • Reflection on your assessment experience
  • What does a new teacher need to know about assessment and be able to do?
  • Check your understanding of assessment terminology
  • Finding out about assessment in school
  • Observing lessons and discussions about assessment
  • How can I make assessment effective – and manageable?
  • Reading and reference

Assessment for learning in geography diagram

Source: Weeden, P. and Hopkin, J. (2006) ‘Assessment for Learning in geography’ in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association.

The above diagram illustrates how teaching, learning and assessment are interconnected. It shows that ‘assessment’ means much more than simply an exercise to measure students’ performance and attainment.

There has been a tendency for some teachers and schools to consider assessment in isolation rather than taking a holistic view of planning, teaching, learning and assessment. The links with teaching and learning should be uppermost in your mind as you plan assessment and the diagram indicates some of the key questions you need to ask.

Note that the students are at the very heart of the process. Assessment can serve several purposes, but the most important role is to inform, and impact on, students’ learning.

The outer part of the diagram summarises the teacher role and the many questions and decisions that need to be considered.

This approach is often described as Assessment for Learning (AfL). Its prime objectives are to give students an understanding of how they are doing, how to improve their learning experiences and how to help them to do better. Ofsted (2013) expects subject specialists to use assessment effectively to support the teaching of the curriculum and to serve student learning.

The importance of understanding assessment principles and embedding assessment practices in day-to-day teaching is recognised in the DfE Frameworks for ITT and ECTs. You must be capable of interrogating and using assessment appropriately, which requires an understanding of the different purposes for assessment and how assessment evidence feeds back into teaching and learning.

Key readings

  • Weeden, P. (2017) ‘Assessing Geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 14.
  • Butt, G. (2008) Orientation Piece – Assessment, Geographical Association on-line.

The purposes of assessment

The four main purposes are:

  • Diagnostic: to identify a learner’s starting point (baseline assessment) and to identify any learning difficulties so that help and guidance can be provided
  • Formative: ongoing assessment of students to positively impact their learning and help build their understanding; this is often described as day-to-day assessment for learning
  • Summative: to record overall achievement of a student (e.g. GCSE examination) or to provide information to others, such as parents or for transfer between schools
  • Evaluative: using assessment data to make judgements about the effectiveness of educational systems.

Although assessment serves all of these purposes, its overarching role is to inform, and impact on, the learning process. However, in recent years the purpose of assessment has been diverted since the outcomes of statutory tests and examination qualifications have become ‘high-stakes’, with an impact that extends to performance measures of teachers and schools.

  • Read Weeden (2017) pp. 182–6 and study Figure 4 on p. 187.
  • Refer to Earle (2021) for a discussion of the principles and purposes of assessment.
When you have read about the context to assessment, reflect how assessment has changed since you were at school as a student.
  • Was assessment for you formative?
  • Or were assessments only by test and examinations i.e. summative?
  • How did you react to assessment?
  • Were you anxious?
  • Did it motivate you to work harder?

As a graduate, you are a successful learner and assessment might have been a motivator for you, but others react differently. The students you teach will have a range of responses; some may be elated by assessment, others may be nervous. Students who find learning more difficult often lack confidence or self-esteem unless assessment is handled sensitively by the teacher.

What a new teacher needs to know about assessment and be able to do

A new teacher has to develop their competence in:

  • Checking students’ geographical knowledge and understanding
  • Assessing the progress students are making in their geographical learning
  • Formative assessment and feedback
  • Marking students’ work
  • Designing and using summative assessment
  • Understanding the expectations of geography examinations
  • Using assessment information to monitor progress, set targets and plan lessons
  • Report writing.
  • Refer to the Teachers’ Standards, particularly Standards 2 and 6.

Ofsted (2013) described these characteristics of outstanding practice for geography teachers, which you should see as your goal; to:

systematically and effectively check students’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where [teachers] may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning. Their marking is consistently high-quality and constructive feedback ensures that students make rapid gains.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 217–223 which provides some contextual insights on assessment.

Are you clear about the meaning of these terms and phrases in the context of assessment? If not, refer back to the reading references given above.

  • Assessment standards
  • Baseline assessment
  • Consequential validity
  • Day-to-day assessment for learning
  • Diagnostic assessment
  • English Baccalaureate (EBacc)
  • Fit for purpose
  • Formative assessment
  • Performance measure
  • Reliability versus validity
  • Summative assessment
  • Teach to the test.

Finding out about assessment in school

  • Study the example of the climate change lesson in Weeden (2017) p. 182 and the analysis on p. 186.
  • Refer to Figure 8.1 on p. 220 of Biddulph et al (2021), which highlights important questions for both teachers and pupils during the assessment process.
  • Study the geography assessment policy in your school and what it says about each of the questions in the boxes in the diagram from Weeden and Hopkin at the start of this section.
  • Refer to Good Assessment Practice, written by Ofsted (2003), and use this as a framework when you observe geography lessons.
  • Use the climate change lesson and analysis in Weeden (2017) (p. 182) as a model to observe one or more geography lessons and focus on assessment.
  • Look out for student behaviours and practices that are seen as ‘poor proxies for learning’.
  • Discuss each of the elements of assessment (see Figure 8.1 in Biddulph et al) with the teachers whose lessons you have observed after the lesson.
  • Discuss the school’s assessment policy with your geography mentor and how to implement the school’s expected practice for assessment.
  • Discuss with your geography mentor what they consider to be the most appropriate and effective assessment techniques and how should you employ them.

How to make assessment effective – and manageable

Making a fair assessment of where students are in their learning is often complex. Teachers must avoid being influenced by students who appear busy and active. Coe et al (2014) summarised some of the classroom behaviours and practices that can interfere with accurate assessments of learning, which they call ‘poor proxies for learning’. These practices may contribute to a positive environment for learning, but do not in themselves indicate that learning is taking place, such as:

  • Students are busy: lots of work is done, especially written work
  • Students are engaged, interested, motivated
  • Students are getting attention: feedback, explanations
  • The classroom is well-ordered, calm, under control
  • The curriculum has been ‘covered’
  • Some students have supplied correct answers, whether or not they really understood the underlying concept.

Students often conceal their actual level of learning and you need to develop a teacher’s instinct to recognise when this is happening so you can judge when you need to intervene and check that learning is occurring.

Effective assessment is critical to teaching because it provides teachers with information about students’ understanding and needs. Assessment should be designed thoughtfully to shape future learning, and it should not be excessive or onerous. From your lesson observations and reading you will have seen how complex and demanding assessment can be, and you will have to work hard on this area of teaching to develop your expertise throughout your training and induction.

As a new teacher you can easily become overwhelmed by the demands of assessment, so ask for advice from your mentor and experienced teachers and take one step at a time. While assessment is important, it must not be allowed to get in the way of teaching stimulating and engaging geography lessons. To help you keep assessment manageable, keep this uppermost in your mind as you work through these webpages about assessment.


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 3rd edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pages 241–4.
  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment, London: Kings College.
  • Butt, G. (2008) Orientation Piece – Assessment, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S. and Major, L. (2014) What makes great teaching?Review of the Underpinning Research, London: Sutton Trust.
  • Earle, S. (2021) ‘Principles and purposes of assessment in the classroom’, Impact (Chartered College of Teaching).
  • Weeden, P. (2017) ‘Assessing Geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 14 pp. 182–186.


  • Ofsted (2013) Geography grade descriptors and supplementary subject-specific guidance for inspectors on making judgements during visits to schools.