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Formative assessment

‘If improvement in work is to take place, learners must first know the purpose of the task, then how far this has been achieved and finally be given help to know how to close any gap there is between their current attainment and where they want to be.’

Royce Sadler, 1989 

Topics on this page:

What is formative assessment? | What is assessment for learning (AfL) and how do I use it effectively? | The five key processes of AfL | Observing AfL in classrooms | Questions and assessment | Feedback | Success criteria and targets | Setting good targets | Peer and self- assessment | The benefits of assessment for learning | Developing the effective use of AfL in your own classroom | Reflection on your use of formative assessment | Finding out more about using formative assessment | Reading

What is formative assessment?

Formative assessment is the day-to-day assessment used in geography classrooms. Research evidence by Black and Wiliam (1998) found formative assessment to be an effective method of raising standards. 

The principle of formative assessment is that teachers seek ways to systematically collect evidence about students’ performance and use this to help them to bridge the gap between their current performance and the intended learning goals. Formative assessment strategies include questioning, feedback, peer- and self-assessment and formative use of summative tests.

Formative assessment is often referred to as Assessment for Learning (AfL). The emphasis is on the ‘for’ and it involves ongoing monitoring of learning. It differs from summative assessment, which is assessment of learning, i.e. finding out what students know after the learning phase has been completed. The Assessment Reform Group (2002) usefully defined AfL as:

the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.

Formative assessment is, therefore, about finding evidence of students’ progress in learning and using this to feedback and inform their next steps in learning.

Key reading

  • Weeden, P. and Lambert, D. (2006) Geography Inside the Black Box. London: NFER/Nelson.

A key writer and researcher about formative assessment is Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London. His books, such as Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment (with Paul Black in 1998), and videos provide excellent insights into formative assessment and students learning. Some of the videos are linked throughout this page and you can search for more online.

What is assessment for learning (AfL) and how do you use it effectively?

AfL is day-to-day assessment. It should be embedded in all good teaching; it is not something ‘extra’. AfL often takes place informally as a teacher builds their understanding of what students understand and can do through observing them, looking at their work, questioning them and listening to what they are saying about the geography they have learnt (or have not understood).

Ofsted (2023) describes teachers using formative assessment well as follows:

They asked well-planned questions that helped them to identify misconceptions and check for understanding. When issues were uncovered, they paused the lesson and retaught material. This was made easier when the curriculum identified likely misconceptions and the core component knowledge that pupils must secure before moving on.

The central focus of AfL is feedback. This is two-way. Teachers provide students with feedback on their understanding and their work to help them improve. At the same time, teachers are getting feedback from the students about their geographical knowledge or misconceptions so they can adjust their teaching and curriculum accordingly. It can be useful to think about formative assessments as both looking back on what students have learnt and looking forward to help students improve.

To employ AfL effectively involves students knowing what is expected of them. The teacher creates a learning environment where students feel confident to reveal their current knowledge (and their ignorance) and encourages students to share ideas with others, including assessing each other’s work.

  • Refer to the four principles of learning in Weedon (2017) p. 192, Figure 10.

AfL follows these principles to help students make their best progress. It is important to start from where the learner is and this may involve some diagnostic assessmentClassroom talk plays a key role in AfL, as does teacher-led questioning. AfL requires students to be actively involved and the teacher must create a learning environment that encourages this. Students need to have a clear picture of what they are aiming for and target-setting is important with scaffolding to support them to achieve their goals.

Read about AfL and the principles that underpin formative assessment, paying particular attention to distinctions between the role of formative and summative assessments, the contribution of the research by Black and Wiliam, the characteristics of formative assessment and the key AfL strategies. Start with these texts:

The five key processes of AfL

According to Wiliam, the key processes central to AfL are:

  • questioning – finding out where students are in their learning
  • feedback to move learners on
  • success criteria that are clear to all students
  • peers supporting each other – peer assessment
  • student self-assessment, including metacognition.

When you observe geography lessons, look for the AfL strategies the teacher uses.

  • How does the teacher make clear to students what they will be learning in the lesson and how they will be assessed?
  • How does the teacher find out the students’ starting point?
  • When, where and how does the teacher intervene to assess learning when students are engaged in tasks/activities?
  • Note the words the teacher uses to students to assess their learning when asking questions and making interventions.
  • What feedback does the teacher give on students’ learning/work? How do they do this? What do they write on students’ work? How do the students respond to feedback?

Then focus on one group of students as they work on an activity in the lesson. Consider how you would assess them formatively in the lesson as the teacher.

  • What would you ask them?
  • What would you listen for when students are talking with their peers?
  • How would you assess the outcomes of the task they are participating in?
  • What do you think they have learnt by the end of the lesson?

If you have an opportunity, talk to the students to find out what they think they are learning and if they know how well they are doing.

Questions and assessment

How you ask questions and what you ask is a very important aspect of formative assessment. Questioning and talk in geography classrooms provide numerous opportunities for teachers to assess students learning during lessons. But the questions must be challenging and promote geographical thinking and need to encourage students to reveal what they know and understand. 

This requires a classroom culture in which students are prepared to share ideas, take risks and are not afraid of making mistakes. It also means that appropriate classroom discussions, tasks and activities must take place to enable questions to be asked that elicit evidence of learning.


Formative assessment involves teachers getting closely involved in students’ learning and helping them to see where they need to go next and make progress. Feedback is a central part of assessment to move students forward. It can be verbal or written. Feedback dialogue has been shown to be more effective for learning than written feedback (marking).

Wiliam believes that ‘feedback’ is an unhelpful term because the emphasis is retrospective. It is better to consider it as ‘feeding forward’ because its aim is to help students to improve. Teachers have to create opportunities within lessons to really find out what students are understanding so they have the evidence for feedback. Feedback can only be deemed successful if it leads on to improvement, which means that the students understand and act on it.

Success criteria and targets

Students should take an active role in the assessment process. This means they should understand what they have achieved, how they learn and what they need to do to improve. To set the context for this you must always make clear to students what they are doing in lessons (the learning objectives) and what you are expecting them to achieve (the learning outcomes). 

Although this is approached differently in geography enquiry lessons (compared to a lesson that is objectives-led) students should always clearly understand the focus of the enquiry and what the teacher is expecting of them.

Wiliam says ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there’. A student needs to know what they are aiming to achieve. It has become very common for teachers to write the lesson objectives on the board at the start of lessons. If this is a one-line objective, written in ‘teacher speak’, because it is a school expectation – it is worthless.

If you must do this, explain to students exactly what the objective means in language that all students can understand. It must be related to what they are expected to learn, not just what they will do in the lesson. If students fail to understand what is required of them, they will almost certainly underachieve. Making learning goals explicit for students should not be confined only to the immediate lesson. Students need to see the ‘big picture’ to provide longer-term goals and see where they are going.

At the heart of students’ understanding of assessment are success criteria. These help students to recognise the standards they are aiming for and support self-regulation and metacognition. Successful learners will deliberately plan and monitor their progress towards learning goals and so they need to be clear about the intended learning.

You need to get experience of writing and using success criteria, both for work set during lessons and for assignments. They need to be expressed in a form that enables a student to understand the significance of the expectations.

  • Rooney (2007) explains the benefits of using success criteria and includes good examples.

Sharing examples of work completed by other students can help make success criteria explicit and prompt discussion about the quality of work. A positive strategy is for the teacher to model how work can be improved; for example, by interactively displaying some work and discussing how to improve it with the whole class.

  • Read Harris (2017) chapter 12 pp. 161-3 on success criteria and self-assessment.

Targets must be set for students so they are fully aware of the next steps in learning that are expected of them. You should aim to provide students with specific and manageable targets that are both achievable yet challenging. 

Avoid general targets such as ‘communicate ideas in different ways’ or ‘improve your presentation’; these do not give a student any idea what they are actually expected to do. It is much better to give a student a specific action to do in the short-term that will help them to do or understand some geography better. A vague goal for the longer-term will most likely be completely ineffective.

Take time to explore the type of targets that experienced and successful geography teachers set for their students.

  • Look at a sample of geography workbooks/folders and the different kinds of targets set for different pupils. Look further in the workbook to see if the targets made any obvious difference to later work.
  • Discuss with your geography mentor the kinds of targets they set for students.
  • Listen to teacher feedback when you observe lessons and take note of the verbal targets that are set for students.
  • Find out any target-setting systems that are used in the schools – do students keep a record of targets they have been set?
  • Talk to students about the targets they have been set. What do they consider are the best sort of targets to help them get better at geography?

Peer- and self-assessment

If students are participants rather than spectators in assessment, they are more likely to engage with their learning. This is the premise for peer- and self-assessment. Wiliam talks about self-assessment as ‘activating students as owners of their own learning’ and peer assessment as ‘activating students as teaching resources for one another’.

It encourages students to take greater responsibility for their learning by engaging directly with success criteria and reflecting on their own performance and that of their peers. Through this, students can learn from their previous mistakes, identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn to target their learning accordingly. Getting students more actively involved in their assessment can make assessment a means by which they can learn and develop. For further information see Metacognition.

Peer- and self-assessment can be used formatively and/or summatively. Wiliam’s research shows that it is formative peer assessment that brings greater benefits. For more information refer to Peer- and Self Assessment.

The benefits of assessment for learning

Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam found, from their research, that when summative assessments are used to compare students with each other, those with low attainments perceive they lack ability and are de-motivated. By contrast, they found that formative feedback could have a profound influence on the self-esteem of students, which was crucial for their learning. They concluded that AfL really could help students move on, particularly those who find work harder.

The involvement of students in peer- and self-assessment benefits all students because it helps them to grasp what they need to do to achieve in geography. But students need to get used to this way of working. It takes time to develop the students’ understanding of their role so that they can give and accept constructive criticism from both teachers and peers and sufficiently recognise the attainment that is being sought. Teachers have found that it is well worth the commitment because it results in the increased student motivation and better achievement.

  • Read Sidhu, R. (2011) ‘Why use AfL? Dusting off the black box’, Teaching Geography, Summer. This article uses evidence from a PGCE action research project and outlines how effective AfL can improve learning and motivation of GCSE students with subsequent effects on attainment levels.

Take every opportunity you can to explore formative assessment in practice. Observe experienced geography teachers and talk to them about how they plan and carry out formative assessment in their lessons. Talk about what you have found out with your geography mentor and discuss the different AfL strategies you could use.

Developing the effective use of AfL in your own classroom

By now you will have realised that AfL is all about ‘good teaching’, it is NOT about ‘doing assessment’. Formative assessment is only effective because it supports learning. It is not how formative assessment is done that is important; what is important is what can be found out from it and how that information is used. Formative assessment is integral to the teaching and learning that takes place in the classroom and is used to adapt future teaching to meet learning needs.

To plan AfL into your lessons you need to ask yourself:

  • How will I establish the students’ starting point?
  • How will I share learning intentions and success criteria with students?
  • How will the lesson activities allow students to demonstrate their learning?
  • Where are the opportunities for questions and dialogue into which I can integrate formative assessment?
  • Where and how will I give feedback?
  • How can I actively involve students in assessment?
  • How will I make adjustments to take account of what I find out?

As you begin to focus on AfL, you will see that every lesson has opportunities to use. For example, build in open, probing questions, discuss progress and learning with individuals or groups, give students opportunities to peer or self-assess. 

The students must play their part too. Students need to produce work that provides insights into their thinking and shows what they understand, or do not understand, so you have some evidence to make your assessments. This does not always have to be written – it can be oral or visual. Indeed, oral evidence is often the most revealing.

  • Refer to Biddulph et al (2021), p. 227, Table 8.1. Learning activities which present opportunities to assess pupils’ work.
  • See the example an annotated lesson plan to show Planning to use assessment for learning within a lesson. In this lesson plan a teacher has pinpointed opportunities for assessment in the lesson. This is a useful technique to adopt until AfL becomes second nature for you. For an experienced teacher, ideas of how to incorporate AfL are ‘mostly in my head’.

Regularly review your use of formative assessment in lessons.

  • Write about the effectiveness of your implementation in your lesson evaluations.
  • Discuss these evaluations with your mentor.
  • Discuss the strategies you use with your mentor and think about others.
  • Ask your mentor to focus on observing your AfL strategies in action when they observe some of your lessons.

Finding out more about using formative assessment

AfL provides a broad and rich source of information about students’ learning and progress – do not waste it! Make sure you use what you learned from formative assessment. It should influence your planning for the next lesson. It should indicate whether you need to reteach a skill or element of a topic, where need to provide scaffolding or where students require greater challenge. Adapt your schemes of work according to what you have found out.

Do not forget that AfL also provides evidence to assess the effectiveness of your teaching.

There is a lot to think about in formative assessment and you should not think it is a ‘breeze’ to implement. Do not expect to be highly proficient by the end of your initial training. AfL is much more than a skill or set of techniques. It requires the significant application of professional judgement in selecting the strategies, knowing when to intervene, responding flexibly and understanding the most effective feedback for a particular student.

  • Read Gardner et al (2015) p. 36.

Take heed of David Lambert’s reflection on AfL and note the warning about ‘AfL paraphernalia’. It is important to watch out that your use of formative assessment is always carefully considered and does not become formulaic.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp 228.

This reading illustrates that you must be well prepared because there are pitfalls for the unwary and inexperienced in applying self- and peer-assessment. You also need to carefully select the geographical content and context. A common issue is that students’ ability to peer- and self-assess may be limited by their own knowledge and understanding of a topic and poor literacy levels can also be a constraint for some. Take care too in the context of value judgements, because not all students readily recognise the validity of alternative viewpoints.

  • Also read Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 232-3 Issues in formative assessment.

None of these readings should put you off using formative assessment. What they should make you realise is that there is a lot to learn and it will take time and experience to use AfL well.

  • What formative assessment is and isn’t by Dylan Wiliam has accompanying PowerPoint slides to discuss what formative assessment is, and, perhaps more importantly, what it is not. It outlines the five ‘key strategies’ of formative assessment, together with some practical techniques that teachers can use to develop their formative assessment practice.


  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 223-30.
  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998) Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, London: School of Education, Kings College.
  • Enser, M. (2019) Making Every Geography Lesson Count, Crown House Publishing.
  • Gardner, D., Weeden, P. and Butt, G. (2015) Assessing progress in Your Key Stage 3 Geography Curriculum (eBook), Geographical Association.
  • Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge.
  • Howes, N. and Hopkin, J. (2000) ‘Improving formative assessment in geography’, Teaching Geography, July.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rooney, R. (2007) ‘Using success criteria’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Weeden, P. (2008) Think Piece – Assessment for Learning, Geographical Association on-line.
  • Weeden, P. (2017) ‘Assessing Geography’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography. Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 14.
  • Weeden, P. and Lambert, D. (2006) Geography Inside the Black Box. London: NFER/Nelson.
  • Wiliam D (2013), Embedded formative assessment, 2nd edition. Solution Tree Press.