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Assessment for Learning[edit]

In classrooms where assessment for learning is practiced, students know at the outset of a unit of study what they are expected to learn. At the beginning of the unit, the teacher will work with the student to understand what she or he already knows about the topic as well as to identify any gaps or misconceptions (initial/diagnostic assessment). As the unit progresses, the teacher and student work together to assess the student’s knowledge, what she or he needs to learn to improve and extend this knowledge, and how the student can best get to that point (formative assessment). Assessment for learning occurs at all stages of the learning process.

Researchers whose work has informed much of this assessment reform include Ken O’Connor, Grant Wiggins[1], Jay McTighe[2], Richard Stiggins[3], Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Thomas Guskey, and Damian Cooper[4].

Historical Perspective[edit]

The notion of assessment informing instruction is relatively recent in education. In past decades, teachers would design a unit of study that would typically include objectives, teaching strategies, and resources. An evaluation component—the test or examination—may or may not have been included as part of this design (Cooper, 2006). The student’s mark on this test or exam was taken as the indicator of his or her understanding of the topic.


There are a number of assessment terms that will appear in any discussion of assessment. Listed below are common interpretations of some of these terms:

Assessment for learning

  • comprises two phases—initial or diagnostic assessment and formative assessment
  • assessment can be based on a variety of information sources (e.g., portfolios, works in progress, teacher observation, conversation)
  • feedback to the student can be verbal or written
  • used to inform instruction
  • no grade or score given
  • occurs throughout the learning process, from the outset of the course of study to the time of summative assessment

Assessment as learning

  • student self-assesses learning and takes responsibility for moving his or her thinking forward (metacognition)
  • occurs throughout the learning process

Assessment of learning

  • assessment that is accompanied by a number or letter grade (summative)
  • compares one student’s achievement with standards
  • results can be communicated to the student and parents
  • occurs at the end of the learning unit


  • judgment made on the basis of a student’s performance

Diagnostic assessment

  • assessment made to determine what a student does and does not know about a topic
  • occurs at the beginning of a unit of study
  • used to inform instruction:makes up the initial phase of assessment for learning

Formative assessment

  • assessment made to determine a student’s knowledge and skills, including learning gaps as they progress through a unit of study
  • used to inform instruction:occurs during the course of a unit of study
  • makes up the subsequent phase of assessment for learning

Summative assessment

  • assessment that is made at the end of a unit of study to determine the level of understanding the student has achieved
  • includes a mark or grade against an expected standard

Principles of Assessment for Learning[edit]

Among the most comprehensive listing of principles of assessment for learning are those written by the QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority)[5]. The authority, which is sponsored by England’s Department of Education and Skills, is responsible for national curriculum, assessment, and examinations. Their principles focus on crucial aspects of assessment for learning, including how such assessment much be seen as central to classroom practice and that all teachers should regard assessment for learning as a key professional skill.


Cooper, Damian. (2006). Talk About Assessment: Strategies and Tools to Improve Learning. Toronto, ON: Thomson Nelson.

Government of British Columbia [6]

O’Connor, Ken. (2002). How to Grade for Learning. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight.

Wiggins, Grant. (1998). Educative Assessment. San Francisco. CA: Jossey Bass.

QCA [7]