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SSAT #NC10 – Dylan Wiliam – Formative Assessment

The first of a series of notes / reflections on sessions at the 2010 SSAT National Conference.


Dylan Wiliam has the grand title of ‘Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment‘ at the Institute of Education in London.  He is a former Maths teacher and co-author of the book “Inside the Black Box“.  He is a world renowned expert on assessment for learning, and was recently to be seen on BBC television in The Classroom Experiment.

My Notes

On learning environments & the role of the teacher: Teachers do not create learning.  Learners create learning.  Teaching is engineering of effective learning environments. Teachers should create engagement.  Learning environments should be regulated. Teachers should know when students are learning.  We should develop habits of mind.

On intelligence & environment: Intelligence is partly inherited.  IQ is the best predictor of GCSE performance. Predicts job placement/selection as you get older as people choose cognitive niches.  Environments create intelligence.  Intelligence creates environment.  We must create environments that challenge, foster high cognitive demand and are inclusive. We create amplifiers of success. E.g. January ice hockey players, picked young due to size, get the coaching & time – gaps increase.

On flow: Flow = match between challenge and capability. Csikszentmihalyi.  Children don’t learn what we teach, this is why assessment is core.

On assessment: Pre tests. Diagnosis and remediation.  Manage flow of learning, goals vs horizons. Sometimes ok to move off the planned track. Don’t test on the exact skill, generalise and test on application of that knowledge. Differentiate in terms of context and generalisation of knowledge.

5 key strategies in teaching:

  • Clarifying, Understanding and sharing intentions.
  • Engineering effective discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  • Provide feedback to move forward.
  • Activate students as learning resources for one another
  • Best teachers clear about start, route, readings along way, change course where needed.

On feedback & questioning: Middle class kids ‘get the code’, working class are no less intelligent just don’t get what we want. Nodding, smiling, giving positive feedback to teacher when they know it is wanted.  Make the rules of the game clear to stop the game of ‘guess what’s in the teachers head’. Posters of key words and rules of learning. Make own tests. Write tests for class next door. Pseudonyms mean they can mark as well.  Don’t give pupils a choice of being picked. No hands-up rule.   Keep them all on their toes and engaged.

Plan questions carefully to elicit understanding, not incorrect methods that are resulting in right answers. Old adage of giving pupils enough time to respond, average time by UK teachers is less than a second.  Cause thinking. Good questions depend upon the knowledge base of the students. Open/closed not bad. Cause thinking. Questions should be designed to provide data to inform teaching.  Marking is the penance for bad planning of learning!

Wait time for questioning. Think pair share if needed. Move locus of question around a classroom, answer, elaboration, evaluation. Back to original kid if needed to repeat answer and stay engaged – no opt-out no-hands up. Random pupil selection often less random than you’d think. Otherwise you are making the achievement gap worse.

Most teachers ask questions where you learn nothing from answers unless you hear the explanations. Right wrong questions no use for checking understanding. Have two correct answers out of six to choose from, if they all pick the right two then MOVE ON! Create questions with answers that highlight the common misconceptions, with enough possible answers that guessing is factored out. Drill down into the wrong answers. Hinge question based on important concept that future learning based on. Design questions with all right or all wrong answers. More than one right answer. Questions must be designed so that kids with the wrong thinking get a different answer. Right thinking must be the only way to the right answer.

Forget AfL in terms of record keeping, make teaching more agile and reflective. Mini whiteboards, use 1-5 fingers held up for abcde optional answers to questions posed.

On written feedback: Crucial to give comment and a chance to effect change within the classroom. Avoid grades, no benefit at all, and negates comments if two given together. Sometimes useful to delay feedback, can be too quick, e.g. Computer based feedback leads to trial and improvement techniques. Oliver & DeNisi 1996 meta-research showed effect sizes highly variable, 40% made progress WORSE. Hard!

Key points:

  • Cause thinking. Response needed is to change behaviour or change goal.
  • Should be more work for the recipient than the donor. (maths, ‘5 are wrong – you find them’)
  • Tell them what they can do to move forward.
  • Comment only marking.
  • Focussed marking, numbered responses/questions from their work. Not what’s wrong, “what’s next?” All pupils get same volume of work to do.
  • Refining assessment. 3/4 way through test. Read not mark, plan final 1/4 based on those tests.
  • Same roles and methods used for individuals and peers as to teacher based assessment.
  • Assessment is the bridge between teaching and learning. Best assessment leaves no mark in a book but leads to more learning.
  • 100 AfL techniques in a box available from the SSAT


This is the second time I have had the fortune of hearing Dylan speak in person.  However I have been aware of his work since writing an essay based on his book “Inside the Black Box” whilst completing my PGCE back at the dawn of my teaching career.  The first reflection is that Dylan’s reliance on evidence based practice is admirable, each piece of advice is backed up with evidence from a myriad of university studies.  Whilst I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise for such a respected Professor, it is so often not the case in education.

Dylan went to great lengths to model his methods with the room of 400+ people.  Encouraging group discussion with clear signals (hands up for everyone) when he needed our attention., along with asking random people in the audience (including those at the back!) for their answers.

The message at the heart of this session was that assessment is at the heart of good teaching.  Dylan reflected that pupils often don’t learn what we teach them, sometimes they learn things that we hadn’t even planned.  It is our role as educators to create environments within which they can learn together and then to use assessment as a means of focussing the learning onto the next steps.  Kristian and I had a discussion about pre-tests, and how little these seem to be used within schools.  How often are pupils taught things that they already know?  How much time is wasted in our classrooms due to only completing assessments at the end of a unit of work.

There was much to take from Dylan seminar.  I will be making a renewed effort to think carefully about the questions that I pose in my lessons.  Questioning is one of the most difficult and poorly practiced parts of teaching. Dylan had many tips on phrasing verbal and designing written questions that I will be taking back to my teaching and to my department.  I will continue to promote Dylan’s words that effective AfL is not to be found as ticks in books or as marks in grade books.  As a school we are having a renewed push on the quality of written feedback, I have designed some marking stickers for whole school use and will share these here when they are ready.  I will take the ideas about the learning environment back to our school and see if we can improve this whole school, promoting no hands up rules and also clear signage in classrooms.  I love the idea of pupils writing exam questions and will be using this extensively, particularly with my Y10 & 11 classes.

Key Questions

The conference was based around 3 key questions, I’ll attempt to reflect on how each seminar helped answer these questions.

What should students learn? New things!  Using assessment before teaching to avoid wasting time covering old ground.

How should students learn? Collaboratively, in an environment that engages and stimulates them. By being given the time and opportunity to respond to feedback and questioning that has been designed to move learning on to the next level.

How do we remove the barriers to learning? Do not allow the enthusiastic to grow in confidence and skill whilst the weaker and disengaged hide on the fringes and watch the gap grow wider.  Make classroom learning rules clear to all.


Dylan’s presentation slides are available on his website.

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  1. I particularly found his analogy of the lesson as getting on board an aeroplane and tazking aq flight to a destination –
    1. make sure you’re on the right plane at the beginning of the journey through establishing exisitng knowledge and everybody is agreed upon where you want to go.
    2. Keep the plane on track at key points in the lesson through the use of planned critical HINGE questions, if you’re off course then adjust the path.
    3.Check you’ve landed before you jump dismebark from the lesson!

    Your notes are excellent and as a Mathematician the key point I took away was about pre-planning the critical HINGE questions that will keep the flight on track.

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