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formative assessment by dylan wiliam

Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies.

In many of Dylan Wiliam’s talks and publications he references five ‘key strategies’ that support the implementation of effective formative assessment.  The five strategies each get a chapter in his excellent book Embedding Formative Assessment (2011)   which builds on the work he developed with other colleagues in the 90s and 00s.

The five strategies were expressed as early as 2005:

  • Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions
  • Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  • Activating students as learning resources for one another
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning

Leahy, Lyon, Thompson and Wiliam (2005).

Very commonly, Wiliam presents these ideas in this helpful table, linking the strategies to core assessment concepts:


In my work as a consultant and teacher trainer, I give a lot of ‘evidence-informed’ advice to teachers. Of late, this has been influenced largely by discussions about a knowledge-rich curriculum and my reading of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, cognitive load theory, and various other papers linking cognitive psychology to classroom practice.

However, it occurred to me recently that most of this overlaps entirely with Wiliam’s five strategies and that is what I want to explore here.  To some extent, schools and teachers often feel they have have ‘done AfL to death’ in countless CPD sessions over the last 15 years.  Time was when you couldn’t get a job unless you said ‘AfL’ about 12 times in an interview.  Sadly, my sense is that the wisdom at the heart of Wiliam’s ideas about responsive teaching/formative assessment gets washed out either a) by the delusion that the strategies are already embedded in day-to-day practice or b) by the sense that this is a box ticked and people are really ready to move to the new thing.  Truth be told, a lot of ‘AfL’ was and is a mile away from the formative assessment practice Wiliam is talking about.

Essentially, I feel that, among the important things every teacher should know, the five strategies should be there, part of the core curriculum for teacher development.  Here’s how I see it all connecting:

1.Clarifying, understanding, and sharing learning intentions

Wiliam says ‘if you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there’. This is largely about curriculum planning.   I read ‘learning intentions’ as meaning: what do we want all students to know and be able to do? In the detail, this means spelling out what knowledge  – in all its forms – they should have and how to apply this knowledge in new contexts.  It chimes perfectly with the wave of work being done around curriculum design. It also resonates with the strand of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction around sequencing concepts, providing models and appropriate scaffolding.

It also means ‘what does excellence look like?’. This connects to ideas about assessment and comparative judgement and teachers knowing the standards.  Significantly, the implication from Wiliam is that in ‘clarifying, understanding and sharing’ – teachers, students and their peers all need to know both the knowledge requirements and the criteria for excellence in any performed task.  This goes far, far beyond writing a mandatory one-line LO on the board at the start of every lesson! (Aarrghh!).  It suggests a lot of very explicit exposition and discussion about the target knowledge and the features of any endeavour that constitute ever increasing degrees of success.

This, in turn, feeds into ideas about self-regulation and metacognition.  Successful learners will be good at self-regulation, planning and monitoring their progress towards learning goals in a deliberate self-directed manner. Knowing the learning intentions very well is essential for that process to work.

So the links here are numerous:  curriculum, knowledge, standards, self-regulation, scaffolding, modelling.

2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, tasks and activities that elicit evidence of learning

In some ways, this ‘strategy’ is a one-line summary of most of the rest of Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction .  ‘Discussions, tasks and activities’ covers a lot of possibilities.  At the centre of  it is the idea of ‘responsive teaching’.  Instructional teaching has to be highly interactive so that teachers are getting feedback from their students about how well their schemas for the material in hand are forming and how fluent they are becoming retrieving and using what they’ve learned.  The challenge for teachers is to involve as many students as possible which leads to the need for good questioning routines and good knowledge-check routines where the ratio of student involvement is high and the information received has a good diagnostic component.

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Rosenshine talks about the need for checking for understanding and asking lots of questions in a probing style.  Wiliam focuses on question design – including good diagnostic multiple choice questions – and the role of all-student response techniques.

Links:  Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction.  Shimamura’s ‘Generate-Evaluate’ model. Ideas about retrieval practice.  Nuthall’s ideas about ‘hidden lives’ and the idea that we can’t be remotely confident about learning taking place until we check – now, and again later.

3. Providing feedback that moves learners forward

Feedback is a thorny issue, woven into discussions about the use of formative and summative assessment, marking and workload, grading and the value of data as a tool to improve learner outcomes.  The key in Wiliam’s work is the emphasis on moving learners forward . It’s this thinking that informed the ideas I expressed in this ‘ feedback as actions ‘ post.

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Some of the key messages that Wiliam offers in relation to feedback that I cite very often are:

  • Feedback is only successful if students’ learning improves – and this depends on their capacity to understand  it and inclination to accept and act on it.  It’s got an interpersonal, motivational element that can’t be brushed aside.  Giving feedback isn’t a purely technical, objective task – although it does have to suggest actions students can actually take rather than offering a nebulous retrospective critique.
  • The goal is to change the students’ capacity to produce better work,  not just to improve their work.  Austin’s Butterfly is wonderful – because it shows what effective feedback can achieve – but Austin has only truly benefitted if, later, he is more able to ‘look like a scientist’ or draw beautiful butterflies without feedback: he needs to be able to generate his own feedback and become more independent.

This links formative assessment to metacognition and self-regulation and Rosenshine’s ideas about moving from guided to independent practice.  If we’re still reliant on external feedback to tell us if we’ve succeeded (SatNav style), then we’ve still got a long way to go.  Effective learners can link their work to the success criteria and generate their own ongoing self-correcting feedback narrative.

Links: Ethic of excellence, Rosenshine guided to independent practice, self-regulation.

4. Activating students as learning resources for one another

I think this is the feature of Wiliam’s five strategies that deserves more attention.  All too often teachers create major bottlenecks by forcing all classroom interactions to pass through them.  However, if teachers develop strong routines where students support each other’s learning in a serious structured manner,  then the ratio, quality and frequency of student interactions with the knowledge in hand can increase significantly.  We can’t have a dialogue with every student at once but they can all be involved in meaningful dialogues with each other to support the process of working out ‘where the learner is’ and ‘how to get to where the learner is going’.   This is where disciplined ‘ think pair share ‘ becomes so powerful.

Wiliam cites Slavin in showing that well-designed collaborative learning can yield significant gains – but it has to be done such that everyone is learning. There are so many ways to do this e.g  students checking their partners’ answers using all manner of quizzing formats and generative processes and elaborative-interrogative questions (why? how?).  Pairs are probably the most efficient and effective use of this strategy – because of the ease of switching in and out of the interactions.   If one person in a pair acts as the verifier for the other, using exemplars, fact sheets, mark schemes as a reference, the extent of retrieval practice and feedback can be increased hugely.   Another example might be using structured dialogues for practising the use of language or rehearsing explanations and arguments.  Provided that there is a strong process for evaluating students’ responses for accuracy and quality, a high volume of peer-to-peer  interactivity is powerful.

Links:  Hattie’s ‘reciprocal teaching’, Shimamura’s ‘think it, say it, teach it’, Slavin’s collaborative learning,  Sumeracki and Weinstein on elaborative interrogative questions and retrieval practice.

5. Activating students as owners of their own learning

In all honesty,  I find that implementation of the strategy behind this feel-good-phrase, often falls into the dust of ‘noble intent’ rather than delivering something tangible.  However, it is actually highly actionable and links directly to many other ideas. ‘Owning your own learning’ is at the heart of strong self-regulation and metacognition: setting learning goals, planning, monitoring and evaluating success in tasks links to those goals; forming effective schemata that take account of big-picture questions and themes that inform subsequent conscious rehearsal and elaboration.  However, these ‘goals’ are not broad brush life goals; they are learning goals – the next steps in improving writing fluency, science knowledge, confidence with maths and languages, physical fitness etc.

The point is that these characteristics of effective learning can be fostered by setting up good routines and expectations.  Teachers can help students to know where they are going and where they are on the curriculum journey.  This can be supported by:

  • giving students access to long-term topic plans, the syllabus, the wide scope overview before diving down into the details;
  • setting out milestones in the progress journey so that students can take their bearings and plan their own next steps through appropriate forms of practice, becoming increasingly independent.
  • setting out clear relational models for conceptual schema building  – as per Shimamura’s Relate in MARGE .
  • providing exemplars of performance at various levels of success up to a high/exceptional level so students can compare their own work against a scale and see for themselves where they are and what short-run learning goals might be achievable to move forward.

If a student knows for themself what they need to do in order to improve and gains the experience of being able to achieve success through applying effort to these self-determined goals, then they begin a positive upward spiral of confidence building, growth mindset-inducing, self-regulation that fuels even more success.

Links:  Rosenshine: practice; Shimamura: Relate; Growth mindset; self-regulation.

To some extent I feel that the issue has been that ‘AfL’ or even ‘formative assessment’ has been too broad a term; too much of a catch-all, thereby allowing various degrees of corruption and dilution to take root.  I think that it’s when you get into understanding and deploying the five separate strategies that it finds form.  That’s the understanding of formative assessment that teachers need.  It’s powerful stuff, right there, where it’s been for years.

Key References:

Wiliam, D., & Thompson, M. (2007). Integrating assessment with instruction: what will it take to make it work? In C. A. Dwyer (Ed.), The future of assessment: shaping teaching and learning (pp. 53-82). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wilam, D (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press.

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I love Dylan’s suggestion that ‘good feedback causes thinking’. I’ve found that to be a very helpful phrase as I’ve tried to encourage myself and others to avoid too much ‘ego feedback’. It’s so easy to boost people’s sense of emotional well being, and I do think praise has its place, but being able to discover (or being told) what I need to do next, and how to go about it, seems beneficial almost all of the time. I find that asking questions is one of the most effective ways that I can help others to be more effective, and it’s usually empowering in the extent to which it allows them to do most of the work.

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Reblogged this on Ridings Educational .

[…] we start using Dylan Wiliam’s excellent strategy: Activating students as resources for one another.  In order to maximise the extent of retrieval practice that goes on, it is fantastic to get […]

[…] January – Dylan Wiliam’s Five Principles of Formative Assessment – Tom Sherrington – reading… – formative […]

Thanks for this informative summary. In my work with teachers, I’d added a 6th strategy: Activating students as “assessors” of their own learning; to inculcate self-assessment so that they know “am I there yet?”.

[…] In order for this to work, we need to enact the Generate-Evaluate cycle that Shimamura describes so well. (Introducing MARGE: A superb ebook about learning by Arthur Shimamura.). In my view, the ‘evaluate’ aspect – where every student checks their own learning – needs thought.  It’s not feasible for teachers to check every student’s understanding in a responsive manner at the frequency needed.  Teachers need to teach students how to self-assess and to deploy students as resources for one another – checking each other’s work – as Dylan Wiliam stresses in the five Wiliam/Thompson strategies for formative assessment:   Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies. […]

Agree with you it needs thought. The danger will be if the student understands the idea of solving a problem step by step or getting the number right.

Very good read. This is the approach that is taken in my personalized learning practice for my third grade classroom. Students are goal setting and tracking data. They are able to explain what they are learning and why. They know how to explain the purpose for their activity and how it translates to the end goal. They are collaborating with their peers and receiving timely feedback that includes next steps. This all leads to them taking ownership in their work and communication with their peers and teacher. Excellent read and resource!

[…] Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies.: For me, these five strategies are really important ideas and are not referred to enough.  Here I link them to other ideas from Rosenshine, Berger and so on. […]

[…] a good question.  As I’ve outlined in this post about the five Wiliam/Thompson strategies Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies. there is a strong link from each of these ideas to other ideas from cognitive science and other […]

[…] Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies. – Tom Sherrington […]

Thank you for this information, very interesting, my problem is that I find it too theoretical, I need practical examples, do you have anything practical to share?

[…] Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies. […]

[…] https://teacherhead.com/2019/01/10/revisiting-dylan-wiliams-five-brilliant-formative-assessment-stra&#8230 ; […]

[…] Click to access article […]

[…] Revisiting Dylan Wiliam’s Five Brilliant Formative Assessment Strategies. […]

[…] Dylan Wiliam’s formative assessment research […]

Yes the strategies are good ,OBE related and more theoretical. I didn’t here anything practical and nowadays learners learn best when they are hands on or learning by doing. Also when the lecturer becomes a learner and students become their own teachers thats where you will see great results because each one will be teaching each one. Theres a lot that you can learn from your learners as learners also learn a lot from the teacher as he or she is the manager, the monitor, assessor, facilitator , activator etc in the learning enviroment.

[…] and ‘responsive teaching‘. This has been expanded upon by individuals such as Dylan Wilian, David Didau, Tom Sherrington and Doug Lemov in recent […]

[…] Adapted from Wiliam, Thompson 2007 by Teacherhead […]

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A Summary of Evidence Based Formative Assessment Strategies

formative assessment by dylan wiliam

Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black originally defined formative assessment as: “encompassing all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged” (Black and Wiliam 1998). Formative assessment strategies are central to effective and responsive teaching and learning. They are also linked to the different stages of the learning process in addition to curriculum planning, design and delivery.

Formative assessment involves a range of evidence-informed strategies used in the classroom across the curriculum with learners of different ages, and can be applied across all subjects. Formative assessment can help the teacher and student understand what needs to be learned and how this can be achieved. A teacher can use a range of strategies to support their students to make progress, and the learner can embrace formative assessment strategies to monitor and reflect on their own progress and act on feedback provided by the teacher and/or their peers.

Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy have written extensively about five key formative assessment strategies (Embedded Formative Assessment, 2011). The five strategies promoted by Wiliam and Leahy are:

  • Clarifying, sharing and understanding learning intentions and success criteria
  • Engineering effective discussions, tasks, and activities that elicit evidence of learning
  • Providing feedback that moves learners forward
  • Activating students as learning resources for one another
  • Activating students as owners of their own learning.

For each of these strategies a range of techniques can be deployed in the classroom. Formative assessment strategies take place during the learning process in contrast to summative assessment that focuses on a final and high stakes exam or test. The aim of these strategies is to continually help students make progress and develop.

As with all approaches in education, these strategies can either be implemented effectively, badly or by becoming ‘ lethal mutations’ . In such situations, evidence-based strategies are rushed, misunderstood or misapplied to the point of no longer resembling the original research or desired outcome.

In order to avoid misconceptions and mutations, teachers and school leaders need to carefully consider the evidence base and select formative assessment strategies and techniques suitable for their context. This must be followed by considered and meaningful review and reflection.

To find out more about formative assessment strategies in the classroom, for effective teaching and learning, you can sign up to our upcoming webinar here or, if you are based in the United Arab Emirates, you can sign up for the in person workshop in Dubai here . The webinar and workshop will be led by Kate Jones, Senior Associate for Teaching and Learning and author or Wiliam and Leahy’s Five Formative Assessment Strategies: In Action (2021).


Black, P., & William, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5, 7-74. doi:10.1080/0969595980050102

Embedding Formative Assessment. Practical Techniques for the Classroom. Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy. (2011).

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Do formative assessments cover the support listed in section F of a CYP EHCP? Or should there be a separate graduated response for those interventions? Experiencing an uncommunicative school.

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A theoretical statements are available but translating into a curriculum is required. Formative is for student self learning hence there needs to be a mechanism to have a graded approach and chance that retake an assessment it required.

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5 formative strategies to improve student learning from Dylan Wiliam and NWEA

formative assessment by dylan wiliam

In the book, he provides the five strategies he believes are core to successful formative assessment practice in the classroom:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success. That means getting students to really understand what their classroom experience will be and how their success will be measured.

2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning. This refers to developing effective classroom instructional strategies that allow for the measurement of success.

3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward. To accomplish this, teachers must work with students to provide them the information they need to better understand problems and solutions.

4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another. Getting students involved with each other in discussions and working groups can help improve student learning.

5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning. Teaching students to monitor and regulate their learning increases their rate of learning.

At NWEA, we have a framework focused on four foundational formative assessment practices : clarifying learning, eliciting evidence, providing feedback, and activating learners. Understanding these four, key formative assessment practices can help educators determine which of the many strategies and tactics make sense for their classroom environment.

Get more formative assessment tips and tricks in our e-book “Making it work: How formative assessment can supercharge your practice.”

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About the Center

For years, schools worldwide have accelerated learning, improved pedagogy, and encouraged collaboration with teacher learning communities and powerful formative assessment strategies under the guidance of Dr. Dylan Wiliam, the world’s foremost authority on formative assessment. In partnership with Learning Sciences International, Dr. Wiliam and Dylan Wiliam Center staff deliver powerful professional development on Strategic Formative Assessment to teachers and school administrators throughout North America.

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Schools report up to an 80% improvement in student engagement and accelerated learning as teachers become more skilled at strategically embedding formative assessment into classroom practice. Watch and listen to this webinar series, which started in 2014, as Dylan Wiliam describes what formative assessment is (and is not), details out the five key strategies, provides dozens of practical techniques, and introduces the Dylan Wiliam Center’s newest line of professional development, Strategic Formative Assessment, which helps teachers move the needle in this ever-changing, standards-based, academically rigorous educational environment.


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