Four ideas for using AfL by @_theteachr

Re-Blog by Keith Sure exploring some simple AfL techniques

Here are four ideas for using formative assessment in your lessons. Before I get into it, none of these ideas are rocket science. None of them will necessarily amaze you (which is a good thing, I think) because as Dylan Willam himself says, it’s not about generating ideas or even sharing good practice. It’s about having the time to try and implement ideas. Using a little and often approach, as with most things, is best for making or changing habits.

So the idea behind sharing these ideas is to give you something that takes little planning (for three ideas anyway), maintains the essence of AfL and, with any luck, has an impact on your students’ learning. All too often AfL has been whittled down to a checklist of to-dos in the classroom. Take learning objectives for example. The idea is that you share the learning objectives/intentions with your students so they can take some ownership of their learning.

Now that has often been translated to ‘always writing the learning objectives on the board for every lesson’. You’ll even see that written on lesson planning proformas and lesson observation sheets. The essence of formative assessment has been removed and the remaining shell is held up as a token of evidence that we ‘do’ AfL.

Where this sort of thing has happened, you can imagine a conversation:

SLT member on learning walk: “Why haven’t you got your learning objectives on the board?”

Teacher: “er… I didn’t know you were visiting my lesson today?”

Anyway, this is not about learning objectives as such so, without further ado, here are four things you can try to help you use formative assessment. 

1. Mini whiteboards for written response practise.

I love mini whiteboards. They are so good for getting individual responses from students (once they have got over the novelty and stopped drawing rude things) So, arm the students with a mini whiteboard, a black dry wipe pen, and an eraser. Arm yourself with a non-black dry wipe pen. Set a 3 or 4 mark exam question (or medium length question/task) and get the students to write an answer. You can then go round the class and using your non-black pen and you can, where applicable:

  1. Add one tick one mark to each piece of work.
  2. Add a quick note – ‘one more point needed…’
  3. Rub out a word or two and say ‘think of better words’
  4. Circle something ‘what’s wrong here?’
  5. Underline a word, ‘spelling’
  6. Say, ‘compare your answer to Charlie – decide which is correct’.
  7. etc.

And if there is a particular misconception showing, hold up some of the work, or actually better to say ‘a few people have written …… Why might that be confusing?’

Pros: I really like this kind of activity because it’s pacey, everyone can get some targeted teacher feedback. It’s a short 15-minute task and for those students with the paper thin confidence, who rip out pages in their book because of a tiny error – they can write a perfect answer, which they have thought through, drafted and corrected.

Cons: Students may get excited about using mini-boards on the first go and not engage. They soon get over it. It’s sometimes a pain to get a set of boards and working pens for each student (although once you have it, you have it). A few schools I know are going for mini boards in a big way. They are simple and powerful. 

Planning time: ? ? ? ? ?           Impact: ? ? ? ? ?

2. Feed Forward

At the end of the lesson, ask the students to write an answer to a key question on a small piece of paper. Let them know they will hand their answer in on the way out. This idea just takes a little thinking about the question, but it could be a simple true/false a multiple choice or a short free response question.

e.g. which is the largest fraction 1/2, 3/4, 4/5, 5/7


Write the word equation for photosynthesis and circle the energy giving carbohydrate.

As they walk out, collect the answers, take a quick look at each. Make a note to yourself for the next lesson if any misconceptions are revealed or for anything you need to address. You can then instantly recycle the paper. Science teachers – I bet some of them circle ‘sunlight’ for the second example.

Pros: It’s quick and easy to do, gives you a start point for the next lesson and if you’re careful about your question, it can really make them think and gives you instant feedback. Everybody has to respond, and no endless hours of marking are created. It captures the essence of formative assessment in a simple and effective way.

Cons: Might not work if rushed while packing away, or you write a simple closed question.

Planning time: ? ? ? ? ?           Impact: ? ? ? ? ?

3. Questioning and Pupil Talk

One aspect of assessment for learning is pupils talking to each other or the teacher. This is often done through a framework of questioning if it’s with the teacher or a discussion task if between pupils. This next strategy I use a lot of cognitive acceleration lessons where a key aspect is students talking to each other about a particular problem or question. Pupil talk might scare some teachers because it smacks of group discussion work. Group/pair work can be very good if students stay on task, but often they don’t (even as adults, group work with peers often goes off-topic). But if you have short bursts of focused discussion then it seems to work much better.

So, think of some questions (pre-planning questions makes them so much more powerful) and instead of asking for hands up (or using your randomiser or lollipop sticks) ask students to discuss for one minute what the answers might be with a neighbour.

Teacher: ‘I’d like 4 reasons why World War I started. You have one minute – go!’


Teacher: ‘There is some ice in a glass of water. When the ice melts, will the water level be higher, lower or the same? I want a reason for your answer. One minute, go!’

You can then walk around, listen to students answers, engage quieter students, and if you hear little Frankie say something interesting you can ask her to share.

Then do some whole class feedback/discussion. A minute is about right and you can do this several times in one lesson.

Pros: it allows more students to think and talk about a problem or question, it is focused and finite time, so less likelihood of students going off-piste. No great planning needed, other than thinking about the questions. There is more likelihood of more pupils getting involved, rather than one student at a time having a chance at answering.

Cons: Can lose impact if the minute becomes two, three or five.

Planning time: ? ? ? ? ?           Impact: ? ? ? ? ?

4. Success Criteria

This one is a little more time consuming but it is very powerful. And once you have done this a few times it gets quicker and quicker to do. If you have good success criteria, and the students understand how to use them, this is the single most powerful reward system/motivator I have ever used. Better than merits, class trip promises, raffles, and all that other surface-level reward stuff.

Carefully written success criteria give the students a great framework for their learning and meaningful gauge of their understanding. You can use exemplar work from other students or previous classes, or write criteria yourself. The key thing though, is students need a little training on how to use them. And that takes a lesson or two.

Look at this set of success criteria for a science lesson (apologies, sticking to my subject).

Learning outcome: Be able to draw and explain the carbon cycle

Success criteria:

I can…

  • Draw or label two or three parts of the carbon cycle 
  • Draw most of the carbon cycle and add some key processes.
  • I can draw the carbon cycle, and describe what happens for each link or arrow.
  • I can draw and explain the carbon cycle and explain why it is so important. 
Click image to open PDF
Click image to open PDF

Look at the attached work. Even as a non-scientist, you could probably work out where the student is, and what they have to do next. And also indicate the level or grade. You can use these success criteria at the beginning of a lesson, you might be surprised how much they know and instantly adjust your lesson, so you don’t just plough through from scratch. Much more effective use of learning minutes. And once the students get familiar with how to use success criteria, then they can start to use them as a framework to comment on the quality of their work. 

The beauty of this is also that, you are looking at the extent to which each individual student understands and not absolute, polar, ‘they all get it’ or ‘they don’t get it’. 

Pros: Big impact on learning

Cons: Takes time and practise. Be careful, if a member of SLT walks into your class and this is working well, you may be dragged up in front of the staff at next INSET day to do a presentation on the use of success criteria!

Planning time: ? ? ? ? ?              Impact: ? ? ? ? ?

So, there you have it. Just four of the many ways you can use formative assessment. I’ve tried hard to stick to the essence of formative assessment rather than show you a long list of ‘AfL activities’ that are more about the activity than the learning.

Keith Sure has enjoyed 20 years in education, is an ex-subject leader and assistant headteacher. Interested in tech for learning. See more articles by Keith by clicking here.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Keith Sure and published with kind permission. The article was originally published in 2015 and updated in 2020 by UKEd Editorial staff in accordance with website and policy changes.

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