NQT Advice: What I wish I had known sooner about formative assessment

In this week’s edition I explore; the mistakes I made when using formative assessment, the advice and research I found, and offer my own example for Excellence in Economics. Hopefully you’ll find it insightful and maybe even useful for improving your own daily teaching practice. I’m always welcoming of feedback so please get in touch, I’d love to hear from you.

I remember when I taught the topic of externalities for the first time. For the lay person, an externality is a spill over effect of any trade between 2 parties which can positively or negatively affect a third. Take smoking, for example, there is Marlboro (the producer) and a smoker (the consumer), but you as the third party are affected by second-hand smoking and the burden on the NHS.

Prior to the lesson, I was struggling myself to accurately recall all four combinations of positive, negative, consumption and production externalities. I studied the topic at university but admittedly I was rusty as I hadn’t revisited them since, so I did my homework. I watched a handy YouTube video from @econplusdal and I practised drawing all four graphs over and over. I’m sure I kept my partner thrilled as I used her as a sound board to make sure that I felt confident explaining the concept of externalities and importantly its graphical representation.

Fast forward to a few weeks after I taught the sequence of externality lessons and I was banging my head against the proverbial brick wall. When recreating these graphs the students were labelling the axes incorrectly, leaving out equilibrium points, and failed to explain the diagram using specific points on the graph. The all too common teacher thought ran through my mind, ‘what did I do wrong?’ I retaught based on what I perceived to be the problems. I set exam style questions. I marked answers verbally and in writing. I gave feedback to the whole class. Marginal gains were made, but not enough for me to confidently say that I had done right by the students.

So I sought out advice. My focus, among other things, was to understand why my students seemed to struggle recalling and explaining economic graphs accurately. Based on a book I purchased at a ResearchEd event in London, The Learning Rainforest (Sherrington, 2017), I believed a significant problem was my poor use of formative assessment and this began my exploration of the literature.

At the time, if I wanted to understand whether students were following the lesson, I would ask a few targeted questions, reply to any misconceptions, and continue with the lesson to get through the slides. I soon came to realise that I needed to rethink my own understanding and use of formative assessment, so I want to offer you some of those insights and changes that I have made in the hope that you can apply these in your daily teaching practice.

Define your excellence: I came to realise that this meant I needed to articulate what I wanted my students to be able to do with specific detail and teach my students to be explicitly aware of it. Tom Sherrington (and others) doesn’t want you using a macro grade or tracker (Sherrington, 2017) because there’s no significant value in defining what a A* or a 9 is worth. It is absent of any actionable feedback, fuels an illusion of progress (Didau, 2015) and is a black hole for a teachers limited and precious time.

Consider this analogy: An Olympic diver doesn’t improve on their second attempt of a ‘forward somersault pike’ by looking at the scores from the judges; they reflect on what happened, they listen to their coach and target the problem – a higher jump, more rotation, straighter legs on impact. The same is true for a student learning each content domain.

Define what excellence looks like in each specific content domain (Christodoulou, 2016). Below is an example in Economics that I created (with the help of others), a list of exactly what I want my students to do when creating and explaining externality graphs.

Excellence in Economics: Externalities

This is a first iteration, but already with this simple list I have been able to provide students with a student checklist, a revision aid, and most importantly a feedback sheet (self, peer or teacher) for making progress with externalities. This list means I am able to give feedback with clarity, there is no need for a grade, and the list avoids prescribing a solution for my students to mindlessly copy down (the ‘SAT NAV’ effect). Instead, if a student doesn’t include Point 8, 9, and 13 in their answer, I am able to give feedback with precision. In response, the student can then digest that feedback, review their work, seek out the solution and finally amend their answer. It gives actionable feedback and maintains the difficulty of learning.

Show what excellence looks like: Another key component is to have the examples of exactly what student should be achieving in each specific content domain.

Back to the analogy: Imagine if this Olympic diver in their training days was given a written instruction for the ‘forward somersault pike’ to practise for the first time and it read “1 front flip, legs must be together, straight and close to your chest”. The now resentful diver may attempt the move again and again, but how close would their version of the dive look, compared to what the coach wanted to see? The diver needs to see the end result for themselves to understand what the ‘forward somersault pike” should look like.

Creating and using examples of excellence (or exemplars) gave my economics students a clear reference of what an excellent externality graph and explanation looked like. This then enables them to visualise how close to excellence their own answer is and can be used as a measurement of progress and achievement, as long as it is coupled with clear feedback (hence the list).

Excellence in Economics: Externality

Tighten the actionable feedback loop: I listened to the advice I received during my teacher training and set low stakes knowledge quizzes frequently in class which I know, in principle, is a good thing. My mistake came when I would then collect those in, mark them and save for another lesson to be handed out again. The value of all that powerful feedback eroded the longer I waited and the more I took control of it.

Let’s revisit our Olympian analogy: This time the diver is just starting to get the hang of the forward somersault pike but on impact the splash created by the dive is too large compared to the divers and coaches ideal front somersault pike. The diver immediately knows it’s not quite right, exits the pool and walks over to the coach expecting to hear some comments. The coach says, ‘that needs work, I’ll tell you what you did wrong next week’. The diver is exasperated.

Dylan Wiliam is a strong advocate of ‘responsive teaching’ the idea that feedback happens constantly in every lesson (Wiliam, 2011) rather than within a defined and deferred time period. It is the idea that lesson activities should give the teacher feedback to know where students are in their learning and adjust the lesson where necessary. Any formative assessment should give you and the students feedback that progresses learning within each lesson. If it doesn’t then it’s not worth it, given the variability of effective feedback.

The feedback needs to be clearly actionable for that student to progress right then and there, within the content domain. As succinctly summarised by John Hattie, ‘‘just in time’, ‘just for me’, ‘just for where I am in my learning’ and ‘just for what I need to help me move forward’’ (Hattie, 2012).

Here’s an example of a learning activity on how to create and explain a negative externality diagram (below), and how to embed tight feedback loops. The diagram is broken down in to steps and attention is explicitly drawn to the process of making this diagram (McCrea, 2017). One approach for this lesson activity, that I have used, is to give students the model of excellence (shown earlier) and discuss each step on how to break it down (slides below). For example when teaching ‘Step 1- Axes’, I may ask students to describe what they notice is different about this graph to the common ‘Supply and Demand’ diagram in order to check for their understanding. Throughout the lesson, it is imperative to receive and digest feedback such as this to inform your teaching then and there.

When I feel assured that students are ready to attempt independent practice, students receive the graph slides (below) and the ‘Excellence in Economics: Externalities’ list (shown earlier). During the activity, feedback can be collected by circulating the room to pick up on common errors (ready for whole class feedback). Upon completion of the activity, students can self-assess or discuss in pairs, using the excellence checklist in order to identify improvements. This is your opportunity to offer whole class feedback.

Step by step

Independent Learning Activity

It is important that the feedback includes not just a discussion of the task, but the processes and self-regulation too (Hattie, 2012). More on that in another edition.

The easily overlooked component of a task which tightens the feedback loop is simply allowing students the opportunity (in-class) to respond to the feedback. In this case, reattempt the diagram and explanation by addressing specific feedback.

As a teacher much of our time can be spent preparing lesson activities and worrying that you may not get through all the slides. With the fortune of hindsight, it a travesty to not build in the ‘response to feedback’. It is arguably one of the clearest examples of progress (albeit ‘messy progress’) for you and the student; a before and after answer within the same lesson. It is gold and should be as common as coal.

Throughout any of your lesson activities, you as the teacher need to be receive and act upon feedback. To give impactful student feedback that tips the unreliability of feedback in your favour, it must be precise, actionable, and prompt.

  • Define your excellence
  • Show what excellence looks like
  • Tighten the actionable feedback loop

That’s it for this edition of The Tulip Teacher. I hope it was insightful, I’ll be producing new editions frequently so if you want to follow and join in on the conversation please subscribe using the button below.

The Tulip Teacher,

James Oliver


Christodoulou, D. (2016). Making Good Progress? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Didau, D. (2015). What if everything you knew about education was wrong? Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing Limited.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible Learning for Teachers. Oxon: Routledge.

McCrea, P. (2017). Memorable Teaching.

Sherrington, T. (2017). The Learning Rainforest. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd. Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press.

Published by James Oliver

The Tulip Teacher Discussing all things business, economics and education

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