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Assessment in secondary science
Assessment in secondary science

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2.1. Assessment for learning

Assessment for learning (AfL), as opposed to assessment of learning (AoL) is carried out on a continual basis in order to inform subsequent planning and teaching. Formative assessment is done for students and with them, instead of to them. It is used to promote learning through informing teachers and students about what needs to be done to make progress. It requires teachers and the learners themselves to make continual assessments of understanding and progress in order to identify individual, evolving needs and shape teaching and learning accordingly. Therefore, ideally, assessment should not just be an isolated part of a lesson; it needs to be a systematic and integrated part of all lessons. Most importantly, without the process of adapting teaching, the assessment is not formative – it is merely frequent.

A summary of the differences between AoL and AfL is provided in Table 2.

Table 2 A summary of AoL and AfL
Assessment of learningAssessment for learning
PurposeTo find out what students know, understand and can do (skills)To find out what students know, understand and can do (skills)

Reporting to others

Judging school effectiveness


To inform planning

To support students in making and monitoring progress

To support teacher evaluation of the effectiveness of practice




External agencies (e.g. inspections).



The importance of formative assessment and the crucial role that it plays in enhancing teaching and learning is supported by a great deal of research. Perhaps most significant though, as David Hargreaves (2001) reminds us, is that assessment should be the servant of teaching and learning and not their master.

There are four important issues to bear in mind when thinking about making assessment integral to learning. Teachers should do the following:

  1. Identify exactly what they want students to learn; use a task that is designed to enable students to learn, and blend in an appropriate activity that will allow assessment of the students’ learning. Teachers need to assess not just how well students can perform individual techniques and skills, but also how well they understand wider concepts and can apply their understanding in less familiar contexts.
  2. Assess students as individuals. Students learn at different rates. They learn different things from each other and from their experiences, and some develop misconceptions. So students need to be assessed as individuals in order to ensure that teaching is matched to their particular needs. This means that assessment must have a clear purpose, and be designed to yield the necessary information.
  3. Integrate assessment into every lesson. To match teaching to individual needs, assessment must be integrated into day-to-day teaching and built into lesson planning. The information gained from assessment should be used to plan subsequent activities. In fact, it is only when the evidence from assessment ‘is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet learning needs’ (Black et al., 2004, p. 10) that such assessment becomes assessment for learning.
  4. Assess the effectiveness of their teaching. As well as assessing students’ learning, teachers must also assess their own actions. Assessment provides evidence about the effectiveness of the decisions that teachers take, so that they can modify their actions accordingly.

Assessing students’ prior understanding is an important aspect of formative assessment. Teachers need to establish whether students have the prior knowledge and understanding to build on. If they do not, then some revision or consolidation will be needed.

Clearly, it is better to carry out such an assessment before you have planned the sequence. Finding out in the first lesson that the pupils don’t have the required understanding may lead to a nasty surprise for you. On the other hand, if the pupils already have a good understanding of the topic, they will be bored and a learning opportunity will have been missed.