Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam

embedded formative assessment

Elie Hartman
American College of Education
March 30, 2016

When I was hired about one year ago, I was given a stack of dreadful-looking professional development books during orientation. This was one of those books. Upon further inspection, it didn’t look so bad. As it turns out, it actually revolutionized the way I teach, especially how I teach writing and how I give feedback. Some aspects of this book were not new to me, because they were part of my recent teacher-training program, but some parts were critical to forming my teaching practice.

The book starts off with research that shows that the greatest factor in predicting student achievement is teacher quality. Actually measuring teacher quality is essentially impossible (hear that, reformers and politicians?), but Wiliam has taken some of the guesswork out of the equation by compiling a handful of strategies that have been proven to have the largest impact on student learning, all centered around formative assessment.

What I liked best was Wiliam’s writing style. He doesn’t talk down to teachers or pretend that he knows what’s best. He knows teaching is incredibly difficult, and his book is simply the research behind the most powerful, proven methods in education and some strategies for teachers to try as we see fit.

The idea I found most interesting was centered around feedback. There were studies which found that if students can work with teacher feedback to achieve a product of higher-quality, learning will improve more than if comments are written and students do nothing with them. Also, giving grades along with feedback, when we want students to use the feedback, absolutely negates the feedback; students won’t use it. So, bottom line: don’t grade formative assessments but do give feedback and ensure students act on that feedback in class.

What I have been doing is give students comments using Google Docs or Google Classroom with no grade attached to the assignment. The feedback happens instantly or very quickly, and students are receptive to improving their work because they know they’re working towards a better grade and receiving the help they need. I have also started to check in with students more in the middle of large projects rather than at the end when it’s time to assign a grade.The natural next step when giving feedback but not giving a grade is to create workshops to help students who have similar problems. I have restructured my entire class around giving and dealing with feedback, and my students are much more successful than they were last year before I had read this book.

I would recommend this book in particular to teachers who were trained in the era before learning targets and formative assessments were commonplace. These ideas were drilled into my brain in my teacher education program, so a lot of the big ideas in this book were just reminders of what I already knew (but could improve upon still), but I see how older generations of teachers could be impacted heavily and positively. Wiliam explains how using learning targets helps students know what they need to be focusing on and achieving during that class, and the formative assessment helps students get there rather than just having the teacher keep moving forward without knowing how students are doing and who need help with which skills.