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.

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Other People’s Children – Lisa Delpit

other people's children Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom begs to be read slowly and discussed in depth. It really made me reflect on my teaching as an intern, my teacher preparatory program (in which a vast majority of students and professors are White), and my decision to intern in the largest and most diverse district in my state.

Here are some bits I flagged along the way:

African-American teachers are more likely to see their Black students’ fluency with the English language than non-African-American teachers. The latter are more likely to find that their Black students have not yet mastered command of English, when, in fact, they have, although they show it differently.

The next step for these Black students is to teach them “skills” to communicate in the most socially acceptable way: the discourse of the majority and of White people, essentially. It must be taught not as an oppression tool but as a tool to liberate them, as a way to “cheat the system” in order to be successful in our White-dominated society.

Some ways to help students learn the skills of communicating in the code of the White majority include creating bidialectal dictionaries, role-plays, and creating a news show.

It is imperative that in our schools (and elsewhere) we hear the voices of minorities. Furthermore, it is the job of the majority to seek out those voices if they are not coming forth or being heard.

This quote (pg 26): “For many who consider themselves members of liberal or radical camps, acknowledging personal power and admitting participation in the culture of power is distinctly uncomfortable. On the other hand, those who are less powerful in any situation are more likely to recognize the power variable more acutely.”

White teachers (and adults in general) tend to give commands in the form of questions: “Can you hand that paper in now?” Black teachers and adults tend to be more clear and may say: “Turn in that paper now.” Black students, then, may not respond in the “correct” way to their White teachers due to cultural misunderstanding.

Teaching Hope: Stories from the Freedom Writer Teachers and Erin Gruwell

teaching hopeI began reading Teaching Hope when I was feeling bogged down by the education system (which is frequently) and needed an upper. I had read it before, but I couldn’t remember much. It wound up depressing me even more because such terrible things happen to students and teachers within these pages. Most of the stories are supposed to resonate hope and resiliency, but I was just more and more bummed about all the terrible things that children and teachers face every day. It’s a good book, really it is, it’s just not great in the hands of someone so…cynical…as myself. I still know my place is in the classroom, even being aware that parents, teachers, administrators, students, poverty, violence, and society may be against me. But it’s where I belong.

Here are some important points I wish to remember:

  • Here are 150 teachers who would do anything for their students.
  • They have seen the worst and have been able to move on.
  • The students are always worth it.
  • Even if you can’t change every student’s life (who can?), changing one life for the better is worth it.
  • Always get permission before teaching a controversial book (such as The Freedom Writers Diary).

Teach With Your Heart – Erin Gruwell

teach with your heartThe full title is Teach With Your Heart: Lesson I learned from the Freedom Writers: A Memoir.

I first read this book late in high school or early in college. Now, in my 5th and final year of college, I came back to it because I was feeling down about education. I’ve finished the book for the second time feeling inspired all over again but, unlike my first read-through, I can look at it critically.

While the title is pretty cheesy, it’s spot on with what the book and Erin is about. She didn’t really know what she was doing or how to engage her students, so she taught in a way that touched her students’ hearts: she taught about what mattered to them. Lesson #1: Teach what matters to your students.

While this story may be an exception, it’s a beautiful example of the impact one teacher can have in one year. While this story details her work with students from 9th through 12th grade and beyond, Sharaud, for instance, was highly impacted by Erin and she only taught him for 1 year. Lesson #2: Great transformations are possible.

Like Erin, I was disheartened by the lack of support her fellow teachers showed. Perhaps they were exceptional, but perhaps not. Reading about how the teachers tried to fail Erin’s students and wrote slanderous things in her mailbox, I can’t help thinking about “Waiting for Superman” and how (some) public school teachers were vilified. And I suppose there are teachers like that, but we can’t go around expecting teachers to be heroes or enemies. Lesson #3: Hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

It was inspiring to read how Erin was unsure about her teaching methods and basically everything else she was doing. She was scared and made mistakes. She is no Wonder Woman. She’s a regular lady who cares deeply about her students and education. Lesson #4: Anybody can be that person.

A few people on goodreads are angry for several reasons: 1: Erin’s methods aren’t practical, and 2: there’s no information about specific teaching methods.

1: I don’t think Erin goes around telling people that you have to spend thousands of your own dollars, alienate your fellow teachers, meet Steven Spielberg, get a divorce, stay with your students from 9th through 12th grade, take several trips to Washington, D.C., fly to Europe, invite famous people to your classroom, or hold 3 jobs. I bet that Erin tells people that you must, essentially, teach with your heart by believing in each student and by teaching powerful pedagogy. She runs the Freedom Writers Foundation and trains teachers to be Freedom Writer Teachers (one of my dreams), and she wouldn’t still be in business if her methods couldn’t be replicated to some extent. Furthermore, there is a teachers’ edition of this same book that aligns with standards and includes teaching techniques that I’m positive don’t say anything about having to go to Europe or working 3 jobs.

2: I definitely wished there was more information about specific teaching methods, but that’s not what Erin’s memoir is about. That’s what the teachers’ edition is for.

What we (and by “we” I mean “I”) need to remember is that Erin’s circumstances were unique. She had a rich father, no children to care for, a supportive superintendent, and connections to rich and powerful people. To replicate Erin’s story is impossible but to have our own stories is not. From what I gathered from snippets in this book is that, when creating their “secret sauce” for success, it was all about family and support, not about knowing the right people or having enough money to travel across the country/world.

I wonder how realistic it is to teach these empowering pedagogies in this era of high-stakes, standardized testing. I’d imagine it is possible if one can validate every activity by backing it up with standards. But then again, teaching students to fight the system, to think for themselves, and to be critical of their world will be a detriment when taking these tests.

I also wonder about a majority of the original Freedom Writers. A handful of them work for the Freedom Writers’ foundation and make motivational speeches – Sharaud and Maria, for instance. Several of them traveled around the country with her, and about two dozen enrolled in the university where she taught. What about the other 100+ students? Were they lost without their Freedom Writer family? Did they make better lives for themselves? Did they “fall through the cracks”?

Lastly, I want to mention how powerful this story can be in the hands of students. The Freedom Writers Diary is used (and banned) across the country. As a hopeful middle school teacher, I wonder if I could use the text, which has all sorts of profanity and violence, but it’s worth a shot. Even if I have to hand type the diary entries and remove the profanity, I think it’d be worth it. Here are 150 kids whose cards were stacked against them, and look where they are now.

From Rage to Hope – Crystal Kuykendall

from rage to hope The full title is From Rage to Hope: Strategies for Reclaiming Black and Hispanic Students. Overall, a quality book which gave concrete examples of how to reach these students. While the book focused on Black and Hispanic students (possibly more so on  Black students due to the author’s own background), most if not all of the suggestions and studies can be applied to all students. What was possibly most useful was the explanation of the intricacies of Black culture (generalizing, here) that I was unaware of as a white lady. For example, Black students may “Play the Dozens” which is a game about insulting people’s relatives or mothers but is really about being quick witted and good with language. Basically, if students are doing this, they shouldn’t be punished for insulting people (unless they really ARE insulting people) but rewarded for their skills which should be channeled into classwork or activities.

The resounding lesson here is that teachers must love each and every student, no matter their faults. Always find something good in each student and use that quality to  build that student up. The author writes with a sense of urgency that we must forsake our stereotypes of these children (because most teachers in America are White and middle-class) and expect success from all children. No excuses.

The book addressed why many African American and Hispanic students don’t do well in school: because they don’t want to be labeled as White for being successful in this White-centric society. The author suggests that teaching about the academic and life achievements of African American and Hispanic (and others) people with whom students can identify. Basically, Black History is every day, not just in February. The same can be said about teaching about people from all backgrounds.

Kuykendall asks us to look at our society and culture of our schools to see if we are excluding anybody. For example, some schools don’t allow students to wear cornrows in their hair (which excludes African Americans) or wear large earrings (which excludes Latinas who might wear large hoop earrings – again with the generalizing). It’s time to step back and look with a critical eye at our decisions, biases, rules, and expectations.

Meeting the Needs of Students and Families from Poverty – Thomas-Presswood & Presswood

meeting the needsI skimmed this book as part of my research for a paper and presentation about teaching “at-risk” students in secondary schools. This book is a winner because it covers a vast array of topics regarding the effects of poverty and what various school professionals can do. What I didn’t like was the lack of specific suggestions for teachers. Instead, most of the content was researched-based summaries of problems and rather vague solutions but without clear instructions on how to reach those solutions. But the book was written for a wide audience, and it’s a good starting place for someone researching poverty’s effect on students.

A paraphrased summary of particularly good points:

  • teachers can have huge impacts on the success or failure of at-risk students
  • societal racism plays into the huge proportions of minorities that live in poverty
  • teachers not understanding their students (or students’ families) accounts for minorities being over-represented in special education
  • allow students to work in groups, teach one another, and use technology
  • teach multicultural topics
  • students benefit from peer or adult tutors, but those tutors must be trained and guided
  • schools and teachers can cultivate resiliency in students (allowing them to transcend their unfavorable conditions of living in poverty, an abusive home, or a crime-ridden neighborhood) by providing a safe, welcoming, and responsive environment
  • challenge students – always! Watered-down curriculum isn’t the solution.
  • demonstrate to parents that schools and classrooms are welcoming places

Thomas-Presswood, T. N., & Presswood, D. (2008). Meeting the needs of students and families from poverty: A handbook for school and mental health professionals. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

‘Hanging in with Kids’ in Tough Times – Smyth, Down, and McInerney

This is another book I “read” (i.e. skimmed) as part of my research on teaching kids in poverty/who are “at-risk.” The authors are Australian, so it was interesting to see their take on American education and how Australia compares. At the same time, Australia and the US were grouped together as being “Western countries” along with Canada and the UK in that our education systems face similar difficulties. Definitely not the greatest book I read as it had less specific information about reaching this demographic and more generalities stated over and over.

Some (paraphrased) gems include: hanging in with kids

  • people don’t like to talk about class, but if we want students to understand the world and society, we’ve got to.
  • colleges don’t prepare teachers to teach students who live in poverty
  • we’re taught that hard work = success, but that is rarely the case, so when people from low socio-economic statuses don’t succeed in life, we blame them, not the system.
  • use and love parents! They love their kids and want to help but often don’t know how to be engaged in school or how to help their students with homework.
  • every 29 seconds, a kid drops out of school in America. Think about that for a sec.
  • teach students relevant information and useful skills (which is true for all students, not just ones “at-risk”).
  • bridge the gap between schools and community by doing service projects and generally getting students out in the real world doing work that matters (there were some examples in the book, but all you excited readers will have to wait until I write my paper…or just read this book…the citation is below).
  • teach what students know and are influenced by, including media and music.
  • teach students not to accept the faults of society but to change them.
  • assess students in meaningful ways through demonstration of skills, experiments, exhibitions, etc.

Smyth, J., Down, B., & McInerney, P. (2010). ‘Hanging in with kids’ in tough times: Engagement in contexts of educational disadvantage in the relational school. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

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