Assessment for Learning: Why, What and How? (Inaugural Professorial Lectures)

Author(s) Dylan Wiliam
Publisher Institute of Education
Published 2009
Pages 30
Price £5.00
ISBN 9780854737888
Reviewed by Linda Jones
Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Postgraduate Medical School
Review published 5 October 2009

In this small booklet Dylan Wiliam assembles his argument that, for professional development of teachers to be effective, we must not simply theorise about formative assessment but address behaviours in the classroom and how teachers might be supported to change. Now that the central significance of formative assessment in learning has been fairly widely established William considers the misunderstanding and misuse of the term and helps us comprehend the intention of assessment for learning through wry statements such as “the difference between a medical and a post-mortem”.  

In a few pages he conveys how his two decades of experience has shaped an effective, scalable model for professional teacher development.  It is a clear, concise and compelling read for anyone engaged in education for the professions. Whilst the primary audiences are teacher development professionals and policy makers the content is readily transferable to the wider Higher Education audience.  

If like me, you already have an active interest in formative assessment and are a paid up member of the Assessment Reform Group fan club you will need no encouragement to buy this publication. If you are less familiar with Wiliam’s previous work let me, as reviewer attempt to persuade you to buy at least one copy whatever your link to assessment for learning. What testifies to the transferability of the content is that it took me almost six hours to read because I spent so long dwelling on the messages, mapping the ideas to my own context and making notes to myself. I have already identified how to include the ideas in three modules and a presentation.

The pages are full of clear and simple models. They offer a lens for reflection on our own formative practices. For example, a simple grid that outlines teacher, peer and learner aspects against activities to identify where the learner is going, where the learner is right now, and how to get there. Wiliam acknowledges his experience of the familiar dilemma “I had been reasonably successful as a practitioner, but had not developed a language for describing what I was doing” and then clearly articulates a powerful, evidence based argument for why and how teacher behaviour can be supported towards change. The following verbatim exchange between the author and a mathematics teacher is one of many concrete examples of praxis:

“ All this comment only marking that the research says is so important is all very well in English lessons, but if you are marking a student’s work and tick fifteen of the answers as correct then the child can work out for themselves that they got 15 out of 20.

So I suggested that instead the teacher could tell the student, Five of these are wrong. Find them and Fix them.”

In this spirit I mention some of the other fascinating ideas that emerge “lethal mutations”, “inconvenient truths” and “signature pedagogies” then say no more but invite the reader to find them, reflect on them and explore ideas for “fixing” them within their own context.

In my institution we plan not only to buy copies for the library but to buy in bulk for resale direct to our post graduate medical education students. This is a little book with a big punch.

Linda Jones

Principal Lecturer Clinical Education and Leadership

Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Postgraduate Medical Education