Black and Wiliam (often mispelled as Black and William, with two ‘L’s) developed a radical approach to learning, as Charles Dietz reports

In 1998 professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of Kings College, London, likened the classroom to a ‘black box’. Government initiatives focused on the box’s input and output, but not what went on inside it. Lip service was paid to the process of teaching and learning, but this was sidelined in favor of ‘summative assessment’ – the recording of data for certification and evaluation.

In order to restore the balance they advocated ‘formative assessment’, or assessment for learning (AfL). In AfL, information from marking or other means of assessment is used as feedback to modify learning activity. This might take the form of teachers giving comments on how a student can improve their work instead of awarding grades, or students assessing for themselves where their weaknesses lie. It is based on the idea that all students can improve, and fosters a spirit of cooperation in the classroom, with students actively involved in their own learning. (AfL should not be confused with the mere performance of classroom tests by teachers. If the information from such tests is simply used to record progress, it is not directly contributing to improving learning.)

Black and Wiliam (1998a) had demonstrated in a wide-ranging research review that such an approach could improve both learning and exam results. However, they and their colleagues at Kings realized that they needed to provide practical examples of its use if AfL was to be widely adopted. They went on to develop a project with 48 teachers and Oxfordshire and Medway LEAs – the King’s, Medway, Oxfordshire Formative Assessment Project (KMOFAP). This project developed formative practice in four areas.

Developing formative practice

  • Questioning: Teachers found that if they allowed more time for students to reply to their questions, more thoughtful answers were given. They also found that lessons became richer if they changed the focus of questions from testing students’ knowledge of facts to exploring their understanding. For example, a science teacher who had begun lessons with questions such as ‘What is this instrument and where would you find it?’ now began to ask questions such as ‘Why do you think these two plants have grown differently?’
  • Peer and self-assessment: Teachers encouraged students to take more ownership of their own learning by helping them to understand learning targets. ‘Traffic-lighting’, in which students assigned red, amber or green to a piece of work, according to the degree which they did or did not understand it was also found valuable. Peer assessment showed that students were more likely to challenge each other’s judgments of their work, thereby sparking discussion and debate.
  • Marking: One of the central tenets of AfL is feedback which identifies what the student has done well and focuses on what he or she can do to improve. Following the research evidence that students pay more attention to comments when they are not accompanied by marks, teachers were encouraged to give comments only. This required effort from both student and teacher, but led to the fostering of better learning environments as all saw that learning was improving.
  • AfL through summative assessment: AfL has to operate in a world of summative assessment, but exams can be used to directly improve learning. Students were encouraged to understand the criteria against which exams were marked, and to revise more actively by generating their own exam questions, explaining parts of units to each other and marking peers’ work.

Implementing AfL

Implementing AfL on a small scale can pose problems as students who have become used to playing an active role in their own learning may be confused by having to revert to a passive role. It is in school-wide implementation that AfL really comes into its own, but this needs to be a long and careful process, based on a clear vision, thoughtful evaluation and a great deal of support.

AfL and G&T students

It has been suggested that students who are used to coasting through their coursework may not adapt as well to AfL, which demands more effort and engagement in the classroom. However, it can also be argued that a system that is modelled to target individual improvement will necessarily help higher achievers. Group work in which students discuss and explain topics is an important feature of AfL, and it is suggested that those who give help to others generally benefit most, since having to articulate understanding helps in its long-term retention.

Garforth Community College, Leeds, provides an example of how AfL can benefit all students. At this school it is believed that ‘the key to corporate success is individual achievement’, and AfL has played a crucial role in the setting up of individual learning plans. In its 2003 report on the school Ofsted commented that, ‘in the very good and excellent lessons the teachers demanded the best that students could give. There were no hiding places in such lessons and students of all levels of attainment were challenged’.

AfL materials on the DfES Standards website

AfL training materials have been developed as part of the KS3 Strategy’s support for whole-school improvement. They are intended to provide a coherent and accessible platform for schools relatively new to AfL and, for others, materials to help teachers refocus on some of the more challenging areas of AfL.

References and further reading

  • Black, PJ (2003), ‘Testing Times: Role of Assessment for Learning’, Curriculum Briefing 2:1
  • Black, PJ et al (2002), Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom, nferNelson: London
  • Black PJ and Wiliam D (1998a), ‘Assessment and Classroom Learning’, Assessment in Education, March, p7-74
  • Black PJ and Wiliam D (1998b), Inside the Black Box (online version available at
  • Edwards, P (2004), ‘Targeting Individual Success’, Curriculum Briefing 2:2 (see also