News & Reports

John Winkley Director of Business Development shares his thoughts about on-screen formative assessments.

Formative assessment is the process used by a teacher or learner to review and check learning, with a view to adjusting future teaching and learning based on what learners do and do not understand. Crucially, the assessment questions themselves are not ‘formative’; it’s the interpretation of the results, and the actions taken thereafter, that make the assessment formative.  In the context of on-screen assessment, this means ensuring that reporting on assessment outcomes is focused on supporting action planning.

Much research has been written about formative assessment in recent years, including ‘Inside the Black Box’1 and in ‘Embedded Formative Assessment’2 which provides the helpful summary in Figure 1 below. This diagram shows the three critical stages of formative assessment: knowing where a learner is in their learning, knowing where they are trying to get to, and what they need to do next. The diagram displays strategies for teachers, the learner themselves and their peers, and provides a range of strategies to advance learning.

Figure 1 – Strategies for formative assessment

Research on formative assessment shows that following the strategies above can have a significant positive impact on attainment, and this is why it figures highly in efficacy studies, for example, EEF’s ‘what works’ analysis3. These approaches to teaching and learning can be undertaken both digitally and on paper.

Formative assessment can be delivered by a teacher in a number of ways, for example:

  • Questioning learners in class on a regular basis to confirm understanding.
  • Setting informal tasks for learners throughout a programme of learning and reviewing their responses.
  • Completing externally set formative assessments based on the programme of learning that provide feedback on learner performance for teachers and learners.

Because formative assessment is about ongoing improvement in teaching and learning, it is important it is considered to be an exam, and as a result, is not normally graded: the main purpose of the outcome information from the assessment is to give insight into learning. This is different to summative assessment which is used typically at the end of a programme of learning to confirm that the learner has mastered the knowledge and is able to demonstrate the skills required. These assessments are usually more high-stakes as their results can impact a learner’s next steps, for example, whether or not they are able to get into university or secure a specific job. Examples of summative assessments include GCSEs, A Levels, Scottish Highers and Degrees.

What makes a formative assessment successful?

According to Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education,

A [formative] assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners or their peers, to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited.4

For a formative assessment to be successful then learners and teachers actually need to change what they do in the classroom in response to the results from it.

Figure 2 identifying where technology can help with formative assessment

Strong reports are therefore key to successful formative assessments. Reports need to provide teachers and learners with detailed and targeted information on strengths and areas for development based on performance within the assessment. For learners, these reports need to be individualised, be presented in accessible language and give information they can use to focus their efforts in the classroom. Teachers need reports that summarise overall performance, draw out trends within the cohort and identify areas of focus for teaching and learning generally. They also need to be able to identify outliers within the group who may require targeted intervention.

All of this information must be of high quality and clearly link to the programme of learning followed by the teacher and the learner. They will only act on information from assessments if they trust in the assessment’s content. In some programmes, the assessment outcome report will recommend particular actions for example, offering the learner e-learning content aimed at moving them forward, or giving the teacher suggested activities and groupings of children for them.  Other formative assessment programmes avoid being prescriptive about pedagogy – what action to take – on the basis that this is for the teacher to decide.

Why on-screen works well for the delivery of some formative assessments

Formative assessment lends itself to onscreen delivery for several reasons:

  • Results from the assessment can be returned to learners and teachers very quickly (where machine marked objective style questions are used). It is important that they get the results back so that they can implement any changes as soon as possible. This can be extremely helpful – it’s often easier to reflect on the results of assessment if the information is available soon after the assessment was taken. 
  • Groups of learners can easily be constructed and adjusted within the system allowing teachers to obtain information of different cohorts such as classes, cohorts and learner characteristics, for example, learners with additional needs.
  • Technology can draw on the data from the assessments to create rich and detailed reports. Where assessment programmes have been rolled out nationally, the assessments are not only tied tightly to national curricula, but large datasets of information about all children’s outcomes give teachers and school leaders comparative information about their classes’ performance against other cohorts (e.g. learners in similar schools, last year’s classes, etc).
  • On-screen reporting enables complex information to be summarised in simple interactive formats that support functionality including, links to targeted sample materials/questions, language toggling (for bilingual assessments) and the facility to download detailed data that underpins them.

Although formative assessment is a strategy for learning and a process, onscreen assessments can provide teachers and learners with timely information, used alongside other assessment evidence, to adjust their classroom practice and improve learning.

Our experience

AlphaPlus is working with two UK governments and has delivered over two million onscreen formative assessments to date. To find out more about our work delivering adaptive formative assessments on behalf of the Welsh Government, read our case study [here].


[1] Black, P & Wiliam, D 2010, ‘Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment’, Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, no. 1, pp. 81-90.

[2] Wiliam, D, 2017 (2nd Ed), ‘Embedded Formative Assessment: (Strategies for Classroom Assessment That Drives Student Engagement and Learning)’


[4] Black, P., & Wiliam, D,2009, Developing the Theory of Formative Assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, p9