Effective feedback: the key to successful assessment for learning

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Effective feedback: the key to successful assessment for learning

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I have 30 children in my class. I don't have time or I don't know all the children well enough to give each one personalized feedback.

This is a very common situation. Here are some possible solutions:

Give your students feedback that applies to the whole class. For example, after a speaking activity, you could ask the whole class to try to give longer answers next time. Specifically, they could do this by adding reasons or examples to their answers. Alternatively, to encourage reflection and self-regulation, first ask students themselves to suggest ways in which they could extend their answers.

Choose a skill area or one or two language points to focus on. Choose six students each week and give them feedback during the lesson on the target areas. Set the rest of the class a writing task that they can do on their own while you give individual feedback to each student in the small group. The following week, choose a different group of students to receive feedback. After five weeks every student will have received feedback on the target areas. Explain to the class what you are doing and make it clear that each student will get their turn in the feedback group.

Delegate more responsibility to students by providing checklists of common errors so that they can check their own work or work by other students. You could also have students obtain feedback from each other before submitting their work to you. Ask students to highlight points they found difficult or are unsure about and would like feedback on.


I teach in a primary school. I'm really keen to use assessment for learning with my students, but young learners don't seem to understand what to do.

You can help young learners to understand assessment for learning by giving them small, simple, and specific strategies. For example, in a listening task where students have to write one-word answers, some will spend too long writing answers to the questions. If you ask, 'Why didn't you write the answer to question 3?' they can usually recognize that they were still writing the answer to question 2. If you ask them what they can change, even young learners will probably answer 'Write faster!' You can then practise ways of doing this. This kind of approach will help them to build confidence in their own assessment of a problem and their own solutions, and to understand better what is involved in assessment for learning.


Doing assessment for learning takes time. I still have to complete the syllabus and prepare students for the end-of-term test. It puts a lot of pressure on me and the students.

Assessment for learning may seem like a challenge, but it does not need to create extra pressure for you and your students, and evidence shows that it has a positive impact on learning.

One way to fit assessment for learning into your schedule is to re-use coursebook material as the basis for assessment or tests. For example, you could take a reading text from the coursebook and set a different task, or tasks, from those in the book. In this way you can assess whether they have understood the content and purpose of the text, remembered new vocabulary or grammatical structures, etc., and take remedial action, if necessary. For example, if students have answered comprehension questions on a reading text in the book, you could ask them to write a short summary of it, or work in pairs to prepare an oral summary; or they could write their own sentences using the new vocabulary to show they have understood it.

It is also worth remembering that assessment for learning does not require wholescale change to your teaching practice. It is essentially an approach which calls on your existing classroom, observation, and subject skills and builds on everyday practice to focus more clearly on the learning.


The students in my class are mixed ability. Some of them are quick to learn and don't need much help; others need a lot of support and make slow progress. How do I provide the right kind of feedback for all of them?

In this situation, you can vary the kind of feedback you give to students and make it appropriate to their level. For example, give slower learners specific feedback on how to improve in each task, such as 'You are getting word order mixed up. Check your writing and compare what you write to the example to make sure you have the same word order.' Give faster learners feedback which will challenge them, such as 'You need to use a wider range of vocabulary. Try to use different words or expressions when you are talking about this topic next time.' Giving different kinds of feedback in this way means you can provide the right level of feedback for all your students.

Peer feedback can be useful in mixed-ability classes. Learners can make improvements in their own work by explaining their thinking to each other. Once interactive feedback of this kind becomes established in a classroom, learners will feel more comfortable talking about aspects of the work that they find difficult. Their discussions can also provide valuable feedback to the teacher on how well they have understood something.

Research studies have demonstrated that students can struggle to interpret and act upon teachers' feedback and peer-feedback activities can be useful. For example, students can work in groups to share their understanding of feedback they receive. You can also motivate students to share solutions for how to act upon feedback when revising their work. This will offer students of different abilities support in understanding what to do next, and is also a good solution for large classes. You can end such sessions by allowing one student in each group to summarize the main points for future actions and share them with the whole class. This can be done both in traditional ways on flipcharts and electronically on shared platforms.


It's difficult to persuade my students to take responsibility for their learning. They haven't really taken to self-assessment.

Students may find self-assessment difficult if the tasks they are asked to do are too vague or unclear. They may not understand what to do or how to go about it. To help students engage with self-assessment, ensure that the task is closely linked to the learning intentions. For example, if the learning intention in a writing class is to 'write extended sentences', ask students to consider some or all of these specific questions about their own writing:

  • Are your sentences long or short?
  • Can you find one sentence which could be longer?
  • Can you add any adjectives or adverbs to the sentence to make it longer?
  • Can you add another clause to a sentence to make it longer?

With guidance, focused prompts, and practice, students will begin to understand what to do.

Meet our Expert Panel

We collaborate with an Expert Panel of world-leading academics and educators in English Language Teaching. Why does this matter to you? The Expert Panel ensures that research-based support informs our products and services, meeting your needs and the needs of your students in the best possible way.

Eithne Gallagher


Elaine Boyd has worked in English language assessment design and quality standards for over 30 years for a range of international testing organizations. She has developed and delivered courses in assessment literacy for teachers and teacher educators, as well as publishing articles in this field. She is the author of several examination preparation coursebooks for leading international publishers. She is an associate tutor on the MA TESOL and MA Applied Linguistics courses at the Institute of Education, University College London. Her research interests are in classroom assessment, feedback, and intercultural competencies. Elaine is a contributing author of this paper.

Patsy M. Lightbown


Anthony Green is Director of the Centre for Research in English Language Learning and Assessment and Professor of Language Assessment at the University of Bedfordshire. He is the author of Exploring Language Assessment and Testing (2013), Language Functions Revisited (2012), and IELTS Washback in Context (2007). He has served as president of the International Language Testing Association (ILTA) and is an expert member of the European Association for Language Testing and Assessment (EALTA). He is an executive editor of the journal Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, as well as serving on the editorial boards of the journals Language Testing, Assessing Writing, and Language Assessment Quarterly. His main research interests lie in the relationship between assessment, learning, and teaching. Anthony is a contributing author of this paper.

David Marsh


Therese N. Hopfenbeck is Associate Professor and Director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA) and Course Director of the MSc in Educational Assessment at the Department of Education. She is a lead editor of the journal Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice. She is a principal investigator of the research study Assessment for Learning in Africa (AFLA), funded by the UK's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and Department for International Development (DFID). Her research interests focus on large-scale comparative assessments and how international testing has shaped public policy across education systems. She is interested in different models of classroom assessment, such as linking assessment for learning and self-regulation. Therese is a contributing author of this paper.

Victoria A. Murphy


Gordon Stobart is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University College London, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Oxford. Having worked as a secondary school teacher and an educational psychologist, he spent twenty years as a senior policy researcher. He was a founder member of the Assessment Reform Group, which has promoted assessment for learning internationally. He works with teachers and policymakers around the world on assessment for learning and developing expertise. His books include The Expert Learner: Challenging the Myth of Ability (2014) and Testing Times: The Uses and Abuses of Assessment (2008). Gordon is the lead author of this paper.