Using assessment to enhance student learning

Our understanding of the role of assessment in teaching and learning has evolved over recent decades such that it has become an integral component of contemporary pedagogical practice. Now seen as inextricable from the process of learning, historically, the role of assessment lay in the summative process of evaluating student learning or the effectiveness of instruction at the end of a unit of work (Wiliam, 2011, p. 3). From the 1960s onwards, educational psychologists and learning theorists began to move away from the notion that the distribution of student outcomes was a ‘natural’ phenomenon, and began critiquing classroom practice and assessment that was not responsive to the needs of learners (Wiliam, 2011, p. 3). This led to assessment being used not merely to measure learning, but to aid learning in a formative way.

As will be analysed in more depth within this discussion paper, the type of assessment – formative, summative or assessment for accountability – is not the defining factor, rather it is the approach taken to use assessment and data to enhance learning. Evidence from academic literature has demonstrated that summative tests can be used formatively if feedback is provided in effective ways, as “the key difference does not lie in the test questions, but in the purpose for which the responses are interpreted and used” (Mansell, James & Assessment Reform Group, 2009, p. 8). Evaluating the contributions that each form of assessment makes to learning can build an understanding of the ways assessment can improve, or conversely limit, student outcomes.

Evaluating each assessment type in improving student learningScreen Shot 2016-04-16 at 10.28.09 am

According to a report by the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK (Mansell et al., 2009), there are broadly three categories of assessment, which have been classified in Figure 1 under summative assessment, formative assessment and assessment for accountability. Each will be evaluated in relation to its impact on student learning, looking first at summative and formative assessment, being at the classroom level, moving towards standardised systems-level assessment.

At the classroom level: Summative and formative assessment

Summative assessment is the term used to describe the evaluation of student learning, generally by ‘summing-up’ a student’s progress (Mansell et al., 2009, p. 9). For this reason, it is often defined as assessment that is used at the end of learning sequences, to inform more formal processes such as reporting on learning. It assesses student knowledge at a given point in time and is generally defined as a one-way exchange whereby the teacher assesses the student (Mansell, et al., 2009, p. 9). Examples of summative assessment tend to be traditional ‘paper-and-pencil measures’ such as quizzes, exams, essays or final projects (Volante & Beckett, 2011, p. 240).

In contrast, formative assessment, often referred to as assessment for learning, is described as a ‘mid-stream’ tool, allowing “frequent, interactive assessments of students’ progress and understanding to identify learning needs and adjust teaching appropriately” (Looney in Wiliam, 2011, p. 10). It therefore refers to the use of day-to-day, often informal assessments that assist the teacher to best decide how to help students develop their understanding (Mansell, et al., 2009, p. 9). Examples of formative assessment might include completing a journal reflection, submitting a draft essay for feedback, demonstrating understanding during class discussion, or self-assessing progress or performance (Volante & Beckett, 2011, p. 240).

Formative assessment is often cited within the academic literature as a teaching strategy that has one of the strongest positive impacts on student learning (Goss, Hunter, Romanes & Parsonage, 2015, p. 17). Many studies have indicated that it not only lifts student attainment generally, but also can reduce the gap between the low attainers and the high (Black & Wiliam, 1998, p. 3). Indeed, there is a range of evidence that highlights some particular formative practices that can enhance student learning, such as:

  • Providing students with targeted feedback – Research has demonstrated that there are specific ways teachers can provide feedback that give it an instructional purpose and move assessment towards the formative (Wiliam, 2011, p. 4; Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 82). For example, feedback has been found to be most effective when students are provided with information on correct responses with background explanations, and are given specific, individualised activities to focus on for improvement (Nyquist in Wiliam, 2011, p. 7). Engaging students in mindful activities, such as goal setting, can also have profound learning effects (Wiliam, 2011, p. 5; Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p. 87).
  • Reducing the emphasis on grading – Studies have shown that an over-emphasis on grading can reduce students’ intrinsic motivation, create anxiety and reduce self-efficacy for lower performing student cohorts (Crooks in Wiliam, 2011, p. 5). While the evidence does not suggest grades should be entirely eliminated, a reduced emphasis can enhance learning.
  • Moderation to improve the accuracy of teachers’ judgements – Reliable and valid assessment is so intrinsic to teaching and learning that assessments that are misaligned to the curriculum can limit student learning (Klenowski, 2011, p. 80). Klenowski refers to a need for teachers to display ‘assessment literacy’ (2011, p. 80), a skill that many Australian teachers struggle with in interpreting curriculum standards (Goss et al. 2015, p. 12). Best practice in making valid and reliable judgements from assessment data is social moderation, where teachers negotiate consistent grading of student work samples against criteria. This ensures that standards are interpreted consistently and that assessment across classrooms is fair (Klenowski, 2011, p. 81).

While in some ways it is useful to define summative and formative assessment as two contrasting and separate tools available in the classroom, this can also inaccurately suggest that the relationship between them is binary. Such a definition does not reflect that assessment can also be defined by the purpose for which it is used (Mansell et al., 2009, p. 9). Cautionary tales within the academic literature focus mainly on summative assessment being used in isolation, or privileged over other forms of assessment. For example, a study that explored the efficacy of summative assessment to student learning concluded that a one-off task could not validly reflect all of the aims of a unit of work (Black, Harrison, Hodgen, Marshall & Serret, 2011, p. 456). Using assessment tasks in an ongoing, formative way, on the other hand, increased the dependability of student results by providing several occasions and a variety of contexts for students to demonstrate their learning (Black et al., 2011, p. 456). This reflects the way that both types of assessment provide evidence to teachers, albeit within different parameters, and that summative assessment can be used formatively, as “’formative’ and ‘summative’ are not labels for different types or forms of assessment but describe how assessments are used” (Mansell et al., 2009, p. 9).

This more complete view of how formative and summative assessment relate to one another is reflected within the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers (AITSL, 2012). At the ‘Proficient’ level teachers are required to: use diagnostic, formative and summative assessment strategies, provide timely feedback to students on their achievement in relation to their learning goals, participate in assessment moderation practices, and modify teaching practice according to analysis of student assessment data (AITSL, 2012). This approach reflects that it is not assessment alone that has meaningful impacts on student learning, rather the way in which teachers use different types of assessment to gather data, make reliable judgements about student progress, and provide feedback to students (Klenowski, 2011, p. 80).

At the systems-level: Assessment for accountability

Applying this same philosophy, that it is the approach taken to assessment and data that is important, it can be argued that assessments for accountability also have the potential to improve learning outcomes. National reporting regimes are generally conceived to provide valid data to policymakers to improve teaching and learning (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009, p. 20). Standardised tests can provide “an important snapshot of achievement at the school, system, state and national levels” and deliver an additional data point on student achievement (Goss et al., 2015, p. 14).

However, standardised testing in an accountability environment, as in Australia, has proven to have negative impacts when put into practice (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009, p. 20), becoming “a proxy measure that is supposed to facilitate judgements on the quality of most elements of our education system” (Mansell et al., 2009, p. 7). Indeed, the global education reform movement has seen public pressure in Australia to perform in international comparative analyses, which has led to a shift towards standardised assessment at the detriment of formative assessment (Klenowski, 2011, p. 78). Creagh suggests this shift in educational discourse has had troubling consequences, stating “teachers are now experiencing the age of quantitative test-driven assessment, in which there is little weight accorded to teacher-based judgement about student progress” (2014, p. 30).

There is a growing research base that illuminates a raft of unintended consequences caused by the accountability agenda, which has been reported in regards to the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests. This includes teaching to the test, increasing student and teacher anxiety, reducing pedagogy to instructional teaching, and creating classroom environments that are becoming less inclusive, all of which negatively impacts on student learning (Thompson, 2013, p. 64; Queensland Studies Authority, 2009, p. 21). These outcomes reflect a divergence between the intentions and the outcomes of full-cohort standardised testing (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009, p. 20). In fact, Brady argues that the problems associated with NAPLAN are not caused by the test in itself, but from a ‘culture of accountability’ that has developed around it and which “threatens the quality of the test as a single useful predictor of student achievement” (2013, p. 54).

While some argue that the nature of full-cohort tests, as imprecise and ‘single point-in time results’, are entirely incapable of providing useful data to policymakers (Queensland Studies Authority, 2009, p. 21), there are studies that have highlighted that tests such as NAPLAN do have the potential to enable improved learning outcomes. This includes increased emphasis and coordination of school-wide literacy and numeracy approaches, and assisting students to develop strategies to use in exam conditions (Thompson, 2013, p. 67; Brady, 2013). Individual test results can also contribute to a more complete picture of student learning when ‘triangulated’ with formative and summative evidence. They should not; however, be relied upon too heavily alone (Goss et al., 2014, p. 13). One of the clear drawbacks of standardised tests is that they cannot account for why students achieve at the level they do (Brady, 2013), as “teachers are better positioned to assess their students’ depth of knowledge and understanding” (Goss et al., 2014, p. 13).

Balancing assessment data to enhance student learning

In evaluating the varied ways in which summative assessment, formative assessment and assessment for accountability can positively impact student learning, it is important to contrast the intended aim of each form of assessment with their outcomes in practice. While research indicates that the implementation of the accountability agenda in Australia has in some ways negatively influenced classroom practices, standardised tests still have merits when implemented well, playing an important role in ‘a robust assessment framework’ (Goss et al., 2015, p. 13). Similarly, while the evidence base indicates formative assessment enhances student learning, there are particular evidence-based strategies within this that build its impact. These nuances demonstrate that assessment can enhance student learning when data is used appropriately to inform teaching and classroom decisions, when judgements are made in consistent ways that align to the curriculum, and where various forms of assessment data is ‘triangulated’ to build a picture of student learning. This final point is best reflected by Goss et al. who state, “…evidence should come from formal standardised assessments, students’ class work and assignments as well as teachers’ daily conversations with students. No single test provides all of the information teachers need” (Goss et al., 2015, p. 15).



  • AITSL. (2012). Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. Melbourne: Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership. Retrieved from
  • Black, P., Harrison, C., Hodgen, J., Marshall, B. & Serret, N. (2011). Can teachers’ summative assessments produce dependable results and also enhance classroom learning? Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 18(4), 451-469.
  • Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. United Kingdom: School of Education, King’s College.
  • Brady, L. (2013). NAPLAN: Critiquing the Criticisms. Curriculum and Teaching, 28(1), 47-55.
  • Creagh, S. (2014). NAPLaN test data, ESL Bandscales and the validity of EAL/D teacher judgement of student performance. TESOL in Context, 24(2), 30-50.
  • Goss, P., Hunter, J., Romanes, D., & Parsonage, H. (2015). Targeted teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning. Melbourne: Grattan Institute.
  • Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(81), 81-112.
  • Klenowski, V. (2011). Assessment for learning in the accountability era: Queensland, Australia. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 78-83.
  • Mansell, W., James, M. & Assessment Reform Group. (2009).
Assessment in schools. Fit for purpose? A Commentary by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. London: Economic and Social Research Council. Retrieved from sment.pdf
  • Queensland Studies Authority. (2009). Student assessment regimes: Getting the balance right for Australia. QTU Professional Magazine, Nov., 20-26.
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  • Volante, L. & Beckett, D. (2011). Formative assessment and the contemporary classroom: Synergies and tensions between research and practice. Canadian Journal of Education, 34(2), 239-255.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011). What is Assessment for Learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1).






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