Assessment for Learning


Effective use of Assessment for Learning can help teachers to promote truly independent learning. Advanced skills teacher Denise Smith offers young teachers some advice on implementing AfL successfully.

Teaching has been transformed in the past few years. When I first joined the profession, I thought that my job was to inspire the students and possibly entertain them.

It still is, but now it is more importantly to create learners; people who care about their grades, want to improve their grades, know how to do it, and endeavour to do so independently.

The students’ language and thought processes have changed. Instead of “what’s the answer to this question?”, students are now asking “what grade is this?” and “can I work towards the next grade?”. Of course, the answer is always “yes, go for it!”, even if it is far above their target grade. 

When I give them the grade for their work, students compare it to their target grade, rather than other students’ grades.

I sometimes feel astounded when I am in the classroom. I am in a room full of professional people. The students are rushing around, talking to each other, asking other students what the key words are that need to be included, and helping each other. Their conversations are about what grade they are planning to work towards and what grade they think their work is now. 

Sometimes I think that I should be doing more, but they are doing it themselves. When being observed by a lead Ofsted inspector recently, I felt on edge about the fact that I wasn’t appearing to be actively involved, but the fact that the students didn’t need much input from me to make good progress was one of the factors that contributed towards the lesson being graded “outstanding”.

Using AfL in the classroom

There are certain steps that need to be taken to create this environment where assessment and the resulting feedback are used to improve students’ work. 

First, students’ target grades need to be shared with them at the beginning of your time with them. These are the grades that have been formulated by key stage 2 results and, if they are in year 8 or above, the progress they have made throughout their time in secondary school so far.

It is important to be sensitive at this stage. For example, some students will not want their target grade to be read aloud in front of the rest of the class. However, it is also important to create an atmosphere in which students are confident in discussing their target grades. I would recommend comfortably discussing grades when students are working in small groups, so that they get used to the openness necessary for this type of learning.

Second, it is important to try as much as possible to learn the students’ target grades. This will mean that you are able to discuss their progress towards their targets easily and readily. Nevertheless, until you have learned them, it is perfectly acceptable to have them on a piece of paper that you have easy access to during the lessons.

As a major part of your practice it is crucial that you embed the criteria for each grade into your lessons as much as possible. If you teach English, mathematics, science or ICT, there are specific grade descriptors for you to use, in the form of APP (Assessing Pupils’ Progress) Assessment Focuses. 

However, there are also APPs for reading, writing and speaking and listening, which can be used in any subject. Grade descriptors from other subjects can be found on the School Curriculum section of the Department for Education website. 

Once you have the grade descriptors, you could plan your work around them and during the relevant activities, have the descriptors on the board. For example, you will have “For a grade 3, you will...”, “For a grade 4, you will...” and so on. 

While students are working, they are likely to ask you what their grade is. To encourage them to be responsible for their progress, ask them to look at the grade descriptors and decide what grade they think their work is so far. You can then tell them whether or not you agree. You will follow that with what they need to do to move their work up to the next grade, or, again, ask them to identify the next step.

There are also ways of using language to help encourage students to work independently. We need to steer clear of providing them answers to write down, but we need to act as facilitators for learning. 

We could be saying things like “That’s a grade X, to get to the next grade, you need to research...”, “The vocabulary you are using is at a grade X. Well done”, or “What do you need to do to get to a grade X?” 

This does not need to happen solely in lessons where you will be formally assessing the students’ grades. It can be common practice throughout all lessons. Have a copy of the APP criteria or national curriculum grade descriptors in your classroom, so you can refer to it at any time.

Before you know it, you will be inundated with requests to grade the students’ work. You will find that students who are sometimes difficult to motivate are determined to attain the next grade over and over again until they are amazed at what they have been able to achieve.

AfL can even then be taken a step further by asking students to assess each other’s work. They could use sticky note paper to write what grade they assess the work to be at and what needs to be done to improve it. If you set up an encouraging and confident atmosphere, students will take this advice on board, as much as they would the teacher’s.

When you have finished the task and graded the work, you must then share the outcome with the student as soon as possible, while it is fresh in their minds and while they can remember how enthused they were at the time. They need to then compare their grade with their target grade. An easy, visual way to do this is to colour-code their grade, in green for above their target grade, amber if they have matched it, and red if they have not met it yet. You will also need to give them advice on what they need to do to get to the next grade.

The great thing about this use of AfL is that no matter if their work comes out above or below target, you can then give the student a chance to improve their work, using the feedback you have given them. Once this stage has been reached and the grade is higher, it is important to celebrate with the students. 

To increase their motivation further, you could also write home to let parents or carers know if a student has met or achieved their target grade. If the student has not yet achieved it, your letter could still be supportive, by letting them know that the target grade has not yet been achieved, but that the student still has the chance to improve it by focusing on such and such.

What you will develop using this practice is a record of reliable and evidenced results, which you can then use to assess overall progress. You will be able to use this record to identify early anybody who is underachieving and take steps in the form of differentiation and extra help to work with them to improve their grades. 


Using AfL to promote independent learning in this way requires good preparation and prompt feedback and you will reap the rewards. Teachers familiarising themselves with the grade descriptors is a very good thing. It makes them very clear when they are discussing with students what they need to do to get the grade they deserve and this level of professionalism is highly respected by the students who, at the end of the day, know they are there to learn and want to do so. 

Students now have ownership of their grades and are empowered as a result, which makes our job a lot easier and a lot more rewarding.

  • Denise Smith is an advanced skills teacher and is in her eighth year of teaching science. 

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Brilliant Trainee Teacher is written by advanced skills teacher Denise Smith and is published by Pearson. 
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