Dylan Wiliam: The Role of Leaders in Promoting More Effective Assessment

November 2, 2022


Dylan Wiliam is Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at University College London. In a varied career, he has taught in inner-city schools, directed a large-scale testing programme, served a number of roles in university administration, including Dean of a School of Education, and pursued a research programme focused on supporting teachers to develop their use of assessment in support of learning. Dylan is well known and frequently cited for his contribution to the research on classroom assessment. Dylan joined us recently alongside David Irish, the Principal & Deputy CEO of Shireland Collegiate Academy Trust for a webinar tailored to helping school leaders with assessment best practices.

Who are we? At Nurture we are designing EdTech software to help teachers to close the feedback loop in their classrooms. In 2022 we were winners of the international e-Assessment Awards! For this blog, we’ve collated key facts and findings presented during the webinar!

Why We Need to Raise Levels of Achievement:

Professor Dylan starts with a jarring fact this is- in advanced economies over the next 20 to 30 years, about 25% of work to 35% could be offshored. And about half of the work that’s being done right now could be done by machines with existing technology. These are worrying figures in that, if you look at 15-year-olds in rich countries about 15% of those lack the necessary reading skills to participate in society; that figure is about 20% in the case of mathematics.

This suggests we are doing a social injustice to our students if they are not leaving school with higher levels of achievement. What school leaders need to be wary of is that if we have students achieve these higher levels of achievement by “drilling and killing” them, we’ll end up actually alienating them. 

There is a balancing act that needs to be struck between raising levels of achievement and ensuring that students have a desire and a passion for learning that is undimmed like the one they had as four-year-old upon starting school. 

The focus needs to be heavily on increasing the passion for learning so that it lasts long term. We do not actually know what skills students will need to have to be future ready,  because these students will be working up until the third quarter of the 21st century.

Key points:

  • In 20-30 years about 25% to 35% of work in rich countries will be offshored. 
  • In rich countries, 15% of students lack the reading skills necessary to participate in society. That figure is 20% for Maths. 
  • Focus should be on increasing passion for learning to make them future ready over drilling students.

The Nurture Angle:

Prof. Wiliam reminds us that the future of work is unknown and that the education we provide our students today may ill prepare them for their future jobs. This is where the “drilling and killing” method of teaching disadvantages our students. One key element of successful adaptation to change is in the ability to be self-directed and more autonomous in your learning. At Nurture, one method we have seen success with is our self-reflection requirement to unlock student grades. Firstly, the meta-cognition aspect of self-reflection provides a natural progression to reflective practice in identifying strengths and weaknesses in oneself. Secondly, it encourages more engagement with teacher feedback, giving students more opportunity to absorb and implement the feedback to improve their work and themselves.

What’s Been Tried to Raise Levels of Achievement:

  • Class size reduction has been tried and it is not that it does not work but we would perhaps be better off just paying teachers more rather than reducing class sizes from 30 to 20. 
  • Copying other countries and what they do has been tried… It used to be Germany as the north star, then it was Finland and then it was some of the countries in and around the Pacific Rim but the fact is we do no't actually know concretely why these countries perform better. In South Korea for example there are huge levels of private tuition. The evidence suggests that if that was taken away, the national average in terms of student achievement would be below the international average. 
  • Differentiated instruction has also been tried but the rewards when using past strategies doesn't seem to be worth the extra investment in time. 

The Nurture Angle:

At Nurture we believe teachers’ feedback to be one of the most important aspects in raising student achievement. In its simplest form, we digitise your feedback providing students 24/7 access to their most valuable resource. However, behind the scenes we do much more than that, you can learn more about it from our Microsoft Learn Centre Course.

Using Research Intelligently: 

Professor Dylan Wiliam- “When you look at what can be implemented, there are two best bets for improving education.The first is curriculum development, we now know that some curricula are more effective than others, up to 25% more effective. But here's the problem, we don't know in advance how to make sure the curriculum is more effective. We can retrospectively establish that one curriculum was better than another; we can't predict in advance. In other words, we don't know what to do to make a good curriculum. So right now the evidence is, there's nothing you can do that’s  going to have a bigger impact on student achievement than helping teachers make greater use of classroom formative assessment. A recent randomised control trial in England using and involving 140 schools showed that when teachers were given time to do classroom formative assessment, meeting monthly with their colleagues to hold each other accountable and to get support they spent 1% of their contract time and produced a 25% increase in the rate of progress for years 10 and 11, 9th and 10th graders in the US system for example. So right now we don't know anything that has a bigger impact for a smaller cost than classroom formative assessment.”

The Nurture Angle:

Research is at the heart of what we do in Nurture. To develop our formative assessment and feedback framework, we worked directly with Learnovate, the EdTech research and design centre in Trinity College, Dublin. If you would like to get a demo from the team on how Nurture works in the classroom, you can book one in here.

Why Does Formative Assessment Need to Be A Priority?:

It must be prioritised because it is very hard to know what students have understood versus what they have not, and short term formative assessment is the best way to ascertain this and teach accordingly. 

Teachers have always checked for understanding, but they usually do so by hearing only from the confident and articulate students. Teachers can only make necessary classroom adjustments if they are gathering better evidence of what is going on in all students' heads.

“If I had to reduce all of educational psychology to just one principle, I would say this: The most important thing influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach him (or her) accordingly.” (Ausubel, 1968 p.vi). 

And when and how often should we be doing formative assessment to get the best results?

Professor Dylan Wiliam- “the research evidence we have available right now suggests that the biggest impact comes when it’s done within and in between classes. Minute by minute and day by day rather than an informative assessment every 6 to 10 weeks.”

Unpacking Formative Assessment:

Practical Advice For Formative Assessment:

  • Teachers should share learning intentions and success criteria when appropriate but not necessarily at the beginning.
  • You should start with examples rather than rubrics because rubrics,  although they may improve the work that the students hand in, they do not necessarily help the learner. 
  • On top of this sharing varied examples is suggested as this shows students that there is more than one way to tackle a question.
  • Ask students to assess the work of anonymous others because assessing your own work is emotionally challenging and cognitively demanding.

Practical Advice to Show Evidence of Learning:

  • Encourage the asking of questions in the classroom. There are two good reasons for this, one is to cause thinking and the other is to collect evidence to inform instruction. 
  • Other advice would be to operate a strategy of no hands up in the classroom except when it is to ask a question, this results in the more confident kids in the classroom not dominating it. 
  • Using all student response systems, either analog systems (example: red and green discs- see image below) or tools like Slido can be the most effective ways to gather evidence of whole class students’ understanding.

Practical Advice For Giving Feedback:

  • The idea of four quarters marking. This approach aims to spend 25% of time spent on feedback on individual feedback, 25% on whole class feedback, 25% on peer feedback and the rest on self assessment. 
  • Other suggested advice is to not mark everything and do not always give complete solutions, you are then making feedback into detective work for students which is a good thing.

Practical Advice For Improving Peer & Self Assessment:

  • Peer assessment is a stepping stone to good self assessment. Start with students assessing anonymous peers, then their actual peers and then themselves. 
  • Pool students into groups and ask the group questions in which you want a combined answer based on the group's knowledge. 
  • After conducting an individualised assessment, have students move into groups and create a composite response based on them pooling their written answers. 
  • A student practising testing themselves on what they have been learning is probably the single best way to make that learning stick.

Suggested Adjustment to Class Structure to Accommodate Formative Assessment:

  • Finish up each class 10-minutes early to allow for students to do a quick assessment of their understanding. School Leaders would need to ensure that there is slack in the system to allow for this. The benefit is, if the content is understood teachers can move on, if it is not they can allow time for a review on that topic. 
  • How this would work in the case of a half term is: all the essential material would be taught in the first 5 weeks with a test at the end. If students do well, for week 6 the teachers can move onto extension material, if they do badly they can spend week 6 doing a review.

Shireland Collegiate Academies Journey To Practising More Formative Assessment:

Shireland Collegiate Academy is a post-primary Microsoft Showcase school in the UK. The school is situated in an area of significant deprivation and high social mobility. Despite this, the school, in part due to their embracing of technology has been graded as outstanding multiple times in recent years in the Ofsted ratings. 

Principal David Irish, was excited to join the webinar with us for a number of reasons. For one, Professor Dylan William had spoken at the school years ago as they embarked on their journey to focus more on formative assessment. The other reason is, Shireland are using Nurture to help close the feedback loop in their classroom’s and in the past year they have achieved their highest GCSE results to date across multiple subjects. The school has been implementing many new assessment and feedback initiatives so we were glad to have David with us to share the journey.

Here Were Some Notable Checkpoints in Their Journey:

  • Over the past 7 years Dylan has spoken to staff at the school twice. This has influenced many of the formative assessment and feedback practices that are now built into their schemes. A notable shift in the approach happened when they started undertaking the embedding formative assessment programme during Covid lockdown, and they created teacher learning communities while undertaking this. 
  • Because of being involved with that programme it meant that they were able to have really engaging online conversations about assessment and feedback during lockdown and they identified learnings that they really wanted to bring back to the school when they went back to face-to-face learning. 
  • When Nurture was introduced to the school prior to the 2021 school year, David Irish mentions- “they saw the benefits of and the synergy between the product and the methodology that we were using for embedding formative assessment and for feeding back to students across our curriculum”. 
  • Shireland ran a pilot study in English, Maths, Science, History and Literacy for Life. Initially, David thought that it would improve staff workload but the main benefits actually ended up being that it was making feedback more meaningful to students and staff were getting more from the feedback sessions they would have with students. Using Nurture as part of lessons just generated far more engaging classroom discussion than they were expecting. 

Results From Shirelands Efforts:

We are proud to be working so closely with the staff and leadership of Shireland Collegiate Academy. Through this partnership we have seen how Nurture can be successfully implemented in a whole school setting. Additionally, we have seen the creative ways in which teachers implement Nurture beyond just traditional formative assessments at key learning junctures. Teachers have used Nurture to: provide lesson-by-lesson formative feedback; instant assessment and feedback in observational/oral lessons; project management and tracking of content/skills and so much more. When we spoke to David Irish at the start of this academic year we were delighted to hear that English and History had received their highest ever GCSE results-  which he attributes some small part to the use of Nurture influence within those pilot groups. However, even more fascinating to us here at Nurture was the finding that his staff were incredibly accurate in their predictive scores for students because of the additional evidence they collected. If you wish to learn more about how Nurture can help you close the feedback loop you can contact us on any of our details below.

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We want to extend our thanks to Prof. Dylan Wiliam, David Irish and all our partners who made this webinar possible. Please look forward to similar events from us in the future.