3.7.2 Assessment of Learning, Assessment for Learning and Assessment as Learning

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • to be able to define assessment of, for, and as learning
  • to be able to appreciate the key features of the three perspectives
  • to be able to make your own judgements about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of the three approaches explored in the chapter
  • to be able to apply discretion in your choice of assessment approaches in your own teaching practice

What is AoL and what are its strengths/limitations?

Assessment of learning (AoL) is perhaps the form of assessment which makes most everyday sense, in that the term refers to the varieties of assessment which are summative: they are designed to evidence how learners have developed in skills and knowledge terms as a consequence of attending and completing a course of instruction. AoL is intended to validate that such achievement has taken place and that learning outcomes for the course have been met, to award qualifications for the level of proficiency attained, and to inform decision-making about future progression to higher-level courses. AoL is often used as a marker to others (parents, prospective employers, new institutions as examples) about the level of achievement of the learner under consideration. Such grades may also go on to inform the education system about the quality of the educational experience being delivered in that institution.

It is important that AoL is robust, transparent, logical, and auditable, so that the qualifications earned and the inferences which may be drawn from data derived from those results are defensible (Ginnis, 2002). Where there are courses of instruction, there will invariably be some form of AoL. Summative assessment is a long-standing aspect of education, and is important in many respects. Learners as well as others need, and respond well to, a single summary statement of their learning, and AoL is a straightforward way of providing this.

In terms of course design, AoL can support the idea of learning as a narrative; the course building to climactic final assessments from which the qualification and its level may be wholly or substantively derived. The roles of the teacher in an AoL context are many and varied. Effective and responsible AoL demands that teachers can give reasonable rationales in the setting of a given piece of AoL work at that part of the course, that the learning outcomes of the assessment are clear and relevant, and that learners have had fair and comprehensive opportunity to prepare for the assessment. It is useful for there to be alternative means to achieve the learning outcomes (these might be coursework alternatives, or opportunities to retake in examination circumstances), as well as appeal procedures in place if there are valid disagreements over grading (Capel, 2016).

AoL requires that the assessment methods used are fair and relevant to the subject and level being studied, and that learning outcomes are achievable within that summative assessment in an equally fair way. Though examinations and tests are often used, they are not the only types of assessment which might be articulated in AoL. Others might include, for example, presentations, portfolio work, examination of products, live performances, and exhibitions. Coursework may be used in both formative and summative contexts, building up over time to provide evidence not only of achievement and engagement with the topics studied on an ongoing basis, but also as a summative statement of the learner's ability over the whole of the course.

The advantages of AoL include the fact that a final assessment is well-understood in principle in Western society, and that it provokes the idea of trajectory towards something, as well as a final event which helps mark the climax of a course. Learners respond well to knowing how they have achieved, and though a final mark may be reductive, it nevertheless offers a capsule grade for one to measure oneself against in performance terms. AoL methods can be used at all levels and across all subjects; they are flexible and responsive to the need for assessment in education (Wellington, 2006). AoL can, though, be stressful to learners as they become aware of their responsibilities to perform within the assessment rubric, and there can be tight deadlines for turnaround of marked and moderated with to learner which can be difficult to achieve. A single AoL opportunity may not fully reflect a learner's individual competencies; we have all, perhaps, come across the lazy but talented learner who can perform well in an examination, or otherwise the competent student who fails to submit a crucial piece of final work, or who habitually underperforms in test conditions. Summative AoL may also not provide much in the way of feedback beyond a grade, particularly if that work has been externally graded; a grade, though a useful shorthand, can only give so much qualitative information to and about a learner and the nature of their engagement with a subject.     

What is AfL and what are its strengths/limitations?

Assessment for learning (AfL) can be defined as an approach which puts learners at the centre of classroom engagements by giving them all the relevant information which they require to take appropriate steps by which they can develop themselves in the subject area under instruction. An AfL approach understands that the integration of assessment with tasks and activities in the classroom is central to not only supporting learning, but to enhancing pupil achievement. In order to do this, learners need to know (Jones, 2005):

  • the aim of the learning
  • what is required of them as learners
  • how far they have already progressed towards achieving the aim
  • how they can achieve the aim

Jones (2005) links quality of learning with learner knowledge of the above-listed aspects; a shared ownership of the learning between teacher and pupils not only means that responsibility for their achievement is aimed, but there are also benefits for learner motivation, and for their self-esteem and confidence.

Jones (2005) also identifies how the tutor may improve the effectiveness of their assessment, by working in a way informed by AfL principles - teachers should consider:

  • giving clear explanations of learning aims to pupils, and then checking that those aims are understood
  • demonstrating not only the level of attainment required by the course, but how those standards of competence may be recognised
  • the giving of timely and effective feedback, which gives clear guidance on improvements if needed
  • be positive and progressive, demanding continual improvement and the maintenance of high standards of achievement
  • the promotion of learners' self-assessment and peer assessment competencies
  • developing mechanisms by which feedback can be given, and reflective practice on learning may be entered by learners

Feedback should be individualised; a bespoke approach can incentivise weaker learners and reward more able learners, while giving each an appropriate level of guidance and challenge. There can be a temptation to focus attention on the less able to bring them up to an acceptable minimum standard; though this dedication is to be lauded, it should not occur at the expense of those who are performing well, and whose potential may go unchallenged through lack of attention being paid by teaching staff.

The advantages of such a way of working is that, if correctly and rigorously planned and prepared in advance, and executed in-session, then all the pieces are in place for AfL to take place. The potential downsides of such an approach are in the amount of preparatory work required, the concentration and diligence expected while teaching, and the requirement of buy-in by learners. An AfL approach assumes the informed consent of learners as active participants in their learning, and this may not be guaranteed of all learners.  A well-organised and meaningful session, though, led by a capable and committed teacher who is enthusiastic and invested in the achievement of their pupils, has the best chance of securing not only the respect and attention of the class, but of their engagement with the session and course objectives.

What is AaL and what are its strengths/limitations?

Assessment as learning (AaL) is student-centric, and considers assessment as it relates to an understanding of one's own thought processes as a learner. In AaL, learning is a not merely a process of transfer of knowledge to the learner with the teacher's support, but is related more precisely with the way that learners develop internally as they engage with new ideas. This means that learners must be critically invested in their learning, so that they can fully engage in processes related to making sense of new information as they access it, that connections can be made to existing knowledge, and that the fresh material can be incorporated and analysed so that new learning may take place. AaL therefore has a concern with metacognition, in that knowledge of one's own thinking processes is central, and that learners can become proficient in critically examining their own learning and are constantly refining their abilities to adjust their relationship to knowledge as new ideas, concepts, and intellectual positions on topic become available to them (Manitoba Education, 2006).

AaL, therefore, is concerned with the development over time of learner abilities to become independent learners and to be self-regulating and self-assessing, though this needs to be developed and supported by educators. Part of the role of teachers in scaffolding students in this regard, then, is in providing contexts in which students can work towards self-assessment through learning in incremental and measured steps. This includes, for example, the providing of the contextual study and reflective skills to empower learners towards self-assessment, and in designing assessments (and, indeed, curricula) in which not only AaL can be engaged, but where this is relevant and appropriate to the development of those learners in the subject being explored (Earl, 2013).

AaL does not remove or downplay the relevance of the teacher figure in assessment; rather, it alters it by expanding that role into the consideration of how best to develop learners towards being flexible in their approach to learning, to being reflective and evidence-driven, to being self-motivating and independent, and to being analytical and evaluative, as well as having the higher-level transferable and communicative skills so that learning may be articulated. Such competencies are not easy to acquire, and require direction and focus from the teacher, as well as modelling so that learners may have appropriate role models from which to develop. The role of the teacher in an AaL context is rather to support appropriate goal-setting and progress monitoring in learners, and to tutor self-assessment competencies.

In an AaL context, the quality and detail of feedback given to learners can be critical. Though AaL is naturally geared towards independent enquiry, learners nevertheless need support, direction and guidance in their endeavours in the form of feedback, be it interim or summative, informal or formalised. Effective and timely feedback provides a necessary check and balance, not only to reassure the learner that they are making appropriate progress in their work, but that they are also challenged about their work in constructive ways. Appropriate mentoring offers alternatives, suggests new directions, different hypotheses, and an equitable and collegiate environment in which to discuss the learner's progress and their thoughts on that progress.

Though AaL may, on the surface, be more suitable for research work, higher level learning and project-based working, there may be opportunities at all levels and subjects for aspects of AaL to be incorporated into the suite of assessment approaches adopted by a course of instruction. The support, contextual skills, and mentoring aspects of AaL can be difficult to organise logistically, and may represent a large investment in time and interpersonal resources, but may yield benefits in engaged, self-motivating and self-aware learners. AaL is perhaps most appropriate where the aims and objectives relate less to the product of assessment and more towards the range of cognitive skills deployed in service of that assessment being completed.


Assessment is ongoing and summative, is formal and informal, can be teacher-directed, and student-centric. The balance of these - and other - elements which you elect to employ as an educator will be influenced by a set of parameters. Some of these conditions you may well have little control over, such as where there externally-set curriculum and testing arrangements in place for you to apply to your learners. Others, such as the ways in which individual lessons are planned and prepared for, and executed and reflected upon, are well within your remit to sculpt as you see fit in your professional capacity as an educator. 


Capel, S. (2016) Learning to teach in the secondary school: A companion to school experience. Edited by Susan Capel, Marilyn Leask, and Sarah Younie. 7th edn. United Kingdom: Routledge.

Dann, R. (2002) Promoting assessment as learning: improving the learning process. London: Routledge Falmer.

Earl, L.M. (2013) Assessment as learning: using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. 2nd edn. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Ginnis, P. (2002) The teacher's toolkit: raise classroom achievement with strategies for every learner. London: Crown House Publishing.

Jones, C.A. (2005) Assessment for learning. Available at: http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/7800/1/AssessmentforLearning.pdf (Accessed: 10 November 2016).

Manitoba Education (2005) Rethinking classroom assessment with purpose in mind assessment for learning assessment as learning assessment of learning. Available at: http://www.edu.gov.mb.ca/k12/assess/wncp/full_doc.pdf (Accessed: 11 November 2016).

McGill, R.M. (2015) Teacher toolkit: helping you survive your first five years. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Smith, I. (2014) Assessment and learning. 2nd edn. London, United Kingdom: Teachers' Pocketbooks.

Spendlove, D. (2015) 100 ideas for secondary teachers: assessment for learning. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Wellington, J. (2006) Secondary education: the key concepts. London: Routledge.

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