This paper is suitable for school and subject leaders in England with responsibility for planning and delivering the history curriculum. It provides a summary of ASCL’s full guidance paper Progression and Assessment in History and works in conjunction with ASCL’s Framework Supporting Progression and Assessment in History.
To simplify a complex concept, the purpose of formative assessment is to find out what students currently know and understand, and to use that information to help them improve in that subject.
Formative assessment is a vital classroom practice, perhaps the vital practice. However, in recent years, formative assessment has often become corrupted into a set of generic strategies, levelled activities, and tick-boxes on lesson plans which do not serve to improve students’ understanding. In order for it to be truly effective it needs to be put at the heart of classroom learning and, above all, at the heart of the specific subject. The key message is that this cannot be done without first reflecting on the fundamental aims and on how pupils make progress in the subject.
This guide provides suggestions for how to ensure that this is the case in your history department. It then outlines some basic principles of good practice to guide any formative assessment systems that departments may decide to put in place.
Formative assessment is inextricably connected to an understanding of progression in history. Effective formative assessment assesses how far the pupils are gaining knowledge and understanding which will enable them to meet the objectives of the curriculum and make progress in the subject.
Schools, therefore, need to have a clear idea of what progression looks like in history, and of what their history curriculum aims to achieve before considering their assessment strategies. This will involve reflection on, and discussion about: the aims of history, the content that should be covered in a history curriculum, and how pupils make progress in history. This then sets the stage for thinking about assessing progress and attainment. Conceptualising formative assessment as an activity which can be conducted in exactly the same way in every subject, independent of that subject’s particularities, will lead to ineffective practice. It needs to come from a deep understanding of progress in history.
Formative assessment, therefore, is subject-based and must be subject-based in order to be effective. However, there are some general principles and strategies of formative assessment which must:
elicit information on the pupil’s knowledge and understanding
communicate this to them so that they can improve
use this information to modify future teaching
There is a wide and well-known range of strategies to achieve this, but their effectiveness depends on how well they meet these three targets with reference to developing knowledge and understanding in history.
As discussed above, no effective policy on formative assessment can be embedded without a department-wide reflection on progression in history, the aims of assessment, and the aims of the history curriculum. This will produce a different outcome in each department in the country. However, a great deal of work has been done on progression models, formative assessment and the history curriculum in recent years, as highlighted in ASCL’s Progression and Assessment in History. This can be a useful starting-point.
In some areas, there is a relative degree of consensus on good practice but beware of applying these strategies ‘off the shelf’ without first tackling the concepts of historical progression and the curriculum outlined above.
When completing extended enquiries and written projects, it is vital to use task-specific mark schemes, which are developed with reference to the task at hand, assess the selection of relevant knowledge as well as second-order concepts, and are not geared to end-of-Key Stage targets/levels (see for example, Brown and Burnham, Fordham). Research strongly suggests that grades can be demotivating and cause students to ignore feedback. Best practice is to give comment-only feedback which identifies strengths and areas for development, and gives students specific information on how to act on these areas for development.
Recent research supports the value of frequent, short tests of students’ substantive and conceptual knowledge. If students are lacking in substantive knowledge, then they will struggle to access historical enquiries; they will be lacking if substantive knowledge which they have gained is not revisited. Frequent, low-stakes tests help pupils to build their knowledge by progressively retaining information. This is supported by the findings of neurological and psychological research (Roediger, Putnam, and Smith, 20111; Karpicke and Roediger, 20072).
There is a wealth of information to suggest that learning occurs by changes in long-term memory, which require consistent revisiting and consolidation of information (see Kirschner, Sweller and Clark, 2006). Formatively assessing pupils’ learning over time is therefore also vital. In history curricula, topics are often covered once and then never revisited. This is almost guaranteed to produce patchy and insufficient knowledge and understanding of that topic, as information is forgotten rapidly and not consolidated in pupils’ long-term memories.
Creating a culture of professional development in formative assessment is vital. ITT and CPD are sorely lacking in this area. This involves CPD sessions, internal and external moderation, and continued departmental discussion of the aims and principles of assessment in history.
Guidance paper by Stephen Ayres, History teacher at Foxford School and Community Arts College.
1 Roediger, H.L., III, Putnam, A. L., & Smith, M. A. (2011). Ten benefits of testing and their applications to educational practice. In J. Mestre & B. Ross (Eds.), Psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education. Oxford: Elsevier.