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Moments of Contingency: How Black and William conceptualize formative assessment

20 Jun 2011

I’ve always believed instinctively that assessment is the cornerstone of learning. I’ve recently read an interesting paper by the eminent Professors Paul Black and Dylan William that conceptualizes this powerfully.

Paul Black (left) and Dylan William

In Developing the theory of formative assessment, published in 2009 in the journal Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, they describe how formative assessment gives “Moments of Contingency” in instruction – critical points where learning changes direction depending on an assessment.

In their model, assessment gives you information to take decisions to direct learning, and so makes instruction and learning more effective than it would have been otherwise. There are many paths that instruction can go down, and formative assessment helps people choose the right path.

Black and William’s formal definition of formative assessment is how “evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers, to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited”.

Like Professor David Nicol about whom I blogged earlier, an important point they make is that formative assessment is not only instructor-led, but is also about interaction with peers and self-assessment. Black and William have done most of their work in education, but their message resonates with the 70+20+10 model currently sweeping corporate learning. Increasingly we are realizing that interaction with learning peers is a critical part of learning: they can give you feedback, questions or insight that help you learn. As a learner, you can regulate your own learning and are responsible for it – and assessments help you make the decisions on how to adjust your learning.

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