Book Review: Embedded Formative Assessment

The upcoming Voicethread conversation that I’ll be moderating will explore the issues related to assessment and grading, with some special emphasis on formative assessment.  In preparation for this event–which you are all strongly encouraged to join–I have been reading some of the new books by several of the authors who will be part of the discussion.  A few days ago, I reviewed Doug Reeves’ Elements of Grading, and now I want to introduce you to a very different short book about assessment.

Dylan Wiliam’s new book “Embedded Formative Assessment” focuses on two fundamental ideas: why is student achievement important and how can we use formative assessment in everything we do.

If I can make one criticism of the book, it’s that it focuses a bit too much on what school leaders need to do and less on what teachers can accomplish.  Then again, this might be one of my weaknesses as a teacher leader: I get frustrated with looking at the big picture yet not being able to make real change in my classroom.

I like that Wiliam describes more than fifty different techniques, yet pulls them all together in Chapter 2.  This well-reasoned section deals with the argument supporting the importance of formative assessment, as well as the fundamental issue of how we define the term.  I especially like the emphasis that he puts on the role that formative assessment plays in informing students about their own academic progress.  I think that this is a goal of formative assessment that is lacking in many instances, including my own instructional practices.

At its core, Embedded Formative Assessment really focuses on the five key strategies that Wiliam presents as the function of formative assessment:

  1. Communicating learning outcomes (the author prefers “intentions”) and expectations
  2. Choosing the best instructional strategies
  3. Providing opportunities for feedback
  4. Engaging students in the role of peer instructor
  5. Providing opportunities for student ownership of their learning

For me, the most striking aspect of this new book is the strong case that Dylan Wiliam makes for teachers integrating formative assessment into our daily lessons, and the importance of teaching students to take responsibility for their own learning.  These are the two lessons that I think we all need to learn, and this book does a great job of convincing teachers.

How do you use formative assessment on a regular basis?


Don’t forget to join us here at Scripted Spontaneity on October 6 for a chance to interact with Dylan Wiliam and several other assessment gurus on our latest Voicethread conversation.

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Embedded Formative Assessment

  1. Paul,
    I have not read this book (although after your review, I think I might!), but have read other writings from this author. My take away from Wiliam’s writing:
    formative assessment is fairly simple in theory (the five key strategies mentioned), but most folks I know admit that it’s stinkin’ hard in practice. John Goodlad, in one of his books, shares a similar thought, “…learning appears to be enhanced when students understand what is expected of them, get recognition for their work, learn quickly about their errors, and receive guidance in improving their performance”

    I think this is why I’m looking forward to the upcoming VT discussion — to learn from others who are serious about moving beyond the theory into the nuts and bolts of putting it into action.


    1. Matt,

      I agree with you (and Bill Ferriter’s recent post) about the significant (prohibitive?) amount of time and effort that need to go into this sort of formative assessment.

      However, Wiliam makes a strong case in this book for the informal ways that we can capture and share data with students. I’m not completely convinced, but I am eager (like you) to learn more in a couple of weeks.


  2. Hey Pal,

    I think the tension I feel is between formatively assessing to inform my own practice and formatively assessing to inform parents and students of progress towards mastery.

    I get that formative assessment doesn’t have to be a time consuming process if I’m just using it to inform my own actions and instructional directions, but if formative assessment is also fundamentally about reporting progress to both students and teachers, it automatically BECOMES a time consuming process simply because we’ve got so many students to work with.

    Does this make any sense?

    People have been sharing quick, simple formative assessment strategies with me for several weeks now after reading my post, but none of them involves any kind of record keeping or reporting.

    I guess what I’m wondering is how productive is formative assessment when it isn’t accompanied by reporting or record keeping.

    Be sure to remind me through email when your conversation starts. I want to play because I’m clueless when it comes to formative assessment!

    Rock on,


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