Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom

Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, Marshall B, Wiliam D

January 9, 2004


Dylan and Wiliam implemented a study of 24 Math and Science teachers in England.  

They aimed to investigate whether improving the quality of teachers’ day-to-day classroom assessment could have a significant impact on student learning.  

Through improved questioning techniques, comments for improvement as opposed to grading, and involving students in self and peer assessment, teachers found that attitude and motivation, as well as academic achievement, improved. 

Research objectives 

Dylan and Wiliam's previous research, Inside The Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment pioneered the ways in which formative assessment is perceived and implemented in the classroom.  

With this paper, they aimed to investigate two key questions:

  • Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment?
  • What is sound advice for the improvement of classroom assessment?

Research methodology 

The study was designed and implemented through the King's-Med way-Oxfordshire Formative Assessment (KMOFAP) Project.  

It involved 24 Math and Science teachers across six coeducational schools in Southern England.

Each teacher implemented changes across four teaching strategies: 

  • Questioning 
  • Feedback through grading 
  • Peer and self assessment, and 
  • The formative use of summative tests


One of the main findings was the way in which teachers’ perceptions of implementing these strategies changes.  At first, many found the new approach to be ‘scary’, and were fearful of losing control of their classes.  

Towards the projects’ conclusion, they reported feeling as equal partners and sharing responsibility with their students in pursuit of a shared goal.  

This signified that both teacher and student expectations of their individual roles had been significantly altered.  

Dylan and Wiliam note that these changes came about slowly and steadily, as teachers grew in confidence and experience to use strategies for enriching interaction and feedback. 

Shifting the nature of collaboration between students and teachers produces a supportive environment for students to explore their own and peer ideas, and evaluate these. 

More specifically, verbal and written feedback that highlights expectations and steps for improvement was found to enhance students’ skills and strategies for effective learning. 


Dylan and Black recommend practical, achievable steps for meaningful implementation of assessment in the classroom. 

These include:

  • Reflecting on current practices as a first step.  Engaging with colleagues through discussion and observation are also suggested to change the classroom culture, especially as a starting point.
  • Support from administrators is essential.  Peer groups of teachers should be supported to meet regularly.  Opportunities should be available for teachers to share at staff meetings and when reporting to leadership. 
  • Teachers should choose to implement one change they feel confident in trying, such as peer assessment or improved questioning, and simply try it.  They should focus on a single class or a small group of students to begin with.    
  • Parents should be involved and educated on the changes and their educational rationale, such as emphasising feedback as opposed to grading. 
  • The ‘classroom contract’ between the teacher and the student  - the rules that govern expected behaviors need to be shifted.  Students should be guided to change from passive recipients of knowledge to becoming active learners who can be responsible for and manage their own learning.  
  • Students should be encouraged to work collaboratively, listen intently and learn how to express their thinking.  


Black P, Harrison C, Lee C, Marshall B, Wiliam D. Working inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom. Phi Delta Kappan. 2004; 86(1): 8-21. doi: 10.1177 /003172170 408600105

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