Journal article published in Applied Measurement in Education, Volume 31, Issue 2.

Access (paywall): Alonzo (2018) via

Scope of Paper

This overview article defines 'learning progressions' and makes the case for learning progressions having significant potential improve the effectiveness of formative assessment in the classroom.

The author outlines the challenges that teachers face with formative assessment, and gives a framework for using learning progressions to address those challenges.

Main Findings

  • Effective formative assessment requires clear articulation of learning objectives and an understanding-based approach.
  • Formative assessment is susceptible to providing teachers with a 'gets it/doesn't get it' model of student understanding. This is of little use to both teacher and student, and restricts the ability of the teacher to tailor future teaching.
  • Learning progressions give teachers a framework for assessing to what extent students understand concepts. This approach is much more effective in guiding teachers to respond to their students with feedback that enhances learning.
  • Pre-planning teaching options based on learning progressions reduces the amount of 'on the fly' assessment that teachers use in the classroom. This gives teachers a more focused approach to helping students make links between the building blocks that make up a greater understanding of a topic.

More Detail

Formative assessment is a process used by teachers to elicit evidence of student understanding, and to adjust their ongoing teaching accordingly. The aim of formative assessment is to improve learning outcomes for students.

Formative assessment is not only a tool for teachers. Students perform an important role in the formative assessment process: the quality of a teacher's assessment is based almost entirely on the quality of the responses and input from students. When conducted well, formative assessment should also inform the student themselves of their progress to date and any significant knowledge gaps.

The process of formative assessment relies on three phases:

  1. The teacher eliciting evidence of student thinking,
  2. The teacher interpreting this evidence, and
  3. The teacher responding with an appropriate intervention.

Formative assessment should not be thought of as an assessment 'instrument'. Rather, it is a set of tools and strategies that form a part of a wider practice. This practice might be used formally or informally, but in either case, effective formative assessment requires clear articulation of learning objectives and an understanding-based approach.

In other words, formative assessment should focus on a student's level of understanding, and not solely evaluate right or wrong answers.


A common problem with formative assessment practice is that it results in teachers eliciting a 'gets it/doesn't get it' view of their students' understanding of a topic. This dichotomous categorisation of 'gets it' and 'doesn't get it' does not allow the teacher to appropriately respond with specific instruction.

This phenomenon is typically associated with low-order questioning, particularly when the question is based on simple recall of vocabulary or facts, with a 'right or wrong' answer expected. For formative assessment to be effective, a deeper understanding of students thinking is required. In particular, this allows teachers to respond with specific, targeted teaching interventions.

A similar challenge exists when interpreting student understanding. Even in cases where nuanced information about student understanding has been elicited, it is common for teachers to take a holistic approach to interpreting this information. This can also lead to teachers categorising understanding as 'gets it/doesn't get it'.

Lastly, it can be challenging to effectively respond to student understanding. Without a detailed understanding of student thinking, it can be difficult to respond other than by providing the correct answer.

Formative assessment is of little use without predetermined plans for how to respond to several different levels of student understanding.

Learning progressions as support for teachers’ formative assessment practices

Learning progressions are defined as 'descriptions of the successively more sophisticated ways of thinking about a topic that can follow one another as children learn'.

Learning progressions therefore focus on breaking down a larger learning goal into more manageable pieces, with clear links between the 'chunks'. Typically these chunks would contain progressively more sophisticated material, producing a 'trajectory of development' of a student's understanding of a given topic.

In other words, learning progressions provide levels in between the categories of 'doesn't get it' and 'gets it'. For example, by categorising understanding of a concept as basic, intermediate, advanced, and so on, potentially with many levels in between.

Through the lens of formative assessment, the top level should encompass the complete understanding of a topic, while the lower levels might consist of 'correct but incomplete' building blocks, that when combined result in the desired levels of proficiency. As such, these levels provide guidance for teachers on how to make links between the building blocks when responding to students.

Having predetermined ideas of learning progressions focuses a teacher's formative assessment on students' ideas, and provides a nuanced framework for interpreting and responding during formative assessment. This is analogous to developing pedagogical content knowledge (PCK).

Defining learning progressions is a process that may require assessment itself. As such there is debate about whether these assessments form part of the learning progression. How meta! Others suggest that learning progressions can be thought of as more universal, and can therefore be developed using the PCK of teaching peers and the teaching community as a whole.

Eliciting evidence of student thinking

Formative assessment based on predetermined learning progressions helps teachers elicit more elaborate and nuanced evidence of student thinking. This therefore provides the teacher with much more interpretable evidence with which to tailor responses to.

This method also provides teachers withdiagnostic information about their students' understanding.

Linking student understanding to particular learning progression levels can be achieved through a variety of formative assessment techniques:

  • Responses to ordered multiple-choice and multiple true/false questions can be mapped to particular levels of a learning progression.
  • Open-ended questioning, two-tier multiple-choice, and predict-observe-explain questions can be scored using learning progressions.

Interpreting and responding to evidence of student thinking

Classifying students responses to questions according to a learning progression places a teacher's interpretation on a larger continuum of student understanding. There is evidence to suggest that qualifying student thinking in this way naturally leads to 'coherent, theoretically sound improvements in teaching'.

In classroom discussions, teachers are required to analyse student thinking 'on the fly'. Familiarity with a learning progression helps teachers do this more accurately, and better adjust future teaching accordingly, whether that is for the remainder of that lesson, or later in the term.

In more formal assessments, basing judgements on a learning progression can be built into the assessment of the work itself, helping teachers diagnose student thinking relative to learning levels while marking (or even while students are self- and peer-marking).

In both cases, using learning progressions gives teachers pre-planned 'if this, then that' responses to students when altering teaching based on formative assessment.

Learning progression levels give teachers a framework to identify gaps in student knowledge. Diagnosing a student's learning progression level gives teachers a prescription of which instructional 'next step' is most appropriate. To get the most benefit of this system, a range of responses need to be considered in advance of the formative assessment taking place.


There is strong evidence to suggest that using the concept of learning progressions helps teachers more accurately and consciously elicit, interpret, and respond to students' ideas during formative assessment.