Assessment for the sake of doing assessment is an incomplete (even misguided) instructional goal. For assessment to fulfill its role as an integral part of the instructional process, teachers must use assessment results with clarity and purpose. Specific to the primary purpose of formative assessment is the opportunity for teachers to provide descriptive feedback to students.Rather than providing students with a judgment that identifies an overall grade, score, or level (i.e. summative assessment), teachers focus on providing specific, descriptive information to students on how to keep learning and growing toward proficiency.
Much has been researched and written about feedback, and while it is tempting to be orthodox about our feedback routines from an always/never perspective, there are grey areas and exceptions to the rule. To clarify what might be considered the most favorable feedback routines, below are five questions that can be used to audit practices so that greater alignment and productive use can be achieved.
1. Does my feedback elicit a productive response?
This is the most critical question. The whole purpose of providing feedback is to create an opportunity for students to reengage with their work; if feedback doesn’t do that then it wasn’t effective. It is important to remember that, “Feedback functions formatively only if the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner in improving performance” (Wiliam, 2011, p. 120). Examining how students respond to feedback is a primary indicator. We know grades and scores have the potential to interfere with a student’s willingness to keep learning (Butler, 1988), but we must also be aware of exceptions to this rule. In a senior physics class, for example, a teacher is likely to have motivated, learning-focused students, despite the existence of scores alongside formative feedback. The point is to watch how students respond. They are not machines with clinical responses to whatever we input; they are children who have independent minds who, on occasion, may want to continue learning despite the existence of a grade or score. If students show an unwillingness to use feedback then it is possible the providing of a grade or score is interfering. We are best served when we examine the responses that are triggered as a result of our feedback not the format of the feedback itself (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).
2. Does it identify what’s next?
Feedback can be a look back or a look ahead. If the goal is to elicit a productive response then providing feedback that leans forward and describes what’s next for our students is a more favorable course of action. Feedback needs to be actionable (Wiggins, 2012) so describing what’s next increases the likelihood of a student taking action. Sometimes it’s even a simple issue of semantics. Here are two examples of feedback that are only slightly different:
- “You should have included more effective transitions between your body paragraphs.”
- “Now lets work on establishing more effective transitions between your body paragraphs.”
It’s not hard to recognize that the second one, despite the slightest of differences, is less judgmental and more about next steps versus what was. Too often, even the most well-intentioned feedback can come across as judgmental and leave students feeling as though the work they’ve produced isn’t good enough, and while that may in fact be true, the idea that it is not good enough during the learning is a premature determination; there is no final score at halftime. Judge when it’s time to judge (when the final work is submitted), but focus on what’s next before then.
3. Is it targeted to each learner?
Novice learners need novice level feedback; proficient learners need feedback at the proficiency level. John Hattie (2012) reminds us that there are levels of feedback and that learners benefit most from feedback that is at, or just slightly above, their current level of proficiency. Generic judgments via predetermined success criteria embedded within rubrics can work when the goal is to simply determine the overall level of proficiency; however, within the formative feedback loop, students need specific information to keep moving forward. According to Hattie, novice learners require feedback at the task level and the focus is often on content acquisition. Proficient learners benefit more from process feedback that focuses more on the underlying strategies and the connections within the content. Those learners at the mastery or advanced level benefit form feedback that focuses on the deeper understandings as well as routines that set them up to self-assess and self-correct. Most teachers provide feedback specific to the individual learner, but what may be less common is reflecting on the level of sophistication the feedback represents. Overly sophisticated feedback is not helpful to those still at the novice level, even when it is specific to where the student is along their learning continuum.
4. Is it strength-based?
If all students hear about is what’s wrong, it won’t take them long to wonder if they do anything right. Effective feedback points out both strengths and specific information that guides improvement (Chappuis, 2012). A balanced approach to feedback allows students to see that they are on-track toward proficiency and maintains their level of optimism going forward. Again, going back our first question about productive responses, how productive can we expect learner responses to be if all we identify are errors? This is not about coddling or avoiding honesty; however, with any routine we must ask ourselves, is it producing the desired result. We can be honest – even brutally honest – with students, but we have to know that there will be a residual effect that may not be the desirable result. Most students – like most adults – would wilt within a routine that only focused on errors. Beginning with strengths, as challenging as they may be to find at times, serves to maintain hope and optimism. Balance the strengths with what needs some attention and you have the recipe for student reengagement and continual learning.
5. Does it cause thinking?
Feedback is most effective when it causes the students to think. Providing feedback and providing correct answers are not the same. Teachers can force students to think by providing feedback in the form of cues, questions, and prompts; what is often referred to as metacognitive feedback (Kramarski & Zeichner, 2001). Using a cue (i.e. a highlighted sentence in a writing sample) focuses the student’s attention without telling them what to rectify and why. In the case of writing, the student would have to determine why the particular sentence (or sentences) was highlighted and what needed fixing (via the rubric). Of course, novice level writers may not be ready for that level of ownership so more assistance would be required. Asking a specific and direct question that the students must answer is another way of enabling students to think for themselves. Providing metacognitive feedback typically results in students being more able to provide robust explanations of their learning. Rather than focusing on the results (i.e. right vs. wrong), our feedback should focus students on the process and possibilities going forward; their thinking – and action – is what leads to growth.
Feedback is both simple and complex. It’s simple because now we have general consensus as to what constitutes promising practices; it’s complex because being consistent across the continuum (from assessment to feedback) to create a learning/growth culture can be messy. What works for most may not work for some; what works in one classroom may not have the same impact in another. By using the five questions above to guide feedback routines, teachers will optimize the opportunities for students to know the difference between where they are and where they need to be, and then how to reconcile that difference along their trajectory of learning.
Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation; the effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58(1), 1–14.
Kramarski, B. & Zeichner, O. (2001). Using Technology To Enhance Mathematical Reasoning: Effects of Feedback and Self-Regulation Learning. Educational Media International, 38(2), 77-82.
Hattie, J. (2012). Know thy Impact. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 18-23.
Kluger, A., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284.
Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press