Nicole Dimich Vagle works with elementary and secondary educators in presentations, trainings, and consultations that address today’s most critical issues all in the spirit of facilitating improved support of student learning.

Observation as Assessment and Feedback

My sister was helping out in her Kindergartener’s classroom. I had previously shared with her a bit about my work and passion in helping teachers use assessment to see students as possible and then tap that information to engage them to learn.  She wondered if her story had anything to do with my work.  It is an incredible example of the kind of observations that changes students’ lives.  Here’s what she described:

Students were working at various stations around the room and she was watching and interacting with children.  One boy wandered throughout the room, clipboard in hand.  He was searching for words to write.  She asked him a few questions and he didn’t respond.  Then, she suggested a word from the color wall. After a few minutes, he paused and asked, “What do you think would happen if you mixed blue with green?”  It became clear.  He didn’t just want any word.  He wanted to create his own word.  At first glance, this boy looked like he was not following directions.  In another situation, this is the moment students are re-directed or “helped” to follow the directions or get the task completed. With just a few more minutes of observation, his deep analytic and thoughtful interpretation of the task produced something quite interesting.  He met the learning target and the structure didn’t get in the way because there was space for him to create and interpret.

In the rush of getting tasks done, we can create a culture where students always need to get the “right” answer (there is a time and a place for the right answer—just not always) instead of thinking deeper or allowing a little space to see what emerges.  These observations provide insight into the learning students are doing – what they understand and what they still need to work on. Offering tasks and then creating space to watch and observe is another form of assessment used formatively – descriptions of learning that are used to understand where students are and where they need to go next.

You might think that characterizing an observation like this as life changing might be dramatic.  But consider what could happen to this boy if he continued to wander and have thoughts like this that are misinterpreted as off task, misconceptions, or even defiant.  Any one of these misinterpretations sends this boy down a path that over time give him signals about the value of his thoughts and his work.  When we take time to observe and see possibility, we give students hope and important information that helps them thrive.

Observations such as this are rich ground for feedback. Hattie (2009; Hattie & Timperely, 2007) describes the power of feedback not only as information provided to students so they can act, but also as information used to inform their lesson planning and instructional responses.  Teachers often ask me, “How do I provide feedback effectively and efficiently?”  Feedback can take the form of observations like this and noted for lesson planning.  What if teachers have students engaged in some type of collaborative or individual activity (focused on a learning goal), and then have a list of students in their classroom or that hour.  As students are engaging, teachers are noting understandings and misconceptions.  Given these observations, the next day’s lesson focuses on insights gathered.  Not only does this help the teacher focus lesson planning, it also reduces the amount of time teachers are providing feedback on work they collect (and often take home).

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey (2012) offer another way to think through this notion of observations – that saves time and targets instruction.  When considering a lesson and the learning goal students are to achieve, teachers identify common misconceptions and note students (the table below shows student initials by hour) they observe making this error.  This chart then becomes information to plan the next day’s lesson – either more formally where students are working in groups or individually based on their misconception. It could also serve as a reminder for the teacher to connect with individual students the following day.  Take a look at this example:

Errors Table

Think about a lesson you have designed.  Where might there be room for observation as assessment– to sit back and watch what emerges – to look at a situation with a different lens? Maybe just maybe these types of questions have more than one answer and with a little space will engage student in deeper ways and provide teachers with an entry into effective and efficient feedback.


Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2012) Making time for feedback. Educational Leadership, Volume 70 (1), 42-46. retrieved online at

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to student achievement. New York: Routledge.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

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