Assessment that provides information on students’ learning strengths builds confidence and increases achievement.
Too often, students get feedback on all they are doing wrong or their deficits. Assessment, at its best, provides information to students on their strengths. When learners gain insight into what they know and can do, it builds their confidence. Strength-based feedback signals to students that you see their potential and that you believe in them. This sense that someone believes in you and a genuine feeling of confidence are the foundational elements to achieving at high levels. Any given strategy will work or not work in the moment. It is students’ confidence and perceptions of the possibility of their achievement that will make or break that strategy.
Remember a moment when you were confident? There’s a sense of optimism that makes anything seem possible. I’ll spend hours thinking and working on something when I am confident. On the flipside, when I’m feeling unsure, it takes a tremendous amount of effort to dig in and persevere.
Recently, Hopkins Public Schools in Minnesota hosted a student panel to understand more deeply from the perspective of students why students of color were not taking AP classes. One student on the panel described a teacher that kept encouraging her and telling her that she can do it. It is the reason she took the classes and stayed in them. She remarked, “It was a teacher who encouraged me, and that conversation didn’t cost the district any money. It was the belief a teacher had in me that made the difference.”
When students are more confident, they will achieve at higher levels (Brookhart, 2013).
When students are more confident, they will be more open to feedback that helps them improve (Brookhart, 2013).
When students are more confident, it fosters a sense of possibility (Brookhart, 2013).
When students experience strength-based feedback, they will begin to see how to provide others’ strength-based feedback. Students get most of their feedback from peers, and Hattie (2009) indicates that much of it is inaccurate. With a focus on strength-based feedback and specifically teaching learners how to provide feedback, it has great potential to be more accurate and have a positive impact on learning. Peer feedback is one aspect of classroom that contributes to a culture of learning when students provide more accurate and useful feedback to their peers (Andrade, 2013).
How might one begin to see the power of strength-based feedback as I have described? Try the following five action steps and notice the impact on students and the learning culture in the classroom:
- Provide feedback (written and/or verbal) that makes students’ strengths transparent to them. It must be focused on qualities of the learning. It must be accurate, specific, and genuine. When it is all four, in both words and tone, students’ confidence builds and they are more open to action that will take them to their next step.
- Put learning goals or standards on assessments. Tie these statements to items and tasks, so students can see the connection between the assessment evidence and their learning.
- Regularly teach students to reflect on what their assessment evidence tells them about their strengths. Make it specific and descriptive.
- Frame the descriptive levels of rubrics in terms of what’s present in the work versus what is not. Teach students how to read the rubric or learning progression so they understand their current level as their strengths. Point to the next level to specifically help them move their work forward. Make this step required, not invited.
- Tone builds trust. Use a positive tone. While there may have been many opportunities to ask questions, many different times directions were given, impatience shuts students down and they stop asking questions. They sit in confusion or they appear disengaged. Most often, they have lost hope. It can be difficult to be patient when it feels like students weren’t listening or not applying themselves. I fight this with my own children all the time. Keeping a positive tone is essential to creating this confidence in our students.
Try it for a unit and see what happens. It’s all about the impact of our actions on our students’ learning and confidence.
Try it with a few students that are really struggling or don’t seem to have that confidence. Monitor the impact of providing only strength-based feedback for a few weeks. I wonder if those students will start asking questions, attempting more work, or attending more often. You may notice some of these or others.
Let me know how it goes. You can comment here or I’m on twitter at @NicoleVagle. What you do—as teachers and educators in the lives of students—matters greatly!
On May 21, 2015, the Jubilee Project wanted to honor teachers. They asked a handful of kids and adults what would happen in a world where there were no teachers. In every case, the world would look a lot less hopeful without teachers. In every case, those interviewed named a teacher that believed in them that made all the difference!
Andrade, H. L. (2013). Classroom assessment in the context of learning theory and research. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.), SAGE handbook of research on classroom assessment (pp. 17–34). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Brookhart, S. M. (2013). Classroom assessment in the context of motivation theory and research. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.), SAGE handbook of research on classroom assessment (pp. 35–54). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Hattie, J. A. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.