Katie White spends her days working to transform the educational experience for teachers and students. She has been an integral part of her own school system's multi-year journey through educational reform and has assisted systems worldwide in their work toward approaches that honor learning relationships.

Listening to Our Learners

“Feedback is honesty. Don’t just tell me ‘good job’ when I didn’t.” —Middle years student

My colleagues and I work with systems across North America who are undergoing assessment reform. Educators and leaders alike are asking themselves how to shift their assessment practices, when to do it, and what it will entail. The questions generated in a single coaching session illuminate the complexity of this shift. Teachers are wondering how assessment should be designed, which symbol (if any) to attach to products and performances, and how to respond to assessment evidence in ways that will advance learning. This work is both significant and challenging, and no one is taking it lightly. However, in the quest to “get it right,” adults often forget a key source of wisdom and insight available to us every single day. Perhaps we see this source as a receptor of our refined assessment system, rather than as a collaborative partner in its design. Whatever the reason, maybe it is time we turned to this source—our students—and consulted them on decisions we are making.


The #ATAssessment Twitter Chat

“If you get As, you’re like turning in all your assignments. If you’re getting Fs, it means you aren’t turning things in.” —Elementary student

What can we learn from our students? How might their perceptions shape our decisions? These are questions that guided Nicole Dimich as she designed the #ATAssessment Twitter chat held on January 11, 2022. She wanted the educators in attendance to consider student perspectives, and she ended up with a chat that generated the following questions, all of which asked, “What would students say?”

  • What are the first words or phrases that come to mind when students hear “assessment”? Why might that be?
  • What is the purpose of assessment? What would we want students to say the purpose of assessment is, and what are the practices that could lead to them experiencing it that way?
  • What kind of feedback helps and supports learning? What kind of feedback shuts learning down?
  • What does a grade or a mark mean?
  • Do grades and marks motivate? When? Why? Why not?
  • What would we want our students to say about grades and marks? What practices have potential to foster that perception and experience?
  • What methods or types of assessment best allow me to demonstrate my learning? What methods or types are less meaningful or not effective?

Students were invited to join the chat alongside adults, and several students participated, ranging in age from seven years to the post-secondary level. This was really exciting to everyone there, and the chat was a huge success. Students offered their views on the questions posed and elaborated on their perceptions when asked.

From this hour-long conversation, there emerged several themes that invited deeper consideration by the educators present. Student comments seemed to reflect:

  • A conflation of proficiency with effort or completion
  • Higher-than-optimal degrees of anxiety in relation to assessment
  • A social aspect of assessment—that assessment results and even behaviors during an assessment experience impacted the perceptions of peers and family members
  • A perception of judgment by teachers through their use of feedback, which might interfere with students’ willingness to use said feedback in productive ways
  • A variety of perceptions of what feedback is and how it might be used
  • A binary view of grades—that when they were good, they were motivating and reflected a student’s intelligence, and when they were perceived as “not good,” they were defeating

The insights offered by these learners profoundly impacted the adults who participated. It became clear that much work was needed to clarify not only the purposes of assessment, but what assessment does and does not communicate about students. Several members of the chat offered to gather virtually at a future date to unpack the student reflections, consider the implications on assessment practices, and propose considerations moving forward.


The Virtual Gathering

“I hate it when the teacher points out every little thing I did wrong. It makes me feel stupid.” —Elementary student

The plan was to meet virtually for an hour and form groups to explore some of the comments the students had made. We used the following template to guide the conversation (with a comment example included):



The conversations among the educators present were rich and explored several aspects and implications of the participating students’ perceptions. Teams recorded their thinking, and some of these ideas are shared below (for three of the student comments):


Sample One:


Sample Two:


Sample Three:


In the end, collaborating with colleagues to listen to student voices—and work to understand how we might refine our assessment practices in response—was a fulfilling experience. Many of the adult participants vowed to seek additional student ideas and bring together teams to explore these ideas using this process. Perhaps this might be a good endeavor for all teams who are interested in designing strong and responsive assessment systems that impact student achievement and social-emotional health. Student voices matter. Let’s find ways to elevate these voices in our daily work.

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