All teachers understand that successful teaching and learning requires a keen sense of how to effectively assess student work and provide meaningful, timely, and informative feedback. Feedback can be one of the most powerful influencers in a teacher’s toolbox, enhancing or hindering student learning. However, for feedback to be effective teachers need to have a keen sense of where students are relative to what is expected of them, and where they want students to go to as a result of their learning. If teachers have a good sense of what they expect students to master and the criteria for success are clearly stated to students, then feedback can be a powerful tool to focus students on what has been learned, what gaps remain, and how best to close the gaps.
There is a wealth of good literature on building strong assessment practices into one’s teaching practice (see references below). While this post will not introduce brand new ideas into the conversation, it has been designed to bring focus on some important questions that all teachers need to consider as they perfect their assessment strategies.
One of the first questions all teachers should answer is: WHY am I assessing my students? Answering this question requires looking at a series of other questions. What is the purpose of assessment in my classroom? Have I clearly articulated my philosophy, approach, and specific strategies for assessing learning and providing feedback to students? Do students understand the difference between assessment and feedback? What is the teacher’s and student’s role in the assessment and feedback process? If the WHY question is seriously addressed and teachers explain the WHY to students, then it is more likely they will be partners in the process rather than passive casuality of the process.
Second important question to consider is: WHAT types of assessment strategies will be used to collect information on whether students have mastered the learning targets? Feedback on whether students are learning can be provided in many different ways. Here are just a few:
- Effort expressed in learning
- Affective processes like emotions, feedings, attitudes, behaviors that impact learning
- Student motivation to learn
- Student engagement in learning
- Responses to student understanding such as right and wrong answers to a variety of types of questions
- Suggestions as to what avenues students should pursue to increase their likelihood to understand
- Suggesting new strategies students could use to secure knowledge and understanding of key ideas
- Providing a process by which students can self-monitor and self-assess as they learn
- Observing students perform tasks, projects, and performances that illustrate the depth of their understanding
- Creating situations where students have to transfer knowledge, skills and capabilities in new ways
- Grading and commenting on performances on written quizzes or tests
- Creating peer-to-peer teaching and learning scenarios that encourage students to communicate their understanding to others
No doubt this list would expand with input from other teachers, who would add strategies unique to their way of helping students see where they are on their learning journey.
Related to the second question, one challenge students face in most schools is they tend to be error or risk averse. Students don’t come to school with these fears already hard-wired into their psyche because we know from watching young children explore their world before entering school that they are quite comfortable making mistakes, trying again, learning from the errors they make, and gradually perfecting a skill. Observing a young child learn to walk in its first year of life is a testament to the value of learning from mistakes in order to perfect a skill. Walking cannot be mastered without learning from mistakes, falling in public, getting up or being helped up, and trying again. So why is it that by the time children leave elementary school, entering the more competitive halls of middle school, they start to become risk-adverse? They are less and less comfortable making mistakes, especially in public. What conditions in schools foster a fear to take risks with learning? Could this reality contribute to why schools appear to become harder, more challenging, and less interesting places for students to learn?
The third important question is: HOW will assessments and feedback be designed into students’ classroom experience? Addressing the how involves carefully designing a set of assessments that are built on a foundation of “criteria for success.” What do we want students to know and how will we know if they have learned it (the PLC question)? The key word here is design. Preparing high-quality assessments and giving effective feedback cannot just be about quizzing and testing the content we believe students need to remember. There has to be an intentional design process in place when constructing worthy, relevant and meaningful assessments, as well as giving students effective feedback on their progress. The design questions to consider are: (1) who is my audience; (2) what are the assessment standards I will use; (3) what is the function of the assessment related to its form; (4) is the assessment and feedback purposeful; and (5) is the assessment relevant and meaningful to students?
The diagram below, from the book, Classroom Assessment for Student Learning, Doing it Right – Using it Well, by Jan Chappius, et.al., establishes the link between these three questions. Having read this book about nine years ago, I still refer back to it as I think about helping teachers think through their assessment strategies.
Looking at assessment and feedback through the eyes of students, we should be sensitive to these questions.
- Where am I going? Students may be wondering, why do I need to learn this or what is the value of learning this? Their motivation and engagement is linked to there being meaning and relevance in the learning journey. Am I going somewhere with a purpose in mind or is what I am being asked to do feel random and disconnected?
- How will I get there? The teacher’s responsibility is to provide direction. High-quality assessments and effective feedback can be a tool to guide a student down one path versus another. The student’s responsibility is to
- Once I have gotten there, where do I go next? In this case, the teacher’s role is to help students see possibilities beyond immediate learning. For students, learning has to be purposeful. A term coined by Wiggins and McTighe when they describe deeper learning through intentional planning is that all learning should lead to transfer. Can the student transfer their knowledge, skills and capabilities into new areas of learning, making connections from one idea to another?
As teachers, we need to see that developing an assessment strategy linked to high-quality assessments and effective formative feedback is the linchpin to becoming a highly effective teacher. It isn’t sufficient to maintain our gaze on our instructional methods to deliver content. We have to move outside ourselves and focus on student learning. How do we know our students are mastering what we expect, beyond performance on routine assessments? Are we asking them to transfer their knowledge, skills and capabilities so that their learning becomes more deeply rooted?
Finally, are we prepared to refine our practice and reteach our curriculum when the evidence suggests that all students have not learned what we intend? If the answer is yes, then we are serving our students well. If the answer is no, then we need to look in the mirror and ask if we are merely teaching without regard for learning. Do we actually believe that the learning targets we establish are of value. Teaching is irrelevant without the learning.
Common Formative Assessment: A toolkit for Professional Learning Communities at Work, Kim Bailey and Chris Jakicic, 2012
Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, Linda Suskie, 2009
Planning, Instruction, and Assessment: Effective Teaching Practices, Leslie W. Grant, et.al., 2010
Common Formative Assessment 2.0, Larry Ainsworth, 2015
Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right – Using It Well, Jan Chappuis et.al., 2011
How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, Susan Brookhart, 2017
How to Assess Higher Order Thinking Skills, Susan Brookhart, 2010
Assessment and Classroom Learning, Assessment in Education, Black and Wiliam, 1998
Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, 1998
Working Inside the Black Box: Assessment for Learning in the Classroom, Black et.al., 2004
In thinking about feedback, I wanted to share the thinking of John Hattie from is book, Visible Learning for Teachers. He reports on some studies that surveyed students on what they want from teacher feedback. Here is what he reports: “The major message seems to be that students-regardless of achievement level-prefer teachers to provide feedback that is forward-looking, related to the success of the lesson, and ‘just in time’ and ‘just for me’, ‘about my work’ and ‘not about me.'” (page 131). As teachers we should pay more attention to what our students say about how they perceive assessment and feedback. We could learn a lot.