Photo of Rock Paintings of Tassili Najjer, Algeria by Dmitry Pichugin - Courtesy of Dreamstime.com

Feedback and Assessment

 

Feedback and assessment have been a part of our lives since the dawn of time. Before the modern era, parents or village elders administered assessments to ensure that children were developing expertise in important and relevant skills - hunting, making clothing, finding or building shelter, growing or finding food, etc. Everyone knew the importance of these skills, and tasks and assessments throughout a child's life were scaffolded to ensure each child was building the skills necessary to adulthood - perhaps tying knots, finding firewood, and identifying edible food at one age, making tools, gathering and grinding grain at another, and making bread, sewing clothes, building a shelter, or hunting for food at still another. Today's teachers are those village elders, and it is now our job to assess student progress and learning to ensure mastery of relevant content, skills and habits of mind so that we can adjust our instruction to ensure that students meet essential learning goals. It is also our job, as it was for elders centuries ago, to develop assessments that measure what we want and need to know and that also make student progress toward mastery visible to us AND to the students themselves.  

 

In his 1998 book Educative Assessment, Grant Wiggins challenged readers to think of assessments in these terms - as an opportunity to teach and to improve student performance.  For many of us, too few assessments in our educational experience achieved this goal. A friend's child is studying chemistry this year.  His first lab report was returned with a large red X through the conclusion and the words "This is NOT a conclusion" scrawled in angry red letters.  There was no description of what a conclusion on a  

Assessments are "an opportunity to teach and to improve student performance." 

-- Grant Wiggins, Educative Assessment, 1998

lab report should look like in this teacher's class nor had he received any rubric or other information on the questions to answer in a conclusion. From the feedback he received, he knew he had not written a good conclusion, but he had no idea how to make it better.  His experience in Chemistry stands in stark contrast to my own assessment experience in Mr. Olson's English class more than thirty years ago - an experience I remember to this day. We had just finished Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and Mr. Olson asked us, in light of what we had read and discussed, what we had learned about Santiago in our reading and through our discussions, to respond to the question "Based on what you have read, are wisdom and balance necessarily the result of education? Be sure to support your answer with references to the text." It was a question none of us had ever considered, but we had plenty of time to answer it, and we had ample opportunities to reflect, reread, rewrite and respond. Additionally, Mr. Olson had prepared us well by requiring that we always support our comments in class by citing evidence from the text. Throughout the process of writing, Mr. Olson peppered us with questions like - "What makes you say that?", "How does that word help you?" or "Is that what you really mean?" The process of writing the paper gave me new insights into how literature could help me understand the mysterious adult world, and Mr. Olson's expectations and coaching helped me to develop greater control over my writing and to more accurately critique my work to ensure quality. Great assessments teach as well as measure. Great feedback honors and improves students.

Using Assessments

Teachers can use assessments in a variety of ways throughout the learning process.  They can assess what students know before they begin a unit (Diagnostic Assessments). They can assess where students are on the continuum from novice to master throughout the unit (Formative Assessments), and they can assess students' mastery of the skill or topic at hand at the end of the unit (Summative Assessments). Study after study shows that the more frequently we assess learning throughout the process, the more clear feedback we provide to students and the more models of high quality work we set in front of them, the more likely they are to meet or exceed our goals for them.  Similarly, when our end-of-unit (or summative) assessments appropriately challenge students to perform tasks like those adults working in their discipline do in the real world, students see the connection between the work they are doing in school and their adult lives - and see the need to produce excellent work. As it was thousands of years ago, assessment is an integral part of the learning process.

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Giving Feedback

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Feedback is incredibly important to students.  Wiggins tells us that it "is an essential part of any completed learning." (Educative Assessment, p. 43) But giving feedback is an art.  High quality feedback is both specific and clear.  It is also respectful of the individual receiving it.  Austin's Butterfly (by Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning) is perhaps the best example I have ever seen of the power of clear, specific, and respectful feedback to improve student work. It also shows that teachers are not the only ones capable of providing feedback.  With some coaching, peers can do this for one another as well.  

 

As in Austin's Butterfly, feedback is most helpful to students when:

  • It is thoughtfully delivered with the clear intention of improving student performance. 

  • It is clear. A wrong answer is a wrong answer, and students need to know when their answers are incorrect or their work does not meet our expectations.

  • It seeks to understand the student's intentions before providing correction. "What makes you say that?" is one of my favorite questions.

  • It helps a student to improve by either providing explicit directions for improvement or by helping the student to consider different options. 

 

I also try to share throughout the year my own need for feedback.  I routinely ask students to critique my teaching and to let me know if a test or assignment question is unclear. I talk openly about the times I have asked my colleagues and bosses for feedback on a piece of writing or other work product.  Students need to know that feedback helps us to grow and improve.  Providing feedback to one another is an investment in the potential of others.  It is a clear statement of belief. It is something to be sought not avoided.

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Summative Assessments

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Summative assessments measure student learning and skill at the end of a unit of study. These assessments are most often graded. Well-developed and properly-used assessments should reveal the degree to which the students have mastered the essential understandings and developed the important skills for further work in the discipline at hand.  These can take a variety of forms such as:

  • Written tests

  • Oral exams

  • Papers

  • Projects

  • Presentations

  • Lab practicals

  • Performances

  • Exhibits

  • Speeches

  • Portfolios

  • Debates

  • And more.

 

At their best, summative assessments demonstrate students' ability to perform work similar to that performed by professionals in the field. Thus, a summative assessment in a statistics class might ask students to conduct research, analyze their results and present their findings before a body of experts. A science exam might ask students to devise and then execute a lab experiment to identify a mystery substance and report their findings in a scientific paper to be published in a school journal or online or presented to local experts. A public speaking class might ask students to speak before a local board of education or at a town meeting on an issue of interest to the students.

Great assessments teach as well as measure. Great feedback honors and improves students.

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Formative Assessments

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Formative assessments help us to understand the impact of our lessons on students, whether we have helped them to gain insight or develop skill or not.  They also help students to learn for themselves where they are on the road to mastery.  They can be graded or not graded - but they must always be corrected and the results shared with students as quickly as possible.  

 

I shared some ideas for formative assessments on the Organizing Learning page - and I've repeated them here as well.  I have also included some other ideas gleaned from a variety of sources and conferences.

 

Formative Assessment Ideas:

  • Quick polls - students use polling software and a mobile device to respond to a question. Useful tech tools are:

    • Socrative

    • Poll Everywhere

  • Exit tickets - students have to answer a question or reflect upon what they have learned before they leave class. Technology can helpful here as well, particularly Poll Everywhere, Socrative and Twitter.

  • Mini white boards - students hold up their answer/work for the teacher to check.

  • Cold calling - asking questions of students even when they have not raised their hands to volunteer an answer.

  • Working at the boards.

  • Journals, social media or collaboration software - students write and share a reflection on their takeways from class or their progress on a particular project. The following tech tools might be helpful.

    • Google Docs

    • Wikispaces

    • Twitter

  • Workshopping a paper, poem, or other piece of writing.

  • Walking around, observing students at work and offering corrections and suggestions when needed. This approach works well in art classes and when students are engaged in any kind of group work.

 

Again, the choices teachers make regarding how best to assess where students are on the road to mastery will depend largely on the work at hand and the needs of the students in the class.

 

It is important to remember, however, that formative assessments should inform our teaching.  That is, formative assessments should reveal what students are able to do after a short amount of instruction so that we (teachers) can adjust our instruction to ensure understanding and mastery.

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Assessment Resources

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The books below deal with various aspects of assessing student work.  As in other sections of this website, links are provided to further information on each book.

 

General Assessment: