“How did you do?” I ask my son after he completed a test at school. “Fine, I guess. I think,” he replies. I encourage him to reflect on the test questions and prompts. Did he know the answers? Did he respond thoroughly? Were there any that were confusing or challenging?
The next week the test is returned with the score is posted at the top: 19.5/25. There are a few marks throughout indicating correct and incorrect, but no further comments are included.
“Did you go over the test in class?” I ask.
“Do you understand your mistakes?”
This interaction and others like it have made me pause and think about how teachers provide meaningful feedback to their students, both during instruction and after assessments have been given. How involved and aware are students about their own progress, their own strengths, and areas for improvement? What more do they get from teachers besides marks, numbers, and grades?
As I have been thinking and reading about this topic, I came across the work of Bernard Bull, Assistant Vice President of Academics and Professor of Education at Concordia University. While acknowledging the usefulness of grading and assessment for tracking student progress, Bull is really focused on the value of formative feedback that allows students to adjust study habits to improve performance. He advocates a switch from a culture of earning—a grade or mark—to a culture of learning.
What does that shift require? It requires that teachers provide low-stakes, incremental feedback that helps students assess how they are progressing towards a goal or standard and make adjustments along the way. In classrooms where this is occurring, teachers and students are partners in learning. Assessment, grades, and marks are not something done to students, but for students, to enable them to take responsibility for their learning and ownership of their success.
So what are some concrete strategies and suggestions for teachers interested in providing more formative feedback to students within their classrooms? A recent blog posted on Edutopia summarized five tips for teachers to provide meaningful feedback:
- Be very specific in your feedback. General statements, positive or negative, are not usually helpful to students for understanding how to improve. Providing feedback that is specific can give students direction about what they are doing well and how to do better. In addition, specific feedback about what a student is doing differently can help to recognize effort and demonstrate attention to process in addition to outcome.
- Provide feedback in a timely fashion. Students need to be able to connect the feedback to the work and understand how to make adjustments that will improve their outcomes. In most cases, the more quickly they receive the necessary feedback, the better able they are to remember the work and understand how to alter their responses going forward.
- Target student feedback towards individual learning goals. If we are building a culture that values learning over earning, then feedback to students should help them strive towards an important and individualized goal. Students should recognize assessments and feedback as learning opportunities designed to help them reach their own learning goals. Feedback should help students see their education and learning goals as a competition to reach their own personal potential and not a competition against other students.
- Provide feedback that is constructive. This requires that it is handled and presented carefully. Positioning learning, assessment, and feedback as a competition between students can have negative consequences. Students may be more likely to shut out feedback and/or shut down when feedback is perceived to been competitive or controlling. Teachers need to recognize the impact that their understanding of and rapport with students can have on the value of their feedback. If students don’t believe you have their best interests in mind, they will not be open to any feedback and will not be able to commit to any necessary adjustments.
- Actively involve the learners. When feedback is used as a method for learning and it is specific, timely, and aligned to individual student goals, the learners clearly have to be involved. Learning, assessment, and feedback cannot be something that is done to students, but rather a process that actively engages the students. As students become more aware of their own goals and learning, they can better understand their progress and take more ownership over the direction of their learning. Providing feedback that helps to create independent learners who can identify mistakes and implement strategies for continuous improvement will prepare our students well for opportunities beyond high schools in college and careers.
Schools and teachers should all strive to follow the best practices and provide feedback that is truly meaningful, helpful, and viewed as part of the learning experience. Imagine the progress that a student could make and the ownership they’d feel if their teachers consistently provided accurate, specific, and timely feedback designed to build skills, improve content knowledge, and highlight the next steps the student needs to take to move to the next level in his/her work. Perhaps with feedback of this nature, my son—and other students like him—would view taking tests and receiving grades as more than something he has to earn, but rather something that can help him learn.