Making Assessment Feedback Count: Its Role in Moving Students Forward

Making Assessment Feedback CountIn a recent MindShift blog, The Importance of Low-Stakes Student Feedback, Katrina Schwartz provides a summary of Bernard Bull’s recent presentation about assessment. Several of the findings and comments piqued my interest. First was the fact that Bull’s primary research looks at innovative teaching practices and he discovered that he couldn’t look at these without a better understanding of assessment.

The second supports my personal beliefs that assessments/assignments early in a class, while learning is occurring, should not carry the same “weight” as those which occur later in a course, which for me means those early assignments should not have a big impact on the final grade. If all activities are equal weight than those students who have background knowledge of the content have an advantage at the beginning of a course or unit. It means that even if two students finish with the same level of understanding, the student without background knowledge may actually have been “penalized” during the learning process with low scores in the beginning.

Then there was Schwartz’s comment that “The presence or absence of formative assessment also has a big influence on grades.” That seemed like a great acknowledgement of one of the values of formative assessment. However, the next statement was a quote from Bull which made me stop and think – “By formative feedback, I’m referring to low stakes feedback that has little to no effect on the final grade in the class.” And in thinking about this I realized I disagreed both with the descriptor of “low stakes feedback” and the “little to no effect on the final grade.”

I wished I could clarify what constituted “low stakes feedback” in the post. If we pay attention to what other experts say about the value of effective feedback and the opportunity to use that feedback, how can it not have an effect on final grades? If the feedback is designed to provide guidance about the next steps in learning it seems like the path to learning more (with improvements along the way) would lead to a higher final grade. So I decided to see what the source had to say and found a recording of Dr. Bull’s presentation. What I learned was that Dr. Bull was talking more about the “feedback” not being incorporated into grades or having grades attached to the feedback. That I can totally agree with.

Dr. Bull also talked about establishing a culture of learning in which students genuinely want to learn, where learning “dominates the conversation.” This leads into the fourth of Schwartz’s takeaways – “This type of low-stakes assessment [formative assessment] also makes it easier for teachers and students to become partners in learning, giving students ownership over their success and asking them to show responsibility for improvement.” As I’ve been doing some work on establishing a culture of learning to set the stage or framework for teachers developing their formative assessment practice and the connections between formative assessment practices and students transforming themselves into self-regulated learners, this comment resonated with me on several levels.

First, the teachers and students becoming “partners in learning” is what makes the culture of learning in a classroom. Second, providing structures, processes and tools (via formative assessment) for students to learn what it takes to “own” their success is another piece of the culture of learning we want to instill within a classroom (OK all classrooms). And third leads us back to the use of effective feedback that leads a student’s learning forward. Providing students the opportunity to use that feedback is one piece of asking them to take on the mantle of “responsibility for improvement.”

Dr. Bull also connected feedback to assessment AS learning, which happens to be my favorite kind of assessment. The feedback we provide students helps them get at whatever the task and learning is. We “feed forward” the learning to provide students a way to plot their learning path. Leslie Lambert says in her book, Standards-based Assessment of Student Learning: A Comprehensive Approach, “…anyone observing the class should not be able to tell where instruction ends and assessment begins.”