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Blog: Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017
5 Assessment Lessons I Learned from My Students
With the Shared Learning Conference this Friday, highlighted by assessment thought leader Tom Schimmer, my mind has turned to the importance of feedback, assessment and reporting in our educational practice. These ideas have also been prompted by the fact that our secondary schools just completed assessment week, where many teachers took the opportunity to embrace demonstrations of learning for their students.
For me, the epiphany about the power of quality feedback and its relationship to high levels of learning came with a former student of mine, David Sterling. When it came to academic work, David was a slow starter but a strong finisher. He would initially struggle with concepts, but as our units of study progressed he would demonstrate amazing proficiency. By the time we had finished a unit, he would be flying. When the time came to give him a grade, I regularly found myself stuck. The system of averages I used confounded the both of us. In my heart, I knew that he had met intended outcomes, but his performance on my initial quizzes and tests invariably brought his final mark down. I found myself tinkering with the weighting system to find a way to make it work for him, but it typically affected other students. It was David who helped me to ultimately throw out my “system” and use my professional judgment. It was he who allowed me, over time, to adopt some of the practices described below.
Lesson 1: Be Goal Oriented
Among David’s gifts as a learner was the fact that he was okay with making mistakes, could tolerate temporary failure, and was unafraid to ask for help (of course, he had to feel safe being so in our classroom environment). He regularly checked in with me about the progress he was making and/or challenges he was having. I vividly recall his ‘AHA’ moments as he walked back to his desk. Over time, I learned to give him and other students more accurate information about the goals we were trying to accomplish in a given subject area, and where they were relative to that target. The lesson? Information becomes feedback only if you are clear about the goal, and the information clarifies whether students are on track or not.
Lesson 2: Be Understandable
Early in my career I attended a workshop on the use of manipulatives in mathematics. I initially dismissed the idea that grade 7 students needed hands-on tools to understand basic operations until I saw David explaining concepts to peers in his group with the base ten blocks I had in the back of classroom. It forced me to take a harder look at the specificity of the feedback I was giving, and whether or not students understood what I was saying. When students asked me what a “run-on sentence” was, I realized that I not only needed to give them a clear example of what it was, but also how to fix it. After reviewing a videotape of one of my lessons, I was mortified by the number of times I said things about which students had absolutely no clue. The lesson? Ensure that the language of your feedback is clear enough for students to understand so as to take action.
Lesson 3: Support Action
Armed with the conclusion from a research study suggesting that teachers should have a 4 to 1 ratio of positive to negative feedback, I started putting a lot of positive comments on student work. I got stickers, stars, stamps, and in short order set a world record for the number of times one human being wrote the phrase “Good Job!” on a student assignment. David was the first to bring this to my attention by asking me what was “good” about a response he wrote on one of his novel study chapters. Students always had do-overs in my class, and he was apt to take advantage of it only if the feedback drove him to take specific action. I could easily tell him what was good about his work, and learned over time to do so in a routine way with other students. The lesson? In complex performance situations, actionable feedback about what went right is just as important as feedback about what went wrong.
Lesson 4: Ensure Timeliness
Playing sports taught me about the importance of timely feedback, as well as the students I taught. For instance, for David, completing a layup was sufficiently demanding that it was entirely appropriate for me to him give feedback from the beginning to the end of the task each time he attempted it. However, it would have been inappropriate for me to shout, “Use the backboard!” in the middle of a scrimmage when he had a break away. It would be equally unhelpful if I provided this feedback the following week. Instead, I chose to do it during a break or timeout from the scrimmage. Over time I learned to modulate feedback for each student depending on their learning style, the task, and the environment in which it was being performed. The lesson? Ensure that students get feedback and opportunities to use it while the attempts are still fresh in their minds.
Lesson 5: Create Consistency
I realized early on that if I was going to survive as a teacher then I could not be the only one providing thoughtful feedback to students; it needed to also come from their peers. Of course, the challenge was that they were not practiced, and needed to develop a critical mind for feedback. David’s success told me that we needed to develop a culture of feedback. I needed to teach students to give meaningful feedback to each other in a manner that would be consistent with how I provided it. My initial attempts at this were brutal. Students would invariably bring work to me complaining that their peers did not give any useful information, or simply trashed their work. Rubrics were essential tools that helped me in this regard. They helped students to develop a common language, and over time to become proficient at providing feedback across numerous subjects. The lesson? Students can adjust their performance successfully only if the information they get is consistent, accurate, and trustworthy.
The more I speak with and observe Abbotsford teachers, read the research (thank you, Grant Wiggins), and reflect on the lessons taught to me by students like David, the more I affirm the power of feedback to transform student learning in classrooms throughout our District.