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Rethinking assessment: Developing a culture of feedback

It was my Masters’ year at university. In the middle of lecture, I blurted out, “Well, I think we need more assessment.” A look of shock and horror swept across the room. MORE assessment? He’s gone mad. I went on to explain what I meant was that we needed more quality checking for understanding and micro-formative assessment to help students correct and build on learning. Four years on, I think I’ve grown up slightly and get significantly less pleasure out of being a shock jockey, but the point remains, we do need more assessment, just not the kind you are thinking of.

No, we don’t need more NCEA, more asTTle, or more practice junior exams. Most teachers realise there are several forms of assessment, recognising the difference between diagnostic, formative and summative. The problem is that term ‘assessment’ has become the common nomenclature to refer only to summative forms of assessment. No wonder the shock horror at the mention of more.

Hattie & Timperley (2007) propose a formative assessment system that has three components: feed-up, feedback, and feed-forward. At a recent conference, I appreciated the humourous yet important added component of the ‘feed after’ by the kaumatua present.

As teachers we talk a lot about feedback. There are a myriad of ways to offer feedback to students. But how often do we sit down, pause, and reflect on the feedback we give. It’s often only on the second read of our school reports that we remember that they should be concise and easy to understand and see just exactly how far we strayed from that. When giving students feedback it is the nature, rather than the amount that is critical. Quality over quantity (Black and Wiliam, 1998).

Despite our best efforts, it seems that students ultimately want to know: what did I get, what did my peers get and am I where I need to be? The same stands for parents. It’s this kind of checking against others that speaks to a lack of feed-up (clarity around the learning outcomes) & feedforward (actionable next steps). Research suggests that if students are given grades along with feedback, they will not benefit as much as if they are only given feedback (Black and Wiliam, 1998). This grade culture turns good feedback into a summative practice. It speaks to our desire to compare ourselves with others as opposed to against our own achievement. We are so busy fighting for our place on the achievement ladder, that we forget the goal is not where we stand but how we climb up rung by rung.

So how do we shift this culture? We enhance our feed up & feedforward.

Feed up is the process before learning begins, where students gain clarity about what they are going to be learning. This provides you with valuable data early on, as to what a student does and does not understand. Nailing feed up is crucial, avoiding problems down the line and a lack of clarity of expectation. When feed up becomes a common practice, students come to expect to measure themselves against learning outcomes and success criteria (Fisher and Frey, 2011). This eliminates the need to check ‘where they are at’, as students begin to assess and monitor their own learning. It also allows teachers to modify their instruction throughout the teaching process. These small moments of ‘checking for understanding’ allow for more effective teaching and learning. It’s less about students knowing ‘where they are at’ and more about students knowing ‘where they are going’. Co-constructing your learning progressions or making them explicit from the beginning starts to build a culture & language of feedback in your classroom.

Then there is feedforward. The main limitation of feedforward is the difficulty for students to generalise messages to other tasks and then to take subsequent action (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Even at my best, I often find myself providing solutions or next steps for students. Whilst this may give students the tools to act in that particular instance, we need to move beyond feedback as 'telling' and encourage learner agency for dealing with feedback (Carless & Boud, 2018). Students need to practice generalising feedback and applying it across contexts, closing the feedback loop by doing something (Carless & Boud, 2018). Developing a feedback culture looks like teaching students to appreciate feedback, make judgements on that feedback and then to act.

In order to reach this goal and for students to begin taking actionable steps, students need to be able make links between feedback given & identify what needs to happen next. The problem is students have been conditioned to care less about the steps need to improve their learning and are interested more in the steps needed ‘to achieve’. Building an effective feedback culture where clarity of purpose (feed-up) is linked to progress (feedback & feedforward) offers the hope of countering the comparative grade measurement we’ve been taught to value.

Feedback is a little like learning to drive a car. The trick to driving is getting in the hours. When you drive, you are constantly in a feedback loop. You start by learning the road code, what’s expected on the road, how to change gears & indicate. This is the feed-up process. When you’re ready you take on the road, where people respond to you, sometimes in unexpected & frustrating ways. They’ll honk their horn when you do something you’re not meant to. It’s all feedback. So, you take on board the constructive criticism of a car horn and you learn, you change the way you drive. The more you drive, the more you learn micro-behaviours and how to react to other drivers. You’re closing the feedback loop by taking actionable steps. You’re responding to feed-forward. Here’s the kicker: Taking a driver’s test without practice leads to failure. You wouldn’t do it over & over. Unless you are like me, who failed my drivers test… several times. More summative assessment is like piling on drivers tests without any practice on the road.

I hope this post has provided you with some food for thought and conversation. Having a clear idea of what we measure is the starting point for good feedback. The question now becomes how we assess regularly in a way that is manageable and doesn’t lead to teacher burnout. I’ll discuss this in Part 2 of this Blogpost titled Rethinking assessment: Tools for assessing student learning.

Some of the things I’ll discuss include:

· Peer feedback

· Formative quizzing

· Exit Cards

· Technology that supports ‘checking for understanding’

· Promoting reflection & meta-cognition


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning. Assessment In Education: Principles, Policy &Amp; Practice, 5(1), 7-74. doi: 10.1080/0969595980050102

Carless, D., & Boud, D. (2018). The development of student feedback literacy: enabling uptake of feedback. Assessment &Amp; Evaluation In Higher Education, 43(8), 1315-1325. doi: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1463354

Frey, N., & Fisher, D. (2011). The formative assessment action plan. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review Of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi: 10.3102/003465430298487

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