Providing Feedback

When the goal is assessment for learning, providing constructive feedback that helps students know what they do and do not understand as well as encouraging them to learn from their errors is fundamental. Effective feedback should be given as soon as possible as the longer the delay between students’ work and feedback the longer students will continue to have some misconceptions. Also, delays reduce the relationship between student s’ performance and the feedback as students can forget what they were thinking during the assessment. Effective feedback should also inform students clearly what they did well and what needs modification. General comments just as “good work, A,” or “needs improvement” do not help students understand how to improve their learning. Giving feedback to students using well designed scoring rubrics helps clearly communicate strengths and weaknesses. Obviously grades are often needed but teachers can minimize the focus by placing the grade after the comments or on the last page of a paper. It can also be helpful to allow students to keep their grades private making sure when returning assignments that the grade is not prominent (e.g. not using red ink on the top page) and never asking students to read their scores aloud in class. Some students choose to share their grades—but that should be their decision not their teachers.

When grading, teachers often become angry at the mistakes that student make. It is easy for teachers to think something like: “With all the effort I put into teaching, this student could not even be bothered to follow the directions or spell check!” Many experienced teachers believe that communicating their anger is not helpful, so rather than saying: “How dare you turn in such shoddy work,” they rephrase it as, “I am disappointed that your work on this assignment does not meet the standards set” (Sutton, 2004). Research evidence also suggests that comments such as “You are so smart” for a high quality performance can be counterproductive. This is surprising to many teachers but if students are told they are smart when they produce a good product, then if they do poorly on the next assignment the conclusion must be they are “not smart” (Dweck, 2000). More effective feedback focuses on positive aspects of the task (not the person), as well as strategies, and effort. The focus of the feedback should relate to the criteria set by the teacher and how improvements can be made.

When the teacher and student are from different racial/ethnic backgrounds providing feedback that enhances motivation and confidence but also includes criticism can be particularly challenging because the students of color have historical reasons to distrust negative comments from a white teacher. Research by Cohen Steele, Ross (1999) indicates that “wise” feedback from teachers needs three components: positive comments, criticisms, and an assurance that the teacher believes the student can reach higher standards. We describe this research is more detail in “Deciding for yourself about the research” found in Appendix B.

Self and Peer Assessment

In order to reach a learning goal, students need to understand the meaning of the goal, the steps necessary to achieve a goal, and if they are making satisfactory progress towards that goal (Sadler, 1989). This involves self-assessment and recent research has demonstrated that well-designed self-assessment can enhance student learning and motivation (Black & Wiliam, 2006). For self-assessment to be effective, students need explicit criteria such as those in an analytical scoring rubric. These criteria are either provided by the teacher or developed by the teacher in collaboration with students. Because students seem to find it easier to understand criteria for assessment tasks if they can examine other students’ work alongside their own, self-assessment often involves peer assessment. An example of a strategy used by teachers involves asking students to use “traffic lights” to indicate their confidence in their assignment or homework. Red indicates that they were unsure of their success, orange that they were partially unsure, and green that they were confident of their success. The students who labeled their own work as orange and green worked in mixed groups to evaluate their own work while the teacher worked with the students who had chosen red (Black & Wiliam, 2006).

If self and peer assessment is used, it is particularly important that the teachers establish a classroom culture for assessment that is based on incremental views of ability and learning goals. If the classroom atmosphere focuses on interpersonal competition, students have incentives in self and peer assessment to inflate their own evaluations (and perhaps those of their friends) because there are limited rewards for good work.

Adjusting Instruction Based on Assessment

Using assessment information to adjust instruction is fundamental to the concept of assessment for learning. Teachers make these adjustments “in the moment” during classroom instruction as well as during reflection and planning periods. Teachers use the information they gain from questioning and observation to adjust their teaching during classroom instruction. If students cannot answer a question, the teacher may need to rephrase the question, probe understanding of prior knowledge, or change the way the current idea is being considered. It is important for teachers to learn to identify when only one or two students need individual help because they are struggling with the concept, and when a large proportion of the class is struggling so whole group intervention is needed.

After the class is over, effective teachers spend time analyzing how well the lessons went, what students did and did not seem to understand, and what needs to be done the next day. Evaluation of student work also provides important information for teachers. If many students are confused about a similar concept the teacher needs to reteach it and consider new ways of helping students understand the topic. If the majority of students complete the tasks very quickly and well, the teacher might decide that the assessment was not challenging enough. Sometimes teachers become dissatisfied with the kinds of assessments they have assigned when they are grading—perhaps because they realize there was too much emphasis on lower-level learning, that the directions were not clear enough, or the scoring rubric needed modification. Teachers who believe that assessment data provide information about their own teaching and that they can find ways to influence student learning have high teacher efficacy or beliefs that they can make a difference in students’ lives. In contrast, teachers who think that student performance is mostly due to fixed student characteristics or the homes they come from (e.g. “no wonder she did so poorly considering what her home life is like”) have low teacher efficacy (Tschannen-Moran, Woolfolk Hoy, & Hoy, 1998).