Assessment for learning. Formative assessment. Feedback.
These three terms have become synonymous with effective teaching practices since the late 80s and more recently revitalized by John Hattie and Dylan Wiliam. Much focus has been given to the design and delivery of formative assessment tasks, recording of results, and timing of feedback in teacher training, curriculum design, and professional development initiatives.
Any teacher is familiar with the concepts of assessment for, as, and of learning: of which feedback practices are an instrumental part of closing the learning gap. We take time to analyze which feedback should be given and when, what it should look like, and how it can be made student friendly. We go as far as developing feedback coding systems such as underlining and circling language errors and using abbreviations such as, sp., www., and ebi. Many of us also balance out feedback by affirming what the student did well or how their strengths stood out before recommending steps for improvement (a star and a wish).
Sometimes I wonder though if we need to stop and ask ourselves, “Does this student actually want feedback?”. We assume that students are as engaged with their learning as we are, that they understand feedback is integral for improvement and growth. But are they ready to receive feedback? Being ready to receive feedback assumes certain premises:
- The student understands that feedback is necessary to close the gap between where they are and where they could be.
- The student sees the teacher as a trusted person who has the credibility and expertise to give them feedback.
- The student views the feedback process as something positive and not critical.
A Microsystem of Feedback
Students receive feedback from numerous sources in their lives, their parents, siblings, friends, coaches, club leaders, extended family members, health providers, friends’ parents, social media, and so on. Feedback from these sources can be multi-faceted: affirmative, encouraging, reassuring, appreciative, biased, critical, negative, judgmental, evaluative. These sources form a microsystem (Bronfenbrenner) or environment of relationships which influence experiences, beliefs, values, and behavior. Some of these relationships may have more influence or impact than others but all of them piece together a students’ understanding of, and relationship with, the concept of feedback.
If a student has developed a generally positive relationship with feedback from the sources in their microsystem, then it could be deduced that they would be open and ready for teacher feedback. However, if their relationship with feedback sources in their environment has been critical or evaluative, they may be resistant to feedback. This could be either because the feedback itself was generally critical and evaluative, so they view the process as negative, or because the feedback came from impactful sources in their life and so they have lost trust.
What Does This Mean for Teachers?
Before we even start the feedback process with students, we cannot assume their relationship with feedback to date has been positive and that they look forward to receiving it. Educators work on the assumption that feedback is integral for learning, but a student may not share this perspective.
We need to check, therefore, that they are ready. Ready in terms of understanding what feedback is and what it means as part of the learning process.
Checking for Readiness
So, how do we check if a student is ready for feedback? We audit the student on their understanding of feedback, and we then set the scene so the student can be ready to engage in the process. Auditing the student about feedback can take many forms and take various directions, such as:
- A whole class, teacher-led, discussion about definition, importance, and mediums of feedback.
- A questionnaire or survey with aim to tease out any particular issues or obstacles to address.
- Student-led workgroups with goal of co-constructing feedback experiences, expectations, and criteria.
- A poll to better understand preferred feedback styles.
- Sorting activity to determine difference between different types of feedback.
- Research activity to explore where and between whom feedback relationships exist.
Once we have a better understanding of where a student stands in relation to feedback, we can set the scene.
Setting the Scene for Feedback
In order to set the scene or prepare students for feedback they need to be familiar with the goals, method, and delivery of feedback. For this the teacher needs to explain how feedback will be used within the parameters of the learning experience and what outcomes are expected. The preparation should ideally be teacher-led and include points raised from the readiness audit. For example, if a poll was used to determine preferred feedback styles the teacher should communicate which methods will be used in the feedback process and what the expectations of these methods will be. The preparation should also include transparency about where students should find feedback, if it is not immediate or face to face, and what they should do with it. If it is immediate and/or face to face, i.e. rolling feedback, are they expected to remember it or log it somewhere safe for continual access? How will they be reminded to do this? We often expect or assume that students know what to do with feedback, but they can only do this if the parameters of the process have first been established.
In the field of education, the impact of feedback has become an axiom. Enthusiasts and pioneers have qualified and quantified the importance of feedback for growth and success, many emphasizing the role of the student-teacher relationship within this process. Dylan Wiliam best affirms this:
“The thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. When teachers know their students well, they know when to push and when to back off. Moreover, if students don’t believe their teachers know what they’re talking about or don’t have the students’ best interests at heart, they won’t invest the time to process and put to work the feedback teachers give them.”
By taking a look at feedback through the perspective of the microsystem, including auditing and preparing students for the process, this relationship is ever more meaningful.
Anna Hasic teaches International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program French and Diploma Program Theory of Knowledge at the Inter-Community School Zurich in Switzerland.