Monday, January 4, 2016

Feedback as assessment, not grades

In his tagline or subtitle for his insightful history of grading post, Joe Bower notes that "assessment is not a spreadsheet--it's a conversation."

We all know that grades are an inauthentic and subjective measure of student knowledge and/or ability. I can't imagine most of today's teachers trying to have conversations with 120 or more kids, especially at the level necessary to reflect pre-Farish teaching. If you haven't read Bower's post yet, let me sum up: before Farish and the Industrial Revolution, teaching was incredibly different as there were fewer students, "grading" was on a pass/fail, students were assessed as much by the quality of their mentors and teachers as their grades. Then Farish found a way to provide grades which saved him time and meant he didn't have to have those pesky conversations with students to learn more about them. You really should read the post, though.

What's interesting in these shifting times is how we're again thinking about assessment as well as the relationship between student and teacher. For about two decades now we've been talking about differentiation. For at least a decade we've been talking about personalization. We've long talked about assessment and what formative assessment should and could look like and sound like in the classroom, and yet we've been seemingly reluctant to make changes. I suspect it has to do with grades.

Even though research (and experience) tells us about the destructive and often counterproductive nature of grades, we continue to have grading systems. We have entire student and teaching support systems based on grades, literally. Teachers have a love/hate relationship with grades because most know that grades don't really tell the student anything useful and yet, providing the kind of feedback that could really help the student takes a lot of time. And with class sizes being what they are and curriculum expectations being what they are, well, it's just hard to find or make the time to provide that kind of feedback. At least given the way teachers are expected to teach and, if I may, given parents' expectations.

I know of schools that have opted to go to a pass/fail system or to a scale of 1-4 with 4 being "mastery" and 1 being something like "needs help." The students haven't resisted but the parents have because we've all been conditioned to think that having a something-point GPA is what matters. Even if employers have been telling us for quite some time now that the GPA rarely matters because kids still don't know what they need to know or have fundamental critical thinking or problem-solving skills.

What we have taught some kids is how to get good grades, but we have not necessarily taught them how to learn.

So how do we do this? How do we manage to teach, to facilitate learning rather than cover material? How do we manage to provide useful feedback that encourages learning and promotes perseverance? How do we manage to have the kinds of conversations necessary to get to know our kids well enough to help make decisions about learning options AND to help them make decisions about learning opportunities?

Great questions for which there are some answers, but for which there is no secret sauce, no silver bullet, no easy peasy solution.

There is a lot of research out there on assessment and feedback, much of which I've been reading and thinking about the past few weeks. So please hold tight another day or two as I put together some additional posts. I'll also put together an annotated bibliography of some of that research for those of you who need and want to explore (further) on your own.

In the mean time, spend a bit of time looking at a current lesson or unit plan and concentrate on how you plan to assess. Will you give a quiz? If so, how does that quiz help students make connections between what they needed to learn and the opportunities they were given to learn? How did that or those assessments enable students to measure their progress from where they were to where they needed to be based on the learning targets and stated expectations? I think just starting with those questions and breaking them down a bit will provide a great starting point.

P.S. You might also read my post from the other day: Feedback and the Fourth Dimension.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Feedback and the fourth dimension

Feedback. We get and give feedback all of the time. Some verbal, some non-verbal. A raised eyebrow can speak volumes and be very, very effective.

With students, feedback can seem illusory, non-committal, useless. Grades are something to which students and parents can respond but, in the grand scheme of things, a grade doesn't tell me much.

In education we make much about formative and summative assessments. I'm not going to talk at all about summative assessments because, in my opinion, most of them are simply a test of a student's ability to recall stuff. Especially if the test is multiple guess and true/false. Those provide students with a grade but offer the students zero insight into what they know and can do.

I've done a couple of posts (and podcasts) on accountable talk and collaborative learning strategies. Accountable talk provides opportunity for effective feedback in that students can measure what they know and can do against expectations and standards/learning targets. . . provided, of course, the expectations and standards/learning targets are clear, but that's a different though profoundly importantly-related issue.

Effective depends on not only how, but what. Consider the graphic for feedback on the product, the progress, and the process. Think any content area at any grade level. The student completes a task or assignment producing a product that is handed in or somehow shared for assessment. That work marks progress towards proficiency of the standard or towards meeting expectations for that learning experience. That work also demonstrates the approach the student takes towards making progress in the product of that process.

Think about how commenting on each could make a difference. "Well, Zaphod, we'll need to review the product but I can see what you did and how you did it. Perhaps you can walk me through these steps (paragraphs, ideas, notes, references, whatever)." That's an exaggerated response, but the point is that effective formative assessment moves a student forward; it does not stop him in his tracks and leave him flailing and wondering what to do next. Effective formative assessment lets the student where and how she's been successful and provides her with the wherewithal to start to figure out what she needs to do to proceed.

Teachers cringe at that sort of thinking. Their verbals and non-verbals are quite clear as they wonder how the heck they will find the time to provide that kind of feedback to students. Well, change the mechanisms used for assessment.

Read this article by Vicki Davis. She's talking about formative assessment. Yes, she refers to a digital tool (Socrative is cool), but the point is that she was able to reduce the amount of time spent on a particular topic by two full days. How? She listened carefully, she paid attention to verbals and non-verbals, and she offered students opportunities to demonstrate their learning and assess their own progress.

This article is mostly about educational technology, but I was stopped by this notation and the influence of feedback on student learning.

In the 2003 study, Hattie and his colleagues noted that they "identified five major dimensions of excellent teachers" (p. 6). The dimensions are:
  • can identify essential representations of their subject,
  • can guide learning through classroom interactions,
  • can monitor learning and provide feedback,
  • can attend to affective attributes, and
  • can influence student outcomes (p. 6).
Hattie goes on to note that expert teachers are more flexible and better at problem-solving; they are more opportunistic and take advantage of new knowledge and the situation. Expert teachers are also more adept at anticipating problems and improvising.

The explanations of and examples for these dimensions is fascinating reading. It suggests to me that feedback is much greater and grander that grades or even comments on a paper. It's more profound than the probing questions. It's more significant that helping students recognize the problem, challenge, or impediment and figure out how to move past it towards proficiency and meeting expectations.

What prompted me to this conclusion is the fourth dimension: can attend to affective attributes. Expert teachers respect themselves, their craft, their subject(s), and their students. They don't just call their students "scholars" but truly see them as learners. Perhaps it's best summarized by this:
Expert teachers aim for more than achievement. They also aim to motivate their students to master rather than perform, they enhance students' self-concept and self-efficacy about learning, they set appropriate challenging tasks, and they aim for both surface and deep outcomes (p. 10).
It relates to what I talked about yesterday: that empathy and authenticity matter. It also relates to the work of Moss and Brookhart:
Effective feedback is a teacher's response to student work using criteria for good work that were part of the learning target. Effective feedback observes where the [student] did a good job of meeting the criteria and where [the student] did not. Effective feedback suggests ways the student could go about understanding the reasons for these observations, building on strengths and improving weaknesses (Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom, 2009, p. 45).
In Transformative Assessment (2003), Popham talks about feedback as a process for teachers and students. The expert teacher, in my opinion, can offer effective feedback while attending to affective attributes--showing students how to think about their own thinking and learning, how to use and develop their self-awareness, and how to examine their own work and progress in context of the stated expectations and learning targets.

Okay, so what? Well, it's probably obvious that many teachers need to rethink how they approach and implement formative assessment. Getting kids involved by using Kahoot! may be fun and engaging, but it's only one approach. The other thing I kept thinking about as I meandered down this path is feedback in the work place.

I could launch into something long-winded and potentially interesting, but I'll just say this. We all want effective feedback as described above. We all want to know what we're doing well and where we need to improve. We all want to know our boss's or manager's expectations and the work targets. And we all want our bosses to see us as more than just a cog in the work place machine.

Empathy and authenticity. Maybe they really will be the words and ideas of 2016. . .in the classroom and in the work place.