The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student performance. Teachers who use formative assessment effectively are able to identify aspects of achievement and provide students with feedback about how to enhance the quality of their work.
Providing feedback to students is a key function of the teaching role. Effective feedback identifies, in relation to specific learning,
- what students already know, understand and are able to do (Plus)
- what they do not yet know, understand or are able to do (Minus), and
- how they might improve – by suggesting specific strategies.
Each of these aspects of effective feedback is important.
- The Plus is important because of its links with student motivation and self-esteem and the fact that it provides a focus on where students are.
- The Minus is very important because this focuses on the gap between where students are now and where they need to be.
- Information about how to improve tells students how to close the gap between where they are and where they need to be.
Before you can provide feedback which is effective in improving student performance there are some other ingredients that need to be in place.
Firstly, the assessment activity must relate to the knowledge, skills and understanding that you wanted the students to learn. It must provide students with the opportunity to demonstrate those skills, knowledge and understanding. You might like to spend some time evaluating your assessment activities to see if they fulfil that role.
Secondly, students must know what learning you want them to demonstrate. They need to know the criteria (the success criteria) by which their work will be judged and what it was that you wanted them to learn (the learning intention).
Would you like to try this? Select a sample of student work, and ask these questions:
- What was the learning intention for this piece of work?
- What were the success criteria?
If the learning intention and success criteria are not explicit, can you see that you have a difficulty? Where will you focus your feedback? And how did the students know where to focus their attention and effort?
When providing feedback, ask these questions:
- What, in terms of the success criteria, has the student done well?
- In which areas does he/she still need to improve?
- What advice will you offer to help him/her make that improvement? (Make your advice specific by providing examples or scaffolding.)
Some food for thought:
- How effective is the feedback that you currently give your students?
- What changes might you make?
- What might prevent you from making those changes?
- What might help you to make those changes?
‘Just had a great lesson! We all had a lot of fun!’
So there was student engagement and you got a buzz as well? Yes, that’s very good. These are both important aspects of a good lesson because they can stimulate motivation, a key ingredient for learning.
Teacher reflection on the success or otherwise of our lessons is an important part of the teaching process. As well as being aware of student engagement and motivation, we also need to ask:
- what did the students learn?
- how do we know that they learned it?
- how are we going to follow up? (that is, how will we make use of the assessment knowledge that we have gained as a result of this lesson?)
In order to increase our chances of teaching a good lesson, we
- plan the lesson beforehand. Yes, of course it’s possible for an experienced teacher to fly by the seat of her pants and still produce a good lesson. But planning makes success far more likely. It means we know what skills, knowledge or understanding we want the students to have at the end of the lesson, and we’ve thought about the kinds of teaching activities that are most likely to help our students to be successful in their learning.
- tell the students what it is that they’re going to learn. There’s plenty of research out there now to support the idea that sharing learning intentions is an important condition for student success.
- tell the students how they will know if they’ve been successful in their learning. That is, we provide them with success criteria, and therefore, as Royce Sadler says, ‘let them in on the secret’.
- make sure we’re aware of what students already know and build our lesson around that knowledge. This is likely to involve some differentiated learning in terms of teaching approaches or student activities.
- provide feedback to students during the lesson. Effective feedback tells students what they have done well and where improvement is needed. It offers specific advice about how to make that improvement.
- plan opportunities for peers to provide each other with feedback. Again, the research tells us much about the effectiveness of peer feedback in promoting student learning.
- plan opportunities for self-assessment to encourage students to reflect on their progress and how they are learning.
- evaluate what we’ve learned about our students’ skills, knowledge and understanding as a result of this lesson and use that information to shape our future planning.
Yes, teaching is a complex business: there’s a great deal going on before, during and after a good lesson.
(If you’re interested, you can read more about these aspects of lesson planning in my book Improving Student Achievement, A practical guide to assessment for learning.)