In 2015, I’ve been trying to reduce the amount of time I spend marking by finding more efficient and effective strategies for providing feedback. Doing this has made me increasingly reflective about the link between formative feedback and pupil progress. In 2016, I’m committing to a more considered approach which takes into account some of the research in this area. In 1996 a review of research by Kluger and DeNisi highlighted evidence that formative feedback does not always lead to a positive effect on pupil performance (more on performance later). This fact in itself is perhaps not surprising to some. What might cause concern however is that in 38% of cases, formative feedback led to a negative impact on performance.
On serious reflection, it is easy to see how this might be the case. We will all, at some point, have observed how the same piece of feedback can cause one pupil to increase their efforts whilst demotivating another. This is precisely the flavour of Kluger and DeNisi’s article and they argue that this is in part because the exact mechanisms by which feedback works are largely unknown.
Paul Black and Dylan William make a similar case in ‘Inside the Black Box’ where they argue that the current system seems to treat the classroom as a ‘black box’ and oversimplifies learning processes by presenting them through an input/output model.
“How can anyone be sure that a particular set of new inputs will produce better outputs if we don’t at least study what happens inside?
The answer usually given is that it is up to teachers—they have to make the inside work better. This answer is not good enough for two reasons. First, it is at least possible that some changes in the inputs may be counter-productive—making it harder for teachers to raise standards. Secondly, it seems strange, even unfair, to leave the most difficult piece of the standards-raising task entirely to teachers.”
from ‘Inside the Black Box’, Black and William, 2001
Of course these examples are not discouraging the act of providing formative feedback–in fact Dylan William is one of its greatest proponents–however, what they do convey with some certainty is the importance of getting it right as often as we possibly can. They raise the stakes on formative assessment by presenting it as a double edged sword. This serves to remind us that we need to be responsible when weilding the power of formative assessment.
According to William, providing effective feedback is all about relationships. We need to understand how pupils will react to feedback and tailor it for optimum effect. William writes about the importance of feedback to the concept of Growth Mindset and this is certainly something I’m keen to explore further.
I recently read an article discussing the recommendation of an education expert that we should be outsourcing marking abroad and using computer software to provide feedback wherever possible. As attractive as this sounds, the centrality of relationships in the whole process is surely the biggest problem. In one excellent blog post (packed with practical ideas) David Didau even argues that ‘Marking is an act of love’.
Another possible criticism of conventional assessment models is that they tend to measure short-term performance rather than learning, which is longer lasting and ultimately more interesting to us as teachers (more in this post). In Make it Stick, the writers advocate the use of frequent class tests as a means of consolidating learning. This continues to grow in importance with the further shift towards a linear/exam-based system and I will be looking for ways to regularly test knowledge as part of my teaching. Whatever methods I use to assess, I’m keen to make sure (as far as possible at least) that I’m developing learning and not being taken in by temporary increases in performance.
So what are my assessment resolutions for 2016?
1. DIRT every time
It seems logical, and indeed the research supports the fact, that pupils will gain very little from feedback with which they have not actively engaged. Therefore, my first resolution is to allow DIRT time for every piece of feedback I provide. I will also structure this DIRT time so that there are clear objectives and outcomes. I also intend to make more frequent use of redrafting: as well as developing written accuracy and skills, I believe this helps to develop a growth mindset by demonstrating that work can always be developed and improved upon further.
2. Planning assessment in advance
Assessment is most effective when it is planned alongside the learning activities. This allows for multiple assessment opportunities to be built in that generate more impact at lest cost to workload. For example, intermediate peer assessment and redrafting opportunities can take place before I assess the work in full (if indeed this is necessary).
I am going to think carefully about when I mark a piece of work so that it has maximum impact. It may well be better for me to provide feedback before a piece of work is complete as opposed to assessing it once improvement is more difficult to implement.
3. Frequent short testing
There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that regular testing supports longer term retention. In a previous blog, I’ve cited the book ‘Make it Stick’ and its assertion that testing is an important tool for reinforcing/learning knowledge as well as for assessment. My third resolution is to build short class tests into my lessons. I will also combine this testing with the idea of interleaved practice so that I’m testing cumulative learning and that from previous weeks. The key here is to allow enough time for partial forgetting between new knowledge and subsequent recall.
4. Growth mindset
Finally, there has been much talk about Growth Mindset over the last year or two and this also features in William’s writing about assessment when he writes ‘Good learners, we know, tend to attribute both failure and success to internal, unstable causes—in other words, they know that it is within their power to get better.’. So my final resolution is to consider this in the feedback I provide for pupils. I will find ways to draw links between clear targets and the next level of achievement. As above, I also intend to use DIRT and redrafting to demonstrate the idea that work can always be improved and developed with a little thought and effort.
Black, P & William, D. (2006) Inside the Black Box. [ONLINE] available from: http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf [accessed 26th December 2015]
Didau, D. (2013) Marking is an act of love. [ONLINE] available from: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/assessment/marking-act-love/ [accessed 27th December 2015]
Dylan William Centre(2014) Is the Feedback you’re giving helping or hindering? [ONLINE] Available from: http://www.dylanwiliamcenter.com/is-the-feedback-you-are-giving-students-helping-or-hindering/ [accessed 26th December 2015]
Kluger, N & DeNisi, A. (1996) The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a Meta-Analysis, and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory. [ONLINE] Available from: http://mario.gsia.cmu.edu/micro_2007/readings/feedback_effects_meta_analysis.pdf [accessed 27th December 2015]
Times Education Supplement (2015) Schools should consider outsourcing marking abroad expert says. [ONLINE] Available from: https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-should-consider-outsourcing-marking-abroad-expert-says [accessed 26th December 2015]