By Ish Stabosz
Center for Creative Instruction & Technology
Delaware Technical Community College
Welcome to part 4 of my series on Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis. Last week, we looked at strategy 2, which details how instructors can use model work in order to give students a clear understanding of the learning target. At this point in the book, we’ve learned everything we need to know to help students answer the question Where am I going?
Today, I’ll begin my exploration of Chapter 3, which explains the third strategy: Offer regular descriptive feedback during the learning. This strategy helps students to answer the question Where am I now? in relationship to their mastery of any given learning target.
To start this chapter off, Chappuis again quotes educational researcher Royce Sadler, who declares that the quality of feedback lies in “its catalytic and coaching value, and its ability to inspire confidence and hope“. This means that providing good feedback to students is about more than just telling them the correct answer; it’s about equipping them with the tools to push forward despite their challenges. Chappuis extends the teacher-as-coach analogy by explaining how football practice differs from pedagogy. A football coach doesn’t schedule games, notes Chappuis, so that players can learn how to play football. Rather, a coach gets players to run as many drills and scrimmages as possible before their performance is really tested in a live game.
A football team’s learning cycle, of course, is different from the way a lot of classrooms are structured. For example, in a traditional class, students might be given four quizzes before receiving a cumulative test. The quizzes, however, are not like scrimmages, because they are typically calculated into a student’s average grade. Whereas practice drills offer an opportunity for coaches to give feedback to their players so that they can learn from their mistakes before it counts, evaluative quizzes penalize students for making mistakes. This line of reasoning has added a new question to my curriculum planning and classroom management process: How much is my class structured like a sports team?
This question doesn’t only inform my grading, assessment, and feedback practices, but even the way I communicate to my students. For a lot of my career as an educator, I’ve thought that my job is basically to force students to do things that they don’t want to do so that they can achieve the goals that I say they should achieve. Compare that to a coach’s job: to motivate players to do things that they don’t want to do so that the players can achieve the goals that they do want. The difference isn’t a subtle as it may seem.
If I only see myself as a content deliverer and evaluator, then I have no reason to get my students to actually enjoy writing or see the value in it. But if I see myself as a coach, all of a sudden my students become that ragtag peewee league bunch of lovable misfits that are the focus of so many inspiring feelgood sports movies. My students become the not-so-Mighty Ducks, with a vague and misguided desire to achieve something that they are unsure of, and I become the Emilio Estevez of Composition, ready to whip them into shape to achieve the perfect Flying V.
It’s a silly analogy, I know. But for me, at least, thinking like a coach rather than a teacher has changed my classroom. Chappuis even says that feedback done well can shift the culture of a classroom, transforming a room full of “grade grubbers” into a community of students who “think and act like learners”.
Before talking about what effective feedback looks like, Chappuis offers a word of caution, noting that not all feedback is created equally, and that some feedback can actually hurt student learning. She cites one analysis conducted by Kluger and DeNisi in which they examined 130 different studies about formative feedback. The analysis found that of all the studies, only one-third concluded that feedback improved student learning. Of the remaining studies, one third found that feedback had no significant effect on learning, and the final third found that students actually performed worse as a result of feedback.
With those facts established, Chappuis moves on to describing what effective feedback looks like so that we can aim to fall in line with the desirable third of studies. She provides five characteristics of quality feedback.
1. Effective feedback directs attention to the intended learning
If students know where they are going (strategies 1 and 2), then the instructor can help them discover how to get there by using formative assessment as an opportunity to guide students back on track. Chappuis categorizes the types of feedback we should offer as “success feedback” and “next-step feedback”.
Success feedback is when we point out to students what it is they are doing correctly. Although this might seem a waste of time, this positive reinforcement allows students to know where they don’t need to make adjustments. Chappuis does warn, however, that simple praise can actually be detrimental to students. Success feedback should focus on the learning target (“Your thesis statement does a good job at forecasting your paper”) rather than the learner (“I can tell you worked really hard on your thesis”).
Next-step feedback gives students something to do that will push them closer to the learning target without just giving them the answer. Chappuis says that this sort of feedback might be a question, a suggestion, a reminder about a previous lesson, or anything else that clearly prompts the students to take action. She cites research that shows ambiguous feedback, such as “Incomplete” and “Try these again” is likely to hinder students learning more than if the instructor had left no feedback at all. The key question to ask ourselves before leaving any feedback is “Can this student take action on the basis of this comment?”
2. Effective feedback occurs during learning
Like the football coach analogy, this characteristic asserts that the best way to get students to understand that we learn from our mistakes is to not hold their mistakes against them until it counts. This means that we need to build in plenty of practices and scrimmages before sending our students out on the field to face real opponents like the Dreaded Cumulative Exam or The All-Consuming Research Paper.
I have actually changed the way that I organize my lessons to purposefully build in places where students are likely to make mistakes. I assign rough drafts with minimal instruction before hand. Then, once the students have something to work with, I step in with the just-in-time instruction that they can apply immediately to a real context. Some students find this frustrating, asking things like “Why didn’t you tell me to do that in the first place?”, but once I explain my teaching philosophy, most of them accept my method, and many expressly appreciate it.
3. Effective feedback addresses partial understanding
Chappuis cautions that there are times when feedback is not the answer. Specifically, we shouldn’t write anything if a student’s work demonstrates such a lack of understanding that they would not be able to take action with our comment. In this case, other interventions (such as direct instruction or personal tutoring) would be a better solution to get the student back on track. Feedback should only be left to correct partial understanding.
4. Effective feedback does not do the thinking for the student
This one is pretty straight-forward, but it’s definitely easier said than done. Basically, our feedback shouldn’t do the work for the students. From a writing teacher’s perspective, this means that I shouldn’t tell students where every comma goes, nor should I rewrite their unclear thesis statement for them. Feedback like that isn’t really spurring students to any action beyond “do what I say”. Better feedback might be to correct one of the student’s comma errors and then point out other areas that make the same mistake and ask students to try correcting them. For the unclear thesis statement, I might ask students to compare their thesis to the examples from the book.
5. Effective feedback limits correctives to what students can act on
This characteristic is about setting realistic goals for your students. Chappuis suggests that we should limit feedback to an amount that students can be expected to act on in the time allotted. If you find yourself unable to offer enough feedback for students to reasonably make any adjustments, then it might be worth restructuring your class so that there is more time between formative and summative assessments.
That’s not all for Chapter 3! In the rest of the chapter, Chappuis provides a host of specific methods for offering feedback and then concludes with steps to get students to effectively give feedback to one another. It’s a lot of information, so I’m going to save it all for next week.
Until then, stay in touch in the comment box. What do you think of Chappuis’s five characteristics of effective feedback? How’d you like my cheesy Mighty Ducks reference?