Monday / April 22

Tools for Identity Safe Formative Assessment: Deliberate Practice & Productive Struggle

About the Identity Safe Formative Assessment Five-Part Blog Series  

Formative assessment (FA) operates as a feedback loop. Together, educators and students set goals, assess, and adjust learning in real time based on collected evidence combined with feedback. Identity Safety is an equity-focused approach where students of all backgrounds feel valued and supported. In this fourth blog of a five-part blog series, I explore the three phases of identity-safe informative assessment, drawing from the West Ed Formative Assessment Loop, a series of interviews with leading equity-focused scholars and practitioners, and student and educator interviews from Leadership Public Schools, who have piloted identity–safe formative assessment practices. View:  Part IPart IIPart III, Part V will publish soon!  

“Formative assessment is assessment for learning,” meaning that the learner is continually assessing what they have learned as well as what they might need to change. Zaretta Hammond points out the power of deliberate practice, explaining that learning can involve small skills that are isolated and practiced. She captures the essence of deliberate practice as a conscious attempt to apply focused attention and practice, while intentionally correcting mistakes along the way. Repeating the same steps over and over without checking or seeking to improve may lock in errors. This applies to everything from fingering practice for a piano piece to applying an algebraic theorem. Deliberate practice is an approach to learning that leads to continual growth. Conscious persistence is the key to success in a wide range of fields. The illusion that singers, artists, or inventors are successful as the sole result of inborn talent defies the truth. Malcolm Gladwell (2008) highlights a proverbial “10,000 hours” of practice by famous people, from the Beatles to Steve Jobs, as a contributing factor in their accomplishments. In the formative assessment process, deliberate practice is infused into each of the three phases. 

Students also can be taught about productive struggle, the value of sticking with a difficult problem or task without becoming discouraged when faced with a Herculean effort required to overcome obstacles. With a positive view of their intelligence as described in Blog Three: Counter-narrativesthey will be less likely to give up. Also, when we support students engaging in deliberate practice, it’s important to know them well so that we can attend to their perceptions and vulnerabilities appropriately. Otherwise, we may embarrass or humiliate them in front of their peers.  

Phase One: Where am I going? 

As goals are set and new directions decided, students need to consider how to achieve them. By understanding and applying the concept of deliberate practice, students learn to set specific goals, determining the best practice needed for the task, as well as how to assess progress and make course corrections. Understanding the concept of productive struggle, students also consider where they might encounter challenges and obstacles and can make plans to power through those tough moments, ensuring they will persist without giving up. This pre-planning and forethought is critical to the idea of student agency in deliberate practice, empowering them through rational expectation to stay-the-course.  Educators support students in taking a realistic account of the work needed to accomplish the goals. Leadership Public Schools student, Ashley, explains her teacher’s approach. “He has us do an error analysis to help us understand the concepts better.  Whatever we get wrong, he wants us to write out on a sheet of paper explaining why and what the right answer is; so he gets a better understanding and so we get a better understanding of what we did wrong to improve on the retake.”   

Phase Two: Where am I now? 

In the “Where I am now?” phase, students analyze their progress through the lens of effort and persistence.  How far have their endeavors carried them in terms of content?   Are there areas where they need to take a step back and fill in gaps in their knowledge in order to move ahead? 

They can assess their use of deliberate practice and productive struggle. What roadblocks are they encountering? What new strategies can they apply right now to move forward?  In this phase, they examine the quality of their effort and consider how it is helping or hindering their progress.  

Phase Three: Where am I going? 

In the third phase of formative assessment, students can take a global view of their learning, reflecting on what was accomplished and the extent that their approaches met their goals.   Adopting a meta-cognitive view of their struggles, they consider how well they managed the obstacles, and what they will need to address and maintain the motivation to keep trying, especially when the going gets tough.  

As they decide what course to take next, they can evaluate the need for adjustments. As new goals are created, they can include both academic aspirations as well as new plans for engaging in deliberate practice and productive struggle.  

Educators can support the process by conscientiously engaging in language that motivates. Positive presuppositions are affirming assumptions embedded in an educator’s words (Steele, D.M.& Cohn-Vargas, 2013). Sometimes, we inadvertently communicate negative assumptions, evident in the statement, “Watch out and be careful, or you will continue to make the same mistakes.” In this example, the language assumes the student is not normally careful, and will most likely keep making errors.  In its stead, an educator might say “How will you take what you have learned from your mistakes as you work on the next set of goals?” In choosing these words, the educator assumes the student has learned from previous mistakes and will apply the learning in the future. By monitoring our language, we support positive self-fulfilling prophecies. 

Educators can support students in engaging processes for applying effective effort, facing struggle, and learning from mistakes, all valuable contributions to their growth. They can also give students tools and strategies for encountering failures in a way that they can persist and overcome with courage and confidence. In the fifth and final blog, we will share what we have learned about feedback from students and how it can shape our approaches as educators.  We offer a model of wise feedback to strengthen the formative assessment process.  


Gladwell. M., (2008).  Outliers: why some people succeed and some don’. Little Brown & Co. New York.  

Hammond, Z., (2018). Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools., Unpublished. 

LPS Student Interview, (2018). Ashley. [Video file] Leadership Public Schools. 

Michael, A., (2018). Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools.Unpublished. 

Steele, D.M. & Cohn-Vargas, (2013). Identity Safe Classrooms, Places to Belong and Learn, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA.   

Written by

Coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms, Grades K-5 and Grades 6-12, Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed.D., works with educators to create identity safe classrooms and schools. Currently, as a consultant, she presents, writes, coaches, and produces films about bullying prevention, implicit bias, inclusion, compassion and belonging. She has worked as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent in urban, suburban, and rural communities. Formerly, as Director of Not In Our School, Becki published the Identity Safe and Inclusive School Program, a comprehensive guide for creating identity safe secondary schools. Her website, Beckicohnvargas.comfeatures additional blogs and films. 

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