Sunday / July 21

“Wise Feedback” at the Heart of Identity Safe Formative Assessment

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 fifth 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. For more information see Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools published by Corwin on August 17, 2021. View: Part I; Part II; Part III, Part IV

Think about the feedback you received during your years in school. When has it proved useful?  Have you experienced humiliation with feedback from a teacher? When has it helped you grow?  Claude Steele (2010) described his research experiment with Geoff Cohen and Lee Ross when they examined the impact of feedback given in different ways. Group One was provided with critical feedback. Group Two received neutral feedback. Group Three was told that the evaluator held high standards and believed the student could meet them with the support of criticism designed specifically to help. Participants then described their reactions to the different expressions. Black students in Groups One and Two didn’t trust critical or neutral feedback, even when it was preceded with positive comments. Students in Group Three reported that they were motivated to improve with the suggestions. The results were similar when this research was repeated at another university in a sample where grades even improved for the black students.

The formula for wise feedback, as it came to be called, is beneficial for everyone, especially for those who worry that their academic identity doesn’t measure up. Educators can use their own words and style to express the following:

“I hold high standards; I believe you can meet those standards.

Here are some additional suggestions to help you meet the standards.

And I will help you get there.”

Mary Murphy (2018) adds that you can point out specific ways the students have been progressing. This helps students recognize that they often don’t acknowledge their own growth. Learning to recognize effort and progress is powerfully motivating. Next, we show how to incorporate wise feedback throughout each phase of Formative Assessment (FA).

Phase 1: Where Am I Going?

In Phase 1, feedback is given to help students set goals. Using the wise feedback model, educators emphasize their belief in the student’s capacity to reach high expectations. If a student seems to be setting the bar too high–rather than calling that goal unreachable or unrealistic–the educator helps them set short, medium, and long-term goals with a realistic path for meeting them. If a student is setting the bar too low, educators encourage them without minimizing the goal, but rather expressing confidence in their capacity to aim higher.

Educators can also help students figure out what evidence will demonstrate progress, ensuring achievable milestones along the way. An educator’s belief in a student’s capacity together with a commitment to support their efforts bolsters motivation.

Phase 2: Where Am I Now?

In Phase 2, the educator helps the student analyze progress, noting even the small steps taken toward reaching the high standards. They guide students to analyze evidence using rubrics and other tools to assess progress. Expressing confidence in the student’s capacity to meet the standards, they offer specific feedback on improvements. It’s an important time to ensure that students have access to necessary support, resources, and continued wise feedback along the way.

In School Talk, Rethinking What We Say About–And to—Students Every Day (page 235) Mica Pollock (2017) describes a teacher who changed her method of giving feedback. Rather than saying, “Johnny, you’re below standards and can’t do ____ (specific literacy skill,) you need to improve.” She focused on what Johnny could do and shifted her language with an affirmation: “Johnny, now you can do___ (highlighting a specific literacy skill he was doing correctly).” Then adding, “the next step for you is ______,” assuring them. “we’ll help you get to _____,” (naming another literacy skill he needs to learn), and finally summing up with, “We’ll assess your work and our efforts [by collecting data].” Pollock also points out that it wouldn’t have helped Johnny to simply focus on what he was able to do. This method highlights what he can do with ways to improve.

LPS student, Aminesh, describes his thinking process. “For me I would say . . . it’s mostly about improvement. I keep going back and I’m like, ‘alright, what do I have to do to improve? Ok, I have to improve on this. OK, I got this right. Constantly that same kind of question pops up. When I keep getting them right, I understand that I don’t have to improve on those, so I go back to the ones I have to improve on and keep trying to improve….Confidence, yeah, for me with improvement, confidence comes with it.”

Phase 3: Where Am I Going?

During Phase 3, students reflect on where to go next. Wise feedback helps them develop a positive explanatory story to reevaluate their goals based on collected evidence. It may involve saying “not yet” to remind them that although they may have not arrived at where they want to be, they carry the potential to get there. Together with the student, educators target specific improvements, obstacles to overcome, and determine scaffolds to support their efforts. The educator helps reframe failures as learning opportunities, reminding students that failure is neither permanent nor pervasive.  Educators emphasize the importance of reflection, the significance of acknowledging progress, and the value of the learning process itself. New goals are set that grow out of that learning. The educator continues to make encouraging statements, placing a value on a student’s effort and capacity.


In this Identity Safe Formative Assessment blog series, we emphasized the importance of incorporating identity safe practices to ensure that students of all backgrounds feel supported in maximizing the formative assessment experience. We described the use of counter-narratives to expand students’ awareness of structural barriers, break down stereotypes, and overcome obstacles that hinder confidence and motivation. We presented a growth mindset approach where students engage in productive struggle, gaining confidence to grapple with difficulties, using deliberate practice to apply effective effort while learning from mistakes. We concluded in this last blog with an exploration of wise feedback showing that when we combine their efforts with our confidence in them, they can meet high expectations when supported with specific suggestions for improvement and acknowledgments of their progress. Together, these stances can maximize the tremendous potential of identity safe formative assessment.


Pollock, M. (2017), author of School Talk, Rethinking What We Say About–And to—Students Every Day (page 235)

Murphy, M., (2018). Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished.

Student Interview (2018). Aminesh. [Video file] Leadership Public Schools.

Written by

Becki Cohn-Vargas, EdD, has more than 35 years of experience as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. Her educational mission is ensuring identity safe classrooms where teachers strive to assure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom.

Partnering with identity safety researcher Dorothy Steele, she coauthored Identity Safe Classrooms Grades K–5: Places to Belong and Learn; followed by Identity Safe Classrooms Grades 6–12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning, with Alex Creer Kahn and Amy Epstein. Her third book, co-authored with Kahn, Epstein, and Kathe Gogolewski, Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools: A Guide for Educational Leaders, focuses on school transformation and was published August 17, 2021.

Currently, Becki is an independent consultant and presenter. She was hosted at the White House by President Obama’s Education Staff and has worked to create inclusive climates in over 150 schools across the U.S.

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