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Saturday / April 13

How to Improve Feedback for All: New Perspectives, Practices, and Possibilities (Part 2)

Feedback is everywhere.

Teachers offer it in the lab, on the playing field, in the music and art room, at the table, and in just about every teaching and learning space in our schools.

We know from decades of research that feedback is a significant driver for change. Feedback matters (Hattie & Clarke, 2019). But how we unpack feedback practices without getting overwhelmed or bogged down in what Jim Popham calls “dysfunctional detail” is the art of making feedback formative.

Traditionally, we have relied on different assessment tools to guide grading processes. The most common tools include the answer key and the rubric.

Using Answer Keys

When dealing with traditional quiz or test data, many teachers use an answer key. The answer key determines how to categorize, or “bin,” sets of student responses. Answer keys generally rely on dichotomous bins (such as correct or incorrect), with corresponding numbers such as 0 or 1. But partial credit scoring (awarding a ½ point etc.) is also common. By using this type of evaluation tool, teachers can quickly and efficiently sort student achievement on a set of items from a quiz or test.

Using Rubrics

A rubric is another evaluation tool that can help teachers and students “bin” performances. Rubrics may be holistic or analytic. Analytic rubrics typically use anywhere from four to six criteria, which can be standards-based. Well-designed analytic rubrics offer at least four to five levels for evaluating performance. The hope is that these rubrics include clear, well-defined, and student-friendly descriptions that avoid using deficit language or potentially hurtful labels. One reason to use rubrics: Points can be accumulated, and grades calculated.

Each of these “binning tools” (Duckor & Holmberg, 2017) has its place in classroom assessment practices, particularly for arriving at summative judgments in what some call assessment of learning (Stiggins, 2002).  We can generate grades–using answer keys and rubrics–but neither tool offers what we need to make feedback truly formative.

Answer keys and rubrics may be necessary for grading, but they are not sufficient for supporting students’ learning progressions and trajectories on rich, complex tasks, projects, or assignments while they are learning.

Let’s recall Wiggins’s (2012) seven criteria for what makes feedback both formative and effective. Effective, formative feedback will be:

  • goal‐referenced
  • tangible and transparent
  • actionable
  • user‐friendly
  • timely
  • ongoing
  • consistent

Each of these criteria for effective feedback reminds us that our classroom assessment tools–and therefore feedback processes and practices–must yield useful information. This information must lead to change–with work-in-progress–to close the particular achievement gap (Ramaprasad, 1983). Answer keys and rubrics may be necessary for grading, but they are not sufficient for supporting students’ learning progressions and trajectories on rich, complex tasks, projects, or assignments, while they are learning. From our experiences in schools that honor growth and development of Habits of Mind, Heart, and Work, it is clear teachers and students need additional feedback-for-learning options.

Here are a few new ideas about making feedback formative to help us move forward with feedback for deeper learning.

Right-Sized Feedback With a Progress Guide: Between Rubrics and a Hard Spot

Advocates for authentic assessment often point to rubrics for evidence of whether students have achieved learning goals. One benefit of a standards-based rubric is that it spells out success criteria. But too frequently, rubrics are flawed—sometimes in their design–other times by challenges with implementation in the learning cycle.

When the goal of one’s assessment practice is the generation of right-sized formative feedback for students to use to improve their work, rubrics can be especially problematic. This is because rubrics often contain “dysfunctional detail” (Popham, 1997). Dysfunctional detail makes rubrics awkward and difficult to use for teachers when looking at drafts of student work and for students when self-assessing their own work-in-progress.

Students and teachers can only juggle so many elements of information at once and therefore need a streamlined, focused tool when they are formatively assessing work in order to generate next steps, formative feedback.

Mental processing power consumed by the dysfunctional detail of some rubrics distracts teachers (and students!) who would be better served by figuring out and articulating appropriate next steps on a task or assignment.

Unfortunately, rubrics, while often necessary to communicate a more in-depth nuanced description of learning goals, nonetheless tend to get in the way of timely, specific, flexible feedback. Experts in the assessment for learning field have called for richer exchanges between teacher and students (Heritage, 2016) so the focus remains on learning rather than on grading during instructional cycles.

In our book,  Feedback for Continuous Improvement in the Classroom (Corwin, 2023) we introduce a classroom-based assessment innovation called the progress guide. As discussed in our last blog, the progress guide is a tool that invites feedback cycles. We see progress guides as a bridge between rubrics and other tools for improving sense-making, i.e., what “next steps” are needed to improve, now.

The big idea that animates the progress guide is that it allows students (and teachers and paraprofessionals) to focus on next steps along a strand of the current work-in-progress. The reason to use a progress guide is to allow your students to make just-in-time adjustments to the work, before summative judgment (i.e., marking and grading periods). The key to the progress guide is keeping formative feedback formative.

We share many examples of progress guides and their uses from different classroom tasks and projects, but here is one example to help you visualize the general structure and function of progress guides as tools to encourage feedback. Figure 1.3 (Corwin, 2023, p. 21) depicts a “Using Evidence” exemplar of a progress guide connected to an argumentation rubric.

Progress Guides 101

A progress guide is a tool (typically a graphic organizer/handout) that assists in orienting students toward next steps and focuses them on formative feedback. A progress guide helps students and teachers to identify and work within a student’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) with a task. A progress guide describes a continuum of possible current performance levels with a task, and it invites students to locate the “first draft” work through a process of peer- and/or self-assessment.

A progress guide is a supplement to a well-designed rubric. Typically, a progress guide focuses on only one strand of an analytical rubric (e.g., weighing evidence). In this way, a progress guide does not aim to be comprehensive in terms of describing all possible progress related to an important performance task; rather, a progress guide is much more strategically prioritized, streamlined, and student friendly.

The big idea that animates the progress guide is that it allows students (and teachers and paraprofessionals) to focus on next steps along a strand of the current work-in-progress.

A progress guide does aim to be comprehensive in the sense that it accommodates and supports all students, no matter where their current performance is, on the evolving continuum. This includes students whose current “first draft” performances are at the top-most and bottom-most levels (what we call “ramps”) on the guide, as well as levels of performance in between the extremes.

As a visual scaffold and aid, a progress guide helps students answer the following questions during the learning cycle:

  1. Where is my current work/performance on this continuum?
  2. What are a few concrete, specific next steps I can take now to move my current work into the next level(s) of performance?
  3. What specific formative feedback (spoken, written, and non-verbal) will help me achieve this next level of performance with my teacher’s, my peers’, or my own assistance?

Teachers can develop and support students in using more than one progress guide during a unit. For example, students may use one progress guide on weighing evidence and another progress guide for writing conventions. And still another for viewpoint. Any of these learning targets–on a right-sized continuum–can be made manifest and visible in any subject matter or curriculum.

A key feature of progress guides is that they do not include numbers, points, or scores. Rather, progress guides emphasize qualitative, concrete, user-friendly “next steps” aimed at improvement.

Written by

Brent Duckor, Ph.D., is professor in the Department of Teacher Education at San José State University. Dr. Duckor also serves as a core faculty member in the Ed.D. Educational Leadership program at the Lurie College of Education. He taught government, economics, and history at Central Park East Secondary School in New York City in the 1990s. With the passage of No Child Left Behind, Brent returned to earn a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley  and study educational measurement, testing, and assessment in the Quantitative Methods and Evaluation program at the Graduate School of Education. Carrie Holmberg, Ed. D., is a lecturer in the Department of Teacher Education and preservice teacher educator at San José State University. She taught at a Title I comprehensive high school in Silicon Valley for nearly a decade and has extensive experience mentoring new teachers. Carrie has twice earned her National Board Certification. She also worked with the Stanford Partner School Induction Program and the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Program for many years.

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