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Reimagining How We Communicate Assessment Feedback

Communicating assessment feedback to learners in a deliberate, compassionate, effective and timely manner has copious benefits that we need to avail of to propel learning potential

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Assessment and feedback is a valuable tool for anyone who wants to improve their personal and professional performance. A valid assessment can be used to understand strengths, weaknesses, knowledge gaps, process inefficiencies and skills gaps. It can also help you identify learning opportunities and make adjustments to your personal growth plan, your unique roadmap. However, assessment can be a loaded and often misunderstood term. It can strike fear in students or signal that a teacher may be spending her holidays marking papers. But there is so much more to the concept and potential of assessment. The purpose of assessment is something that I have talked about on previous occasions. In this article I want to focus more on what happens once an assessment has been completed and marked. I want to discuss the different facets of effectively communicating feedback on assessments.

Depending on the type of assessment that has been given to a student, the results of these assessments can be used in a number of different ways. One of the key questions that needs to be asked before giving feedback on the assessment is how the process is going to help the learners make progress. How the results from an assessment are used to drive progress can be an incredibly powerful learning opportunity for both students and teachers alike. If the schools have a good process in place, it is a win for all stakeholders involved. And I say all stakeholders because we should understand that quality assessment and effective feedback is not just confined to a school. There are many external stakeholders such as parents or the local community. When we engage in what we call community work, how do you approach it? Do you go in with the mindset that students from my school are going to help the community? If yes, then the feedback that is given to the community, even before any assessment in the form of casual observation, can be entirely wrong. In the same instance, what are we telling our students? That the community needs your help? I don’t see it that way. I encourage my students to go out into the community and learn from the many wisdom it contains. In the process of that learning make sure you are not a passive bystander but an active participant so that it further bolsters your learning. It is important that the community members can see for themselves that you are interested in what the community has to offer rather than coming in with the mentality that this community needs your help. When we cultivate such meaningful relationships, synaptic leaps begin to happen – positive action coupled with an open learning mindset trigger feedback from the community. They then invite you to participate in certain processes that would have otherwise been missed. A good example of this is how students at the Royal Academy visit nearby farms and learn the art of growing vegetables from local farmers. 

The large majority of international assessments are based on a single, global standard to ensure comparability. This maintains the consistency and validity of assessment results across countries, making it easier for students to move from school to school or to universities. This practice made sense a few decades ago when it meant that transcripts had to be sent by post and further back and forth communication ensued between the student and the university. Why is this still persisting now when we have made leaps and bounds in technology? For example, at Pallavan school, situated at a remote location in Jhalawar, Rajasthan we have made use of Blockcerts digital credentials to give our learners complete ownership of their learning achievements. Learners can share this with anyone they choose and it is secured via the Blockchain and tamper-evident. What this does is, in a matter of seconds, convey student transcripts and any other feedback the school wishes to communicate about the learner in a secure and instantly verifiable manner. In the process we follow, we not only provide transcripts and national exam results but a wholistic picture of how the students have fared in the Five Areas of Development. In doing so, it conveys to the students a sense of achievement and ownership. Rather than signalling to them that this is the end of their journey with us, we equip them with a springboard to take forward what they have learned during the time spent with us and wish them well as they scale new heights.

The practice of standardised testing can often add to a culture where fear of failure is prevalent. By their nature, standardised tests are a form of summative assessment that measure the amount of knowledge or skill a student has in a particular area or domain. The same, standard pass mark is set for all students regardless of their individual capabilities. For some students this pass mark will be easily attainable while for others it may seem impossible. But that is not to say that a person who does not achieve this pass mark has not made progress or has not learnt a new skill or acquired new knowledge. And herein lies the problem. A universal pass or fail mark is not a good indicator of the amount of effort put in or the amount of progress a student has made. How can we genuinely measure progress of a student using the same standard to judge everyone? We all have different skills and abilities and, therefore, we will inevitably tend to have different benchmarks for success. Students’ grades are being determined by the tests they take, not the learning that occurs over time. All grading should be done on student progress – not just on test results.

Imagine a student taking a Maths test in the first term has scored only 18 out of 100. The student is given an ‘F’ grade. The student vows to do better the next time and works hard. The score in the next test is 38 out of 100, and the student is again given an ‘F’ grade because the pass mark is 40. Even though the student has scored more than twice the first time, the feedback he or she receives is that they are a failure. The feedback does not acknowledge the effort the student made to improve from 18 to 38. At the other end of the spectrum, we could also talk about how a student who scores 95% would be termed as the best student. The next time the same student scores 90% and would still be the best student. Even though the student’s grade has reduced by 5%, she is still the best student and develops a mindset that she does not need to challenge herself to ‘Raise her Bar’. We need to constantly raise the bar for ourselves when we are tested. In the process we may end up setting a new standard such that the bar has been raised for everyone but that is incidental. It’s a simple idea, but one that is constantly undermined by parents and teachers alike. When they think of “competition” they think of winning, not of doing your best at everything you do. We need to help students learn to succeed. Teach them how to compete against themselves, not others. Support the development of positive skills for their future in areas such as ownership, leadership, communication, and collaboration.

Reporting feedback is the process used to reliably inform student knowledge gained from assessing student learning. The purpose of reporting is to provide relevant information about a student’s progress to students, parents, other teachers and relevant members of the community. This is why reporting needs to be so much more than just scores. If I have a class of 30 students, and they sit for an end of term summative test and afterwards they receive a percentage grade. But, how does this help them make progress? Yes, maybe a student got 75% correct but what is vitally important is that the student knows which 75% she got correct; otherwise this could lead to her continuing to have misconceptions about the areas she got incorrect. 

Also, from the teachers’ perspective, if there is an area that all students are struggling to understand and therefore answering questions incorrectly then it’s important that the teacher is aware of this in order for her to improve her own teaching practice in the concerned area to help the student make progress. When I began my teaching career many decades ago, I used to mark students’ papers with the student seated in front of me. I used to ask the student why she had given a particular answer to a question and so forth. This helped me understand what misconceptions the student had and in my reporting, I used this information to inform the students of course correction in the future. Equally important was that the process gave me direct feedback on what I had to change in my teaching practice that was causing these misconceptions in the first place.

Ranking students based on their performance in an assessment can serve a purpose. However, a rank alone doesn’t necessarily indicate how much progress a student has made. This is where comparative reporting can be a useful tool to help both students and teachers see how much progress an individual has made. In its conventional sense, comparative reporting is when a student’s work is assessed to a benchmark. For example, how is this student faring against the expected outcomes for Math in her class? But this is just the starting point. I believe that the comparative outcome from above should then be compared to that students’ performance in the past and repeated at each successive cycle so that richer data emerges of how much progress a particular student is making. For the student, not only will this provide them with a better wholistic picture but will also help them develop other crucial skills, such as metacognition which, in simple terms, translates to ‘thinking about our thinking’. Metacognition is a complex stand-alone skill whichacts as a tool to achieve a broader set of skills. We will consider three elements that make up the metacognition circle which help us become more aware of our learning process. The elements are self-assessment, roadmaps and reflection. 

Education should challenge learners in a manner that fosters character. How we report assessment can play a significant role here. How does the student feel when they see their feedback? Are they scared their parents will be furious or are they excitedly having a conversation with their parents who then become co-creators in the student learning based on the information presented in the report as the building blocks? It should enable learners to connect with themselves and understand their unique individual journey of learning. It should be able to instil in learners the dynamic process of self-improvement and the ability as well as the skills to actualize their potential. Learners need to grasp the importance of being able to constantly unlearn and learn, and become proactive learners. 

Wholistic Assessment to me is a reliable, valid and engaging way to assess learners’ skills and processes. It helps teachers identify where learners need the most support and how learners can learn new skills by applying their learning to real-world situations. It allows teachers to apply their knowledge of learners, their context, and the information they have about learners’ skills, processes and outcomes to design effective assessments. All this happens not just from the viewpoint of student learners but teachers are also constantly learning in this process. What’s even more interesting is that, when done right, not only do learning outcomes and teaching practices improve but other soft skills like communication, problem solving, empathy and collaboration also skyrocket.

If used judiciously, technology has the potential to augment teachers and students capabilities when it comes to assessment and reporting. With adaptive learning, powered by machine learning algorithms, it is now easier than ever to instantly assess and report to students in real time. However, the challenge and mistake I see occurring is that institutions are leaving it solely to the machines to do this. This will not work and will lead to the downgrading of the quality of assessment and reporting. Instead, if technology is used as a tool to alleviate teachers’ correction workload, it can provide the teacher with data to factor in the unique context of each child and help the teacher to create unique individual reports for them. Reporting and feedback should be in real time and will lose its efficacy when there is a delay in the reporting of progress.

The wholistic elements are only fulfilled if learners themselves play an important role in the creation of these reports. At the Royal Academy, we are committed to creating a culture that is grounded in the practices of reliable assessment and timely feedback. We have established an assessment and feedback system that focuses on non-silo reviews and values the input of the learners and their mentors. It cultivates self-awareness, encourages self-expression, provides validation, creates mentoring and peer-learning opportunities for meaningful improvement, and provides a framework for accountability. Learners create a digital portrait of their learning and experiences on campus and beyond. The roadmaps they create at the beginning of each term are periodically updated and feed into the creation of these portraits, and these in turn feed into the creation of their reports. Hence, learners are actively engaged in the process of creating their own reports along with various other stakeholders- teachers, parents, peers and community members. This gives them a sense of ownership of their learning and growth. It is about time that colleges and universities realise that these reports which are much more comprehensive and richer could play a crucial role in helping them make more informed decisions in their admission process. 

As stated, this type of reporting provides a useful way to monitor progress and to identify missed opportunities for improvement. We can extend this argument a little further and say that reporting of assessments need not just be restricted to students. How are teachers assessed and their reporting done? Is it done in a manner that breaks the spirit of the teacher or is it done to foster a sense of skilful competitiveness? What about the school? How is a school assessed and how is it reported to its various stakeholders? As I mentioned at the outset, reporting is an interconnected and interdependent process. If done masterfully, it is a wave that can enhance the outcomes throughout the system. Furthermore, as our current students become future leaders, they would not only have the soft skills this process helps them acquire but also have an astute sense of how to assess a situation and communicate it effectively. In the unprecedented world we find ourselves in, we can ignore these only at our own peril.

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