Tag Archives: formative assessment

The Importance of Feedback: Both Fast and Slow

Feedback is one of the most important parts of a teacher’s job. Even if they don’t always act like it, students tend to be very interested in teachers’ reactions to their work. The emotional course of a young person’s entire day can be strongly affected by the sort of feedback–both positive and negative–that a teacher may provide. The power of effective feedback, of course, doesn’t only impact a student’s affective domain; cognitive development also depends on frequent and specific feedback from teachers. As Wiggins (2012) pointed out, feedback based on formative assessment is one of the most powerful factors affecting student learning.

For adult learners, of course, feedback is no less important, but it needs to be structured a little differently. Adults, especially professional educators, often have a well-earned sense of their own expertise, which they may have developed over the course of many years or even decades of classroom experience with young people. Even the most personable and trustworthy administrator, instructional coach, or trainer might offer a well-stated and specific suggestion to a teacher, only to be rebuffed as a non-expert who doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. In short, providing critical feedback to adults is complicated.

Mochari (2014) described how Abraham Lincoln was masterful at providing feedback to his generals during the Civil War. After Lincoln’s death, unsent letters were discovered in Lincoln’s desk that he had wisely decided not to send. Writing these letters must have helped Lincoln clarify his thinking, and perhaps even vent some of his frustrations and anxieties about trying to keep the young nation together in spite of a brutal war. Among Mochari’s takeaways was the importance of putting yourself into someone else’s shoes before criticizing him or her (Mochari, para. 11). I once worked for a superintendent who developed a well-deserved reputation for fits of rage, during which he would yell at employees so loudly that others could hear his every word through the wall. Hearing my colleagues, some of whom had been educators for decades, being cursed at and belittled didn’t just affect their morale and self-esteem; it had negative effects on everyone within earshot. While this is a rather extreme example, the fact remains that supervisors must tread lightly when providing feedback.

Of course, treading lightly isn’t always possible. Swartz (n.d.) outlined a system of writing feedback she used with her online language arts students. Among her insights was a commitment to provide feedback via electronic comments within 24 hours of a student writing submission. Prompt feedback is key to learning because the learner needs to hear both positive reassurances and suggestions for improvement while their work is still fresh in their minds. Most people have had the dubious experience of receiving feedback so long after finishing a job that many of the decisions and actions associated with the work have been forgotten.

As I consider the feedback mechanisms in my Demo Unit for this course, I believe there are several good ways that the instructor can provide prompt and specific feedback to learners. Wiki posts and threaded online discussions, for example, give instructors an opportunity to participate in a discussion in real-time, certainly within the 24-hour constraint that Swartz developed. Virtual online meetings and video conferences allow for feedback that is even quicker, in that they approximate the face-to-face conversations that occur constantly in a classroom environment.

Although feedback is most effective when it is prompt, it is sometimes important for teachers to take at least a little more time to carefully reflect on which suggestion(s) will have the most impact on learning. Several of my Demo Unit assignments have rubric-based feedback, associated with formal grading tasks, which are somewhat slower than online meetings and simultaneous discussions. The advantage to slower feedback is that great, breakthrough ideas often require more time and reflection before they can be formulated. If there is one lesson that we can learn from Abraham Lincoln, it is that the slower, more deliberate approach may not always be the most popular choice, but it is sometimes the most effective.


Mochari, I. (2014, February 11). Abraham Lincoln’s brilliant method for handling setbacks. Retrieved from http://www.inc.com/ilan-mochari/lincoln-lesson-setbacks.html

Swartz, J. (n.d.). Strategies for providing substantive feedback in language arts in the online environment. Retrieved from http://itlab2.coe.wayne.edu/it6230/casestudies/english/english.html

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx

Formative Assessment Matters More Now

Waters (2012) suggested that every minute a teacher spends on formative assessment is a minute lost from instruction (p. 8). But I doubt that formative assessment and instruction are really a zero-sum game. As my master teacher told me over 20 years ago, a good assessment should be a learning experience too. The trick, I think, is for the teacher to break out of the comfortable routine of measuring all learning with quick and easy multiple-choice tests, to be more precise, the sort of test questions that have single, predetermined correct answers. Designing a good formative assessment takes time, to be sure, so why not use that time to students’ advantage by incorporating a thought-provoking article or short video clip into an assessment?

Image Source: Pixabay

A good formative assessment should require students to formulate ideas that extend beyond the context(s) in which the information was taught. A few years ago, I taught a high-school anatomy course with partner who is a formative assessment guru. She requires her students to write quick paragraph assessments based on one or two brief excerpts from articles. She carefully designs her writing prompts so that students not only summarize the key concepts from the article and their prior learning, but also apply that knowledge to solve a critical-thinking problem that they have not encountered before. Some of the prompts even ask questions that have more than one possible answer, so there is an opportunity for the assessment to provoke further discussion and debate in the classroom. She grades these short-paragraph assessments efficiently and holistically based on rather simple criteria:

  • Did the student demonstrate sufficient mastery of what has been taught recently?
  • Was the student able to make a logical conclusion about the critical-thinking problem that was supported with evidence?

Based on the results of each assessment, she is able to make immediate adjustments to her instruction—and student groupings—the very next day.

As I was completing my own self-assessment for this assignment, I realized that an effective formative assessment should also contain a question or two that asks the student to express his or her own assessment of progress. I don’t think it’s necessary to ask students to complete the exact same questions before and after their learning, as we have been asked to do this week. But I do think that students should be asked to reflect on how their thinking has changed over the course of a unit or an entire course term. Such assessments need not be lengthy; in fact, every lesson can easily be concluded by asking students to rate their own understanding of the lesson on a scale from 1 to 5. Over longer time scales, I think students should be asked to write reflections on learning goals every couple of weeks. Such writing can be a powerful learning experience for both the student and the teacher, who might gain valuable feedback that can be used to adjust upcoming lessons and/or improve the course for the next year.

Strategies such as these can be employed in a traditional classroom; in fact, I doubt any of these ideas is really new. But in an online or blended learning environment, these formative assessment techniques become essential, because teachers and students might not be in the same classroom at the same time, or they might not even be in the same part of the world. Teachers of online courses must take formative assessment very seriously because the students are not physically present, so their body language, attitudes, and emotional states might be complete mysteries.

Technology, of course, opens up whole new categories of possible formative assessment techniques. As Horn and Staker (2012) described, formative assessment can be constantly interwoven throughout learning by using adaptive instruction tools like Lexia (para. 6). In my school district, the printed math textbook has been completely replaced with GoMath and ThinkCentral, both of which are adaptive, interactive learning learning modules published by HMH. Students in such programs are constantly asked to solve problems independently, and the computer software makes instant decisions about the next step, whether a student needs remediation or intervention, or is ready to progress to the next step. These tech tools are sometimes aggravating when they do not work, and I doubt they can replace the intuition and interpersonal relationship of a dedicated teacher. However, even the most skeptical tradition-minded teacher must admit that technology is opening the door to many new assessment methods, and that traditional paper tests with multiple-choice questions are going the way of the dinosaur.


Horn, M., & Staker, H. (2012, November 14). Formative assessment is foundational to blended learning. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/articles/2012/11/14/formative-assessment-is-foundational-to-blended-learning.aspx

Waters, J. K. (2012). Resolving the formative assessment catch-22. THE Journal: Transforming Education Through Technology. Retrieved from http://online.qmags.com/TJL0912?pg=20&mode=1#pg20&mode1