The Magic of Feedback

As an elementary school principal with a dozen-plus years of K – 12 experience in school
counseling, I have spent much of my time researching and discussing with colleagues how to most effectively provide instruction and assessment that truly impacts student learning. Much of this learning stems from my National Board Certification and the pivotal point in my professional career when I learned to always put students’ learning first. I hope that I can provide some practical thoughts into how we can move forward in our understanding and application of best practices in relation to grading and assessment. Specifically, what can educators do to effectively provide instruction and assessment that truly impacts student learning?

It is my belief that we have underestimated the importance of providing feedback to students (and teachers too). I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Matherson’s point on this blog last month (Matherson, L., Dr. 2019, March 19. What is more valuable to students: A Grade or Feedback?) that “students were more concerned about the grade they would or did receive rather than what knowledge they would gain from the assignment”. There are many reasons why this has occurred. I won’t discuss those reasons in this post because I think we need to go beyond simply discussing the issue and instead move our thoughts and intentions to how we can correct the problems.

Students and parents often care only about As and are prone to the belief that an A defines the measurement of success. I, myself, have been caught in this belief with my two sons. As my younger son enters high school next year, I am curious to discover if he is truly prepared for high school and Advanced Placement courses. How do we know that he is truly prepared? And honestly, if he struggles in some of his classes, is it his fault? He has received all As on every quarterly report card for K – 8 with two exceptions where he made high Bs. By the measures of his grades, he should be well-prepared for high school. Yet because I have grown in my understanding of what truly defines successful learning, I sometimes question his true readiness. Do straight As provide an indication of future success or are there more reliable measures?

Another question with which I constantly grapple is how we effectively turn our focus from making good grades to the importance of students actually learning and applying their learning to new situations? How does my son know, without a shadow of a doubt, that he is equipped with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to master the concepts required? How does any student know this? The answer is simple. We give all of our students’ frequent formative assessments and feedback. In addition, we need to have the collective efficacy to understand that students’ work throughout a school year is the key to success. A smattering of scores on various (and often meaningless) tests do not define student success. According to researcher John Hattie, teachers’ estimates of achievement have been proven to be much more indicative of student success rather
than various testing scores and measures. In addition, Hattie found that feedback for students is another effective way to improve student learning.

This will be hard work and we will make mistakes. However, I believe that it is better to try something new and fail at it than it is to knowingly make poor decisions that do not assist our students in becoming more successful learners. Notice that I said learners, not achievers. We must get away from being solely concerned with grades, especially the school report card grades. This is insanity and makes no sense for our students. We are the experts and we must fight for the success of our kids. They deserve it. We must teach our students the importance of learning. We say it to them, but how often do we follow through on this?

One professional book, in particular, has guided me in solidifying my understanding of how to move forward with best practices in relation to feedback. Rick Wormeli says on page nine of his book, Fair Isn’t Always Equal (2018), “What students learn is the greatest testimony for our work as teachers.” The next sentence states that educators should “rally our assessment and grading energy around that.” Wormeli promotes the idea of coordinating our efforts in relation to differentiation, assessment, grading and our practices in the classroom and devotes an entire chapter to descriptive feedback. There is a plethora of evidence from various education researchers that advocates for the efficacy of providing ongoing and specific feedback to students so that they understand their own progress. After all, isn’t it most important for students to understand how they’re doing and whether they are on target for attaining their learning goals?

Wormeli goes on to discuss the importance of how our actions reflect our principles. I think that most educators would agree that our grading and assessment practices need improvement. If we believe this to be true, then we must first understand that a key tenet is feedback. It is our responsibility to provide better feedback for students, especially when there is a large body of research that supports this.

In addition to Wormeli’s research, another body of work – around Visible Learning – has influenced my application of feedback for students. I encourage all educators to
become thoroughly familiar with the work of John Hattie, Douglas Fisher, Nancy
Frey, and others in this area.

Every day I observe teachers who provide formative assessments and even utilize the results of FA in future instruction. However, I think the missing link is that we don’t provide specific and ongoing feedback to students. We are always so busy teaching, assessing and grading that we don’t make the time to provide real feedback to students. Yes, students know that if they receive an A or an F that they did really well or poorly but students don’t know why they received an A or an F. What if we made a commitment to having two conferences per week with every single student in our class?  What if our focus shifted from simply grading student work and assessments to actually having
conversations with our students on how they performed? What would happen to student learning?

One of my favorite exercise fitness trainers is @AnjaGarcia, and one of her favorite challenges is “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable!” It is time for us to do what is best for students and their learning. While some of this work on redefining what success entails may cause us to feel uncomfortable with our current practices, it is worthwhile work that must be accomplished. My hope is that educators will band together and establish new expectations for what student learning encompasses. There are no boundaries to what our students can learn!

Valerie Johnson is an elementary school principal in the Mobile area and has K – 12 experience as a school counselor. She achieved National Board certification in 2011. She is passionate about improving instruction and works with teachers and parents to empower students to be successful learners. She is an avid reader who loves to travel, exercise and shop. You can follow her on Twitter at @JohnsonValAL.

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