Pulling it all together – a synthesis of Hattie, Schimmer, and Friesen about formative assessment and feedback

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This school, along with lots of other work, I have been immersing myself in professional reading. I do this work with my consultant hat on – thinking, I need to be up to speed with current literature on teaching and learning if I am going to be relevant in the conversations I have with teachers and principals about supporting professional growth in their schools. Its begun to feel alot like the years I was busy doing a masters degree – lots of reading late at night and on weekends, but without the timeline pressure that came with assignments and due dates. I’ve taken my time with this reading and tried to synthesise the important ideas into my practice. I realize from having been a classroom teacher for a number of years that having time to read is a luxury. Its why I offer a synthesis of my understandings because maybe there are some teachers out there who have some books on their shelves they’d really like to get to, but just don’t have time to get to them.

So here are some of the big ideas that have been rolling around in my head for the past few months about the interconnections between several of the big names in recent education literature. I’m not going to kid myself thinking i could provide a synthesis of the connections between these authors/researchers/educators in one blogpost. What I will try to do is focus a few blogposts on various themes that emerge from these author’s writing.

If there is one thing we can be doing alot of as teachers, its checking in with students about what they know and how they can use that knowledge to solve problems now and in the future. John Hattie’s research ranks this #3 of all teaching and learning influences and their effect on achievement http://visible-learning.org/hattie-ranking-influences-effect-sizes-learning-achievement/ Hattie treats formative assessment and feedback as separate influences in his research. One of the major benefits of formative assessment is to inform teachers about the effects of their teaching on student achievement so teachers can alter their focus to better meet the learning needs of students. Feedback, he states is most powerful when it is from the student to the teacher about what they know, what they understand, and where they make errors. Feedback is typically focused on four things – about the task/product of work; about the process used to create the product; on self regulation, or more personal feedback. Feedback needs to reference clear and specific learning goals to be effective and provide little threat to the student on the self level. To be effective, feedback needs to attract attention to the discrepency between where a student is at and where they need to go.

Sharon Friesen, of the Galileo Project at the University of Calgary, states that assessment needs to be a continuous and comprehensive part of the learning day http://www.cea-ace.ca/publication/what-did-you-do-school-today-teaching-effectiveness-framework-and-rubric Formative assessment can take the form of observations, conversations, artifacts, written assignments, student reflections, portfolios, digital images, or audio/video recordings. Assessment should be co-created by student and teacher. This allows students to see where they have come from and where they are going with their learning. Friesen identifies seven characteristics for assessment that promotes learning – embedded in the design of learning experiences; students have a clear picture of the intended learning goals; students can recognize the standards they are aiming for; students are involved in self assessment; feedback from teachers provide students with the next step; teachers believe everyone can learn; and that teachers review and reflect on assessment data.

Tom Schimmer, a Principal from Penticton, BC, echos these ideas in his book, Ten Things That Matter From Assessment to Grading – Descriptive Feedback, he writes, allows students to know what they do well, and what their next steps are. The power of formative assessment is that it provides the next steps for students and a way for teachers to adjust their instruction to ensure optimal learning potential. Rubrics are an effective tool to use in assessment as they identify the learning outcome; identify criteria about specific aspects of quality; and that rubrics identify a path to improvement.

These represent best practice around formative assessment and feedback. For practicing teachers, these are not new ideas. The big ideas that come to me as I process and reflect on my learning is that formative assessment is part of a feedback loop that informs instructional design (for teachers) and adjusts learning targets for students. Formative assessment can take the shape of many different tools and strategies and teachers should use as many different tools/strategies as relevant to the context. Feedback is a crucial part of optimal learning. It needs to identify what students know, what their learning target is, and the steps needed to get them there. As I reflect on my own practice, I recognize that as a physical education teacher, I do many these things with my students – formative assessment is provided through game play; feedback is provided through the technical and tactical instruction provided. The new learning for me is conceptualizing how this would look as a humanities teacher or math teacher. Formative assessment is about helping to close the gap between a present and a future state of understanding. It is pretty easy to conceptulize this as a phys ed teacher. It is also easy to see that no matter what discipline we teach, having learning goals that are clear to students provides an easy jump off place to help students map out the pathway between current and desired levels of understanding.

What is evident to me as I reflect on current best practice literature is that there are consistencies that present. One of these is the importance of having clearly defined learning goals. Another is the importance of using a variety of formative assessment strategies to guage the success of my teachering intervention. Another is the importance of feedback to students. Feedback helps students see what they know in relation to the intended learning. Feedback helps students see the next steps in their learning to get them closer to the clearly articulated learning goal.

So what would I talk about if I came to your school and shared my insight about formative assessment and feedback? I would tell you in terms of bang for your buck, they are a couple of teaching interventions that are highly effective in advancing student learning.

How does this all relate to outdoor and environmental education? Pretty simple connection there – good learning includes formative assessment and feedback as high priorities in all learning experiences. It is relevant to every subject area and discipline. One of the challenges I think, particularly when working with external service providers or visiting outdoor education centres is that formative assessment and feedback can sometimes be completely forgotten by the staff at these centres who focus on the experiential learning piece without also considering the important role of formative assessment and feedback. This is some work we at the Calgary Board of Education have done some support work with our outdoor education centre partners – answering the question – how does assessment fit into your instructional design.

We are at an exciting time in Education in Alberta. Curriculum redesign in underway. Capturing best practice to shape the future of learning is critical. I’d like to have some conversations with teachers and community about these things – fire me off an email – I’d like to chat – rostrum@cbe.ab.ca

Roy Strum
Calgary AB

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