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Formative Assessment Keys: Feedback, Feed Forward

The NCTE conference has ended. Now that I'm no longer chasing presenters between hotels or waiting in crowded lobbies for crawling elevators, I'll catch up on some blogging.

At a session titled "Linking Assessment and Instruction," Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, both education professors at San Diego State University and teachers at Health Sciences High and Middle College, gave the best explanation I've heard of how to give and use feedback within the formative-assessment process.

Teachers spend hours and hours grading student papers, said Fisher, only to hand all of those "rich data" back to students. "And what do students do with [the papers]? They throw them out or are compliant and fix them." He told the story of a teacher who marked sentence fragments throughout a student's paper. When the student turned the paper in again with corrections, he had inserted "frog." throughout his text, having misunderstood the teacher's edits. Obviously, the feedback loop was ineffective—the student did not learn from it.

Poor feedback can also reinforce misconceptions, he warned. In the case above, the student re-did the assignment thinking he'd used full sentences.

Strong feedback, on the other hand, is timely, specific, actionable (pointing students in the direction of more information), and useful, said Frey. Students are given opportunities to re-learn and practice the skill again right away.

The second element of feedback, argue Fisher and Frey, is "feed forward." That is, teachers should ask themselves: How will I use what I learned in the feedback process to inform my instruction? Feed forward helps teachers anticipate misconceptions and decide what needs to be re-taught and to whom. Too many teachers fail to both a) track their feedback, and b) use the data to alter their upcoming lesson plans.

Fisher described the formative-assessment process used at his school. "We're not editors marking every error to fix" on an assignment, he said. Rather, teachers correct an error the first time they see it. The second time they see the same error, they put the student's initials on an error-coding sheet. Then they can easily see which students are struggling with the same skills, and pull them for small-group instruction. Students bring their assignment to the small group, re-learn the skill, and correct their own errors.

It seems so simple. And it can save teachers time in correcting papers. Yet in order for it to work, teachers need to be flexible in their planning and willing to veer from whole-class instruction.

Does this seem like it could work in your class? Do you already use something like it? What are the potential hurdles in implementing this sort of feedback loop?

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