Professional Learning about Assessment: Feedback as a Catalyst for Change

How can you learn more about effective assessment? In this series of posts we have proposed using a cyclical process for learning that includes the following components:

Learning Process DF

In this post, we’ll explore options for the third component of the learning process pictured above, descriptive feedback. 

If you’re following along, 

  • you’ve set your focus and direction. Just like our students, we need learning goals and success criteria for our adult learning. 
  • you’ve decided what intentional actions you will take — ie. what you will do to learn. 
  • and, hopefully, you’ve found someone to learn with, because learning together can provide a more impactful learning experience. In fact, “according to longitudinal research from 2012-2015 completed for the Ontario Ministry of Education, there is a strong correlation between classroom observation and peer debriefing as part of a lesson design, and growth in instructional practice. Learning together is a powerful construct for adults as well as students.” (Planche & Donohoo, 2018)

When you’re doing the learning, which includes intentionally trying out new approaches to planning and teaching, how might you get feedback that will help you identify what progress you are making, and what next steps you should take in your learning? 

One source of feedback that is readily available is…you. By reflecting on and self-assessing your progress toward the learning goal, you will generate information that will help direct your learning, and focus your efforts. Your peers are another valuable source of feedback. However, the validity of the information your receive from either self or peer assessment is determined by a number of factors:

  • Is the feedback based on the success criteria that you identified at the outset of the learning? If yes, the feedback should identify which criteria you have met, and which you still need to work on. With this information, you can incorporate the knowledge and skills from the achieved criteria into your teaching practice. The criteria not yet met become your next steps.
  • Is the feedback descriptive or evaluative? As collaborative learners, it’s important to have a discussion, prior to giving or receiving feedback, about the value of descriptive feedback. By descriptive, we mean that the feedback conveys helpful information, not evaluation or judgment. 

If you’re learning with others, you will not only be receiving feedback, but also providing it, so it’s important that all concerned are clear on the focus of the feedback — related to the success criteria — and the nature of the feedback — descriptive, not judgmental.

One way to keep judgment out of the feedback is to take the approach that you are ‘noticing and naming’ anything you observe that is related to the criteria. For example, if you are observing a colleague’s questioning practices, you might say, “I noticed that there was a very brief time between asking the question and taking responses. You looked for students that had not yet answered questions. You took responses from students that had their hands up.” This feedback describes the questioning behaviour, and focuses on aspects of questioning that were agreed upon as criteria prior to the observation. It opens the door to having a reflective conversation about practice observed, rather than judging the experience.

green runner smallOne last thought, and a call to action: One source of feedback that we haven’t talked about is your students. Would you be comfortable sharing your professional learning goal with them? sharing the criteria with them (perhaps posted on an anchor chart)? asking students to use the criteria to give you information about how your intentional move supported their learning? There are a number of benefits for you and your students:

  • You can model the learning process: goals, action, feedback, reflection, goals.
  • You can model a learning stance (risk taking in a learning environment, learning from mistakes, accepting and using feedback, thinking aloud about your progress;)
  • It will support creating a collaborative learning culture in the classroom by showing that you value their contributions to your learning, just as they value your contributions to theirs.

There are some ideas in this post that might make you uncomfortable (e.g. being observed by a colleague; sharing your learning process with students; changing long-standing habits or practices;). Changing what we do can be challenging, but the benefits will hopefully outweigh the discomfort. Part of the purpose of this blog is to create a community of support as educators evolve their practice, so please feel free to share your experiences or ask questions in the comments section.

EdCan Network. (2018). Planche, B. & Donohoo, J. Learning and Teaching Together: the benefits of collaboration for beginning teachers. Retrieved from

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