Hacking Assessment: Perspective-taking and Feedback

In August, I wrote this short piece for Starr Sackstein’s recently published book, Hacking Assessment. Thanks for asking Starr — it was a lot of fun to reflect and put these words down!

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Teaching is an art form. It is a delightful dance of perspective-taking and feedback.

Paradoxically, the most impactful teaching is often invisible to the learner. The teacher exists in the background attentively driven to listen and offer feedback when necessary. Done effectively, students learn how to learn. Increasingly complex adaptive challenges become the central currency in developing learner curiosity, passion and efficacy. As a teacher you’ve succeeded when you walk in the classroom and you know the students no longer need you. Independence has to be the supreme goal.

The path to this end is rarely straight. It is a dance with each student to understand their starting point and investigate the role of feedback in their learning process. And that is why teaching is so dynamic, fluid and fun. It is a chance to co-create a beautiful piece of art that ultimately the learner owns.

I love being a learner. Consistently exercising those muscles feels really important when taking the perspective of my students. I am in touch with what it means to be taught; and therefore, understand what I need to unlock my intrinsic motivation. For example, time to explore, examples to examine, opportunities to practice/fail and access to the feedback of experts. Unsurprisingly, when I design a new class I am primarily focused on the perspective of the learner. These questions routinely come to mind:

  • Would I be able to learn in this class?
  • Would I be challenged, held accountable and discover a sense of ownership?
  • What form(s) of ongoing feedback would most support my skill development?
  • How could I effectively demonstrate that I’ve grown and developed a critical eye for the places I still need to grow?

Designing a class that adequately answers these questions and encourages learning is challenging. Never mind the more difficult challenge of actually tracking and making that learning visible. Detailed below is a description of what I’ve discovered are essential components of a class that encourages curiosity, passion and efficacy.

Accountability
In recent years I have moved away from assigning numerical grades to my students’ work. Instead we focus on levels of proficiency (no information, advancing toward the goal, meeting goal, excelling past goal) when talking about their demonstration of learning. In addition to the marker of proficiency comes consistent and copious amounts of feedback. A numerical grade or a description of one’s level of proficiency means next to nothing without explanatory feedback.

At the start of the term, I create a master Google Sheet that lists all of our assignments on the horizontal axis and our learning goals (Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening) and their subcategories on the vertical axis. Students make a copy of the document, share it with me and we work together throughout the term to track their progress. Despite the simplicity of this system, it has assisted in keeping everyone aimed in the correct direction.

Additionally, students create Google Drive Digital Portfolios and share the folder with me. This cloud-based home serves as the visible headquarters for all their work — draft and final. I am eager to explore more integrated standards-based learning information and tracking systems such as Chalkup and FreshGrade this year.

Feedback
Learning is all about feedback. Aside from setting the structure and expectations of the class, the most leverage for growth a teacher can consistently offer a learner is feedback. All assignments are opportunities to practice, receive feedback and refine. I use the audio messaging app, Voxer, to maintain an open line of verbal feedback throughout the term. Whether I am providing verbal feedback on their speaking skills after a class-led discussion or summarizing, with particular emphasis, the narrative comments left on one of their Google Doc drafts, Voxer is an invaluable tool for personalization and relationship building.

I utilize the text messaging app, Remind to send general announcements and after class public praise to highlight examples of student learning. I regularly jump at the opportunity to use the formative assessment tools, Socrative and Kahoot, to check for understanding, provide feedback and course correct. Additionally, all students in my class create content to be published on their Blog which has the potential to provide an authentic audience ready to offer feedback in the comments section.

Self-Reflection
It is an essential component of enduring learning that students revisit their work and communicate insights from their progress. Creating scaffolding for students to experiment with this type of meta-thinking is critical for them to understand where they started, where they are presently and what work is left to complete to reach their learning goals.

Students in my class complete a weekly (exit ticket) Self-Reflection Google Form. The information from this form serves as the mind-jogging catalyst for the mid-term and end-of-term Reflection Interviews with me. These recorded conversations last between 10-20 per student and typically take two days of class time. Additionally, I have been experimenting with the screencasting app, Explain Everything as a self-reflection tool as an alternative to the more narrative approach with Google Forms.

TO SUMMARIZE:
The starting point for effective class design and teaching is one’s capacity to take the perspective of the learner and skillfully offer feedback. Further, if a transparent system of accountability is established; feedback is consistent, copious, varied; and students develop a critical self-reflective eye — all the ingredients are present for learner independence to develop by way of curiosity, passion and efficacy.

August 2015

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