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Make It Count: Providing Feedback as Formative Assessment

Troy Hicks

Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University
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Providing students with feedback on written work can, at times, feel like a burden. Dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of papers clutter your desk, and commenting on each is nearly impossible.

Still, we know, both from our experiences and from research, that feedback is essential. John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, believes that feedback must be timely, relevant, and action-oriented. The good news, according to Hattie, is that "students want feedback just for them, just in time, and just helping nudge forward." To that end, he encourages us to "worry more about how students are receiving your feedback . . . than increasing how much you give."

So how can we provide this kind of feedback -- the kind that students actually listen to, understand, and use -- in a timely manner? Before looking at specific technologies that can assist us in the process, let's first explore how other experts describe feedback as a key tool in the formative assessment process.

Feedback as Formative Assessment

Anyone involved in standardized testing knows two things: the results take entirely too long to get back and are completely impersonal, making that kind of feedback essentially irrelevant. In short, feedback needs to be personal, and it needs to be fast. To that end, educators are beginning to refocus their attention on relevant, practical feedback for students during lessons or very soon after, rather than relying only on summative assessments.

For instance, Margaret Heritage of UCLA's National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing, describes it this way (PDF, 396KB):

[F]eedback that the teacher provides to students is also an essential resource so the students can take active steps to advance their own learning. In reality, the feedback to students can be understood as instructional action.

Additionally, NCTE's Assessment Task Force, in their report Formative Assessment That Truly Informs Instruction, makes the case that good formative assessment, among other key factors, "includes feedback that is non-evaluative, specific, timely, and related to the learning goals, and that provides opportunities for the student to revise and improve work products and deepen understandings."

One last idea that I have encountered in the past few months -- and that I hope can help shift your thinking on how and why to give feedback -- is the RISE feedback model. Introduced by Emily Wray, the RISE model encourages us to provide feedback that is not simply informative, but moves students toward improvement.

Thus, seeing feedback as a teaching opportunity can help us shift our perspective from correction to collaboration, from merely fixing students' work to moving students forward in their learning. Here, there are many technologies that can help us in the process of providing feedback.

Feedback in Action

The tools available for providing feedback continue to multiply. I've heard how, back in the day, college professors would record their comments on audiotape, trading cassettes with students when handing back papers. We've moved forward a bit since then.

First, there are a number of tech tools that enable timely, relevant, and action-oriented feedback. Many of them -- from Microsoft Word to Google Docs to Wikispaces -- allow us to insert comments directly in the margins of students' writing. And while voice-to-text tools like Dictanote (Chrome Extension) and Dragon Dictation (App) can help speed this process up a bit, some colleagues may be looking for other methods.

For those of us interested in providing audio feedback, Jim Burke describes how he shares voice feedback with his students using his phone. MS Word allows audio comments to be embedded within a document. And the web, of course, has provided us with new tools to provide voice comments, such as Kaizena, which allows us to embed audio comments in a Google Doc, and Voxer, which is described as a tool that combines a walkie-talkie with voice mail so that "you can hear messages as people speak, or listen later if you are unavailable."

There are visual tools for providing feedback, too. Skitch (by Evernote) and Snagit (by TechSmith) allow users to easily capture and annotate screenshots. This ability can work for students -- as they can capture images of their work and reflect on it -- as well as for teachers providing feedback. For instance, when using a visual tool such as Glogster, it is impossible to embed comments like we could in a Google Doc. Therefore, as shown in this screencapture I made with Skitch, we can provide students with focused feedback on visual texts that do not innately support annotation. Taking it up a notch, we can offer dynamic feedback via screencasting using tools like Jing, Screenr, or Explain Everything.


I have often told my students, "You are only as good a writer as you are a responder." That is, you learn how to write by providing feedback to other writers. Given this perspective, my hope is that you are willing to share your feedback with students generously, all the while modeling for them the kinds of feedback that you would want them to give one another.

In so doing, we can create a culture of feedback that, ultimately, feeds our students' interests and "nudges" passions forward, making those piles of papers on our desks feel a bit more manageable as we engage students through authentic response.

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Troy Hicks

Director of the Chippewa River Writing Project, Central Michigan University

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Sarah Minnick's picture
Sarah Minnick
8-12 Social Studies teacher, Pennsylvania

Love all the suggestions and links. Already printed out the RISE model diagram. However, having some trouble adding a voice comment to a Word document. I have Word 2013 and have checked out a number of help sites and blogs and the one command that I should see listed in the customize ribbon list is not there. Any suggestions?

markbarnes19's picture
Education author/speaker

Troy, there is plenty of powerful information in this piece. My colleagues at Teachers Throwing out Grades have been discussing this for a very long time: It is nice, though, to see Edutopia promoting a meaningful conversation about learning, although the boldest statement, which you leave out, is that this kind of feedback should replace traditional grades. Feedback is only effective when it is not hindered by the deleterious impact of numbers, percentages and letters. When grades accompany narrative feedback, the feedback is ignored. I appreciate this insightful article, especially the technology portion, which is an invaluable part of providing effective feedback. Still, until educators realize that learning can't be measured and they eliminate all attempts at measuring, the value of this conversation and your information is eroded. Thanks, nonetheless, for promoting feedback for learning.

karencameron's picture

I appreciate this post so much! I am working on become a better provider of feedback. I am trying to break out of the habit of marking correct or incorrect and move into guiding students through their mistakes. As hard as it is for teachers to realize and change the way they provide feedback, it is difficult for students to understand what to do with it; especially high school students who have been programmed to get an "A" at all costs.

How do you propose we help students transform what they do with feedback, once we as teachers take the necessary steps to make it meaningful?

Cunliffe Nz's picture

It was great to read this article as a reminder to what constitutes effective feedback and using the RISE model to help. I am looking into using Seesaw as a digital portfolio for my 6 year olds. The discussion out there seems to be around whether we use an authentic platform or one made for school?Any thoughts?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I have started using See Saw this year and love how easy it is to not only keep a digital portfolio but to share student learning with families. A bonus is that it will help me easily share student work captured on iPads on our Smart Board. I highly recommend it.

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