As an educator, one would think that the point of every assessment would be clear to students. But if you are anything like me, sometimes we get so wrapped up in designing and creating the tools for students to use on the assessment (or in some cases, even the assessment itself), that we forget to stop and make sure that our kids understand what we are actually assessing for.
I work in a school that is centered around internships and project-based learning. One of the ways that we assess our students is through exhibitions where they give presentations on the work that they have completed over the trimester and assess each other. There is nothing more disheartening than hearing a student who had the strongest trimester of their high school career get feedback from their peers that amounts to little more than “ummm, you said um a lot, but other than that it was good.” While we train our students to give each other constructive feedback, it often seemed like when it came time to put it to use, it was becoming more and more frequent that the kids were providing each other with very little substance.
Finding Where to Start
This trimester I was determined to make a change to get my students the most out of their exhibition experience. I decided that the best place to start was with the feedback form that student panelists fill out. They were often handed back with a barely a sentence and hearing “I don’t know what to write” when you chased the blank form offenders down became exhausting. The presenters would receive these forms, glance over them, and about a week later they were either in the recycling bin or scattered about as if new classroom decoration.
I talked to my principal and I was allowed to design and try out a new feedback form. I researched what makes good constructive criticism and different structures that can be used to promote it, like the sandwich method, using specific examples, and framing suggestions towards the future.
I decided to take a step back and think about what is this feedback actually for, but honestly, this is where I got stuck. Exhibitions can serve so many different purposes, from being a celebration of student work, to a motivation factor to actually complete assignments, to planning and figuring out next steps. I didn’t think that it would be fair if I was the one who told them what was useful feedback and what they needed to hear, so I put it on them.
Getting Student Voice
I went to my students and told them about the issue I identified (well, they had identified and I was hearing from them after every exhibition). This started as just a conversation, but quickly became a whirlwind of sticky chart paper on the walls with prompting questions, markers being tossed across the room to each other to write in thoughts, and me running around making connections to different points. Students were writing on Post-Its and grouping them together in an adapted Chalk Talk style while others who were more willing to speak would summarize them as discussion points for the class. Really, I don’t even quite understand how all of that happened, but at the end, we had every student participating in their own way and feeling heard.
We talked about what is the point of an exhibition. We talked about why the old feedback form wasn’t working. We talked about what makes good feedback. We talked about what they wanted to hear feedback about. We talked about how to bring about good feedback from other people. And as we talked, students were excited to have a say in how they were going to be assessed by each other and I realized that the problem wasn’t with the students knowing how to give feedback, but more that they didn’t know what to give feedback on.
Making the Feedback Forms
I thought back to what I had read about different forms of criticism I had read about and from what I heard from the students, it seemed as though the Ladder of Feedback would be most useful. Running off of the enthusiasm that had just broken out during our time together, I created a sample form over lunch which took into consideration their suggestions of having places where they could customize by putting in their internship and project, what they needed help with, and sentence starters for the different levels of feedback. In this way, we set up the form so that they were laying out the work that they had done and would be assessed on and other students could look and quickly understand. Over the next few weeks, we practiced with it, made tweaks and changes, and got outside opinions. Students seemed to like it and teachers came to me to ask if they could use it.
Why It Worked
While it started as a feedback form, ultimately what the students ended up making was a form where they were laying out the design their own assessment from the trimester for others to evaluate them on. Students were setting forward their key concepts by filling in what they wanted to learn, using structures to defend how they were learning it, selecting the evidence that they would show to prove their learning, and reflecting on what they still needed to improve on. This meant that the students had a better understanding of what they needed to do and what present on.
While it worked for us to have the students create this themselves, learner-centered design assessment can be used in any classroom in a variety of ways. The key is to have students understand what they are learning and what they need to do to demonstrate it. It can be a messy and awkward process, but giving the students the control in this way was one of the best things that has happened in my classroom.
Elizabeth Boucher is an advisor at The Met High School in Providence, RI.