Formative Assessment Using Feedback: Dispelling the Myths

By Katie McKnight, Ph.D.

Feedback is a critical part of the formative assessment process. It is important middle- and high school teachers give feedback beyond grading and make it an integral part of their classroom no matter what subject they teach.

For some teachers, this will require a dramatic shift in mindset and practice—especially teachers who believe their job is to lecture and then test students to make sure they understand. For others, this will be a less dramatic change. Whatever your perspective, formative assessment matters in today’s Common Core classroom. Only by collecting data on what students know and don’t know can teachers change their instruction accordingly and meet the rigorous and high-stakes expectations of the Common Core.

So, we’ve determined why feedback is important. But we haven’t yet determined how best to give it. Upon exploring this area, we’ve found there are misconceptions about feedback that may be holding teachers back.

3 Myths about Feedback

First, let’s dispel the notion that feedback is to be given to every child every day. For many middle- and high school teachers, class sizes seem to grow each year. On any given day, they could see as many as 150 students or more in a variety of subject areas. They won’t get to every child every day. But that’s no reason to give up on feedback. Effective, meaningful feedback given on a week by week basis can do wonders.

Another myth we can dispel is that quick feedback is not effective. We understand the new Common Core emphasis on teaching 21st century skills like critical thinking, reasoning, and analyzing. Granted, these skills are complex. But using feedback to help students grow in these areas can be as simple and quick as asking the right question, suggesting an idea the student can use to work toward the next level of learning, or encouraging a fun and interactive argument. One teacher reports giving meaningful, specific feedback while standing at the classroom door in the morning as kids come in. “That report was good, but how about more evidence to defend your point?” The point is to offer advice on what students can do to improve—even quick advice will do the trick.

A final and widespread myth we can dispel is that there are only certain ways and times to give real formative feedback. That’s just not so. The reality is that formative feedback comes in a variety of formats—four corners, admit slip/exit slip, descriptive feedback, self-assessment and peer assessment, graphic organizers, and learning/responses logs. It can be given at various points throughout the learning process—from immediately after an answer to well after some time has elapsed. Remember, feedback is intended to improve learning while that learning is happening.

So, we’ve determined what formative feedback is not. Let’s make it clear what it is. We do know it is a powerfully effective way to help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and areas that need improvement. We know it is an essential tool teachers can and should use every day throughout the day in all disciplines to recognize where students are struggling and address the problems immediately. Finally, we know formative assessment is not about a short-term boost in test scores, but the centerpiece of deep learning and standards-based teaching. And, when used correctly, it can make a profound difference in the achievement of classroom after classroom of middle- and high-school students.


For more insight into formative assessment and the role it plays in standards-based teaching, check out SDE’s webinar Formative Assessment: Using Feedback to Help Meet the Standards (Grades 6–12) by CCSS expert and author Katie McKnight, Ph.D.

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