Practice and Assessment, Grading and Feedback

This post highlights key takeaways from Chapter 5 of How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. This book has become an essential resource for TLC programs and initiatives, so much that we have invited Drs. DiPietro and Lovett to keynote at our annual conference on January 17, 2014! See below for details.

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Clear expectations. Hours of grading. Ample feedback. No improvement.

The fifth chapter of How Learning Works, on practice and feedback, starts with testimonials on student performance that most instructors will find all too familiar. The first example tells of a professor who spent hours grading assignments and offering substantial comments for improvement. Yet his students’ subsequent efforts on different assignments were just as disappointing. What went wrong?

Drawing on our summary of best practices in course design, this situation suggests a misalignment between learning activities, assessments, and course goals. Here, students were not given the opportunity to incorporate the professor’s feedback into further practice activities. Perhaps they would have applied new understandings, but they weren’t given the chance to try again with the specific task. Furthermore, the sequence of assignments was an issue; the professor was assessing different skills with each assignment, instead of giving students additional opportunities to demonstrate and master the targeted skills.

In a well-designed course, each learning goal is matched with the appropriate quality and quantity of activities and assessments. Scenarios like the one above are all too common. This begs the question: How can we better approach these processes of practice, assessment, grading, and feedback to improve student learning?

Key Considerations from the Book

The authors of How Learning Works proclaim that students will miss crucial learning opportunities if the professor’s practice and feedback activities do not “work smarter.” It is “smart” to offer multiple opportunities for practice and to give feedback that is clear and specific. Students need sufficient practice in advance of assessments, wherein their knowledge and abilities are measured.

The more opportunities students have to practice, the more chances the instructor has to observe their performance, evaluate their progress, and provide targeted feedback, which students can then incorporate to improve their subsequent performances. This mix of practice and feedback will guide students toward eventual achievement of the course learning goals.

The Cycle of Practice and Feedback

Similarly to Fink’s work on course design, the authors suggest that all practice and feedback elements center around designated learning goals. This is explained as a cycle (pictured below) wherein “practice produces observed performance that, in turn, allows for targeted feedback, and then the feedback guides further practice. This cycle is embedded within the context of learning goals that ideally influence each aspect of the cycle” (How Learning Works pp. 126-127).

The Cycle of Practice and Feedback (How Learning Works 126)

Practical Implications

The authors provide some guiding principles for directing this cycle effectively: 1) Focus students’ efforts “on a specific goal or criterion.” 2) Set standards at a “reasonable and productive level of challenge.” 3) Provide multiple opportunities for practice, both in and out of class. The research reiterates that “time on task” is essential. Both quality and quantity matter.

The authors’ recommendations for “strategies that address the need for goal-directed practice” include:

  • “Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target an appropriate challenge level” (p. 145)

  • “Be more explicit about your goals in your course materials” (p. 145)

  • “Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria” (p. 146)

  • “Give examples or models of target performance” (p. 147)

Professors should also maintain open and specific communication about students’ progress and improvement throughout the course. It is not helpful to comment on every error in an assessment; prioritize your feedback to focus on where specific learning goals are (or are not) met. It is best to give feedback quickly and frequently, the authors note. They recommend a number of ways to achieve effective feedback, such as:

  • “Look for patterns of errors in student work” (p. 148)

  • “Balance [student] strengths and weaknesses in your feedback” (p. 149)

  • “Provide feedback at the group level” to communicate common errors (p. 150)

  • “Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work” (p. 151-152)

The authors note that as students internalize the lessons learned from regular practice opportunities and from targeted feedback, they can become independent, self-regulated learners. According to the authors, the ideal goal of these approaches is for students to actively engage in and direct their own learning. Ultimately, these goal-driven practice and feedback opportunities are examples of how students and teachers can work “smarter,” not harder.

Let’s Exchange EDvice…

What practice opportunities do you give your students in order to prepare them to complete an assignment or exam? What EDvice do you have for colleagues who want students to learn from and use their feedback?

For more information, please visit our conference website.

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This post was co-written by our communications extern, Alexa Mantell, and Assistant Director Carl S. Moore.

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