Descriptive Feedback and Assessment – What my students in Fiji taught me

Many times I’ve heard teachers (and myself) say “students don’t read the comments, they just look at the mark.” I’m not sure why this has taken me so long to connect, but my students in Fiji have taught me something about descriptive feedback. They have taught me that If they have the opportunity to improve, they care. Descriptive feedback in itself is not enough. Assessment practices must also change.

I took 40 students to Fiji for a month (i’m either the craziest or luckiest person in the world – the jury is still out). In addition to learning the ins and outs of the Fijian health care system, my students taught me all about proper assessment. I set up my grade 11 biology course so that students had 10 blog post prompts, 8 labs (some of these were really activities opposed to labs), 3 assignments and a final task. The blog was the core of our ongoing assessment. Students could (and often did) put their assignments and labs up on it as well. Parents and friends could check in and see what they were learning. They had an authentic audience. Many of my “tweeps” and friends commented on student blogs, so I wasn’t the only one providing feedback and pushing student thinking (a HUGE thank you to all those that commented on my student blogs).

I provided my feedback through our class moodle. On the moodle were the blog prompts, success criteria and rubrics. The blog posts were very open-ended and provided lots of choice. The success criteria pointed them to the specific scientific concepts I needed to see their thinking around. I provided some links or examples to information to help them get started (we had no textbook – by choice). When I provided feedback on the moodle I checked off the levels on the rubric and it automatically calculated a mark based on how I set it up. I also provided written feedback usually in the form of stating what they did well and what they needed to do to improve. I provided students the opportunity to fix up their blog posts and resubmit for assessment after. I honestly didn’t think many students would make use of this. Boy was I wrong. Almost every student has made use of this for at least one blog post, some of them for many. They reword, include new components, add new research, etc. to their blog post and then ask me to reassess. Its great.

As we are now back from Fiji and I would like to continue on with my summer and get report cards done, I rushed through one set of blog posts. I simply marked them and made a 3-5 word comment. I shouldn’t be admitting this, but I didn’t think anyone would notice just ONE poorly assessed blog post among many? Well… they did! I got messages saying “I got an XX% and I can see the rubric, but what exactly can I do to improve? The comments just weren’t there”. This has taught me something important. Students DO READ the written feedback and comments. We, as teachers simply need to ENSURE that the opportunity for them to improve upon their work is there. Otherwise they have no need nor way to really process the feedback.

I did not do this resubmit opportunity with the labs and assignments. They were much more “old school” where they had specific questions to ask, or a specific set of genetics problems. Each student was doing the same thing, so the ability to let students resubmit and improve simply wasn’t there. I am now looking at each of those with a very critical eye. How could I have opened up those tasks to allow for growth and personalization? The blog posts were perfect. No two kids had the same posts, rarely even the same topics (except when they co-created them together).

I created this course very specifically to work while on the road in Fiji. I am looking at how many parts of it I could fix up and improve upon. What sticks out mostly in my mind is to open up some of the labs and assignments. Secondly, I need to find a way to have students read each others blog posts more often and provide feedback. Perhaps a feedback form, or maybe simply commenting. We did struggle with internet access on the trip, so that would have to be sorted out as well. But that is a simple challenge.

My students fascinated me throughout the entire trip. The creativity in their blog posts, the connections they made to all aspects of the course, the connections they made to Fiji, how they took responsibility to find the information they needed and asked the questions they needed to understand and how they responded and learned from feedback provided. Aside from spending a month touring an amazing country like Fiji, I learned so much during this month about feedback and assessment practices. I was amazed to watch my students take full responsibility of their own learning. I think the setting may have helped a teeny bit, but ultimately the students took charge.

You can read about our adventures in Fiji here: . On the left hand side of the page are links to the student blogs.