Thinking Through Feedback

I’ve been working on a series of videos to walk learners through the process of coding a simple video game in Scratch. I’ve coded paddle and ball games dozens of times. They are perfect for showing some common coding structures: keeping score, on-screen movement and sensing, keyboard controls, sounds and soundtracks, etc. It is easy for me to do this in person, having a conversation with learners as I go. Doing it on video, though, is much tougher. Some of the videos have taken substantially more time to make than the two or three minutes I’ve published. And while that’s not news to anyone, it has made me think about how we approach teaching and learning when we are pressed for time.

Even when you know what you are doing and you’ve done it many times before, you make mistakes. Again, this is not news to anyone. But, thinking as a teacher, and thinking of assessment as I participate in conversations with other educators, I realize once again that the way we traditionally approach assessment as represented by numeric or letter grades is deeply flawed. I am publishing these videos only after removing my mistakes, which might involve using the wrong coding block, calling something by the wrong name, just sneezing while recording, etc. And, while I do want to get to the end of the project, I have plenty of time for multiple takes. If I had to “turn in” the first take of all these videos, about 20 of them so far, I’d be failing the class. However, I’m certain I could turn in the first take, unedited, and tell my teacher where my mistakes were and how I’d correct them in a second take.

How can we extend this grace to students? How can we let students reflect on the work they do and grow from it? For a few years, I spent much of my time coaching teachers and students to help them incorporate an adapted form of the Scrum collaboration framework into long-term projects. One of the aspects of the work I always stressed was formative assessment. I tried to adapt the way grades were assigned to students to the flow of a Scrum project, using the time of standup meetings and product reviews to let students reflect and respond to feedback from teachers and peers. I often suggested that grades should be assigned based on those conversations, not just on the product. Students explaining what they have done and what they might have done differently, regardless of the reason, can let teachers better assess learning than simply holding up a product to a rubric. If this is done while the product is in progress, the assessment process becomes a roadmap to success rather than an autopsy.

As I said at the start of this post, the problem is often a shortage of time. But, even if we have limited time with students, I believe focusing our grading on providing feedback for improvement is more conducive to learning than assigning a grade and moving on. I also think this is not just good for the students. Knowing what students were thinking, what they found easy, or hard, or interesting can make us better teachers, too. I think a good approach is to work on just a few long-term projects that lend themselves to growth and learning based on feedback and reflection.

What about the time we need for review and testing? Let me ask this instead. How often is your performance assessment at your job based on a written test?

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