“The only good feedback is that which students use.”
The words of Professor Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor of educational assessment at the UCL Institute of Education, will no doubt ring true to teachers who see an assessed piece of work handed in that seems to have taken on board none of the carefully crafted feedback left on the last piece of work.
This feedback-assessment loop/struggle is a fundamental part of the teaching art: spotting a puzzled face or a misunderstanding in an answer and engaging the student to work through their errors – and see their work improve subsequently.
The difference now is that rather than doing this in lessons and through the usual mix of assessment types that teachers can control, in many nations this has almost entirely shifted online.
Data insight from assessment
In the international arena, this shift has been even more pronounced when you consider that many teachers and pupils are in different time zones, have vastly different levels of parental support and have to contend with English as an additional language issues, too.
Nevertheless, schools and their staff have found a way to continue this vital part of schooling. The most obvious development has been a huge increase in the use of mainstream digital tools.
For example, as noted recently on Tes by Chris Barnes, head of Year 6 at Crescendo-HELP International School, Johor Bahru, Malaysia – a nation under heavy lockdowns for much of 2020 and into 2021 – Google Classroom offers numerous ways to assess student understanding and provide feedback.
Microsoft Teams and numerous other education-specific software products are also in far greater use than ever before. One of the big changes this has created is that by gathering more data on assessments, schools are able to spot gaps in knowledge and react with more precision.
“We can be much more forensic with our approach to assessments,” says Matt Topliss, British school principal at El Alsson British and American International School New Giza, Egypt.
“With tools like Google Classroom, we can collect and monitor assessment results and spot gaps that need addressing.”
Emily Hardwicke, assistant head (lower school), MYP coordinator and head of English at an international school in Switzerland, concurs. Her school uses Microsoft Teams and she says that teaching remotely has helped to further improve the use of data from assessments to spot gaps in learning more clearly.
“I found I had a much fuller picture of student achievement across a range of skills so I started to identify gaps and trends within the class and then use this to inform future planning,” she says.
“This is something I often felt like I was doing as part of my practice before online learning, but the ease of identifying trends ensures your actions can be much more timely and proactive as the data is more immediate, so you can give more attention to deciding how to intervene rather than spending the time working out what the areas of weakness are.”
Furthermore, new forms of feedback have also been made possible that offer another route to tackle these knowledge gaps.
For example, one new feedback tool that has become popular among international teachers is Mote – an extension to Google Classroom that allows audio feedback to be left on work.
Chris Lindop, head of year 6 at Rugby School Thailand, is one such teacher to see numerous benefits from this feedback method.
“With audio, there are many benefits – parents can listen to it to help their children follow up on the feedback, and the fact it is permanent means it can be accessed as often as needed,” he says.
He notes, too, that with Mote, for example, you can actively see when audio has been played so you know the pupil has, in theory at least, engaged with the feedback on an assessment.
Hardwicke also says she has found voice recording a useful feedback tool when looking at assessed work. “I also experimented with voice-recorded feedback which could also be uploaded to their individual portfolios. So if it was a piece of coursework or something that needed to be redrafted, I could talk through the work and they could listen back whilst making corrections,” she explains.
Lindop adds that this can also be a lot quicker than more traditional marking.
Quick and responsive assessments
Of course, assessment and feedback like this – work is set, feedback is returned and subsequent assessment is set – is not too dissimilar to how things have always been.
The medium might be different but the structure is broadly the same. No doubt this is why, even post-pandemic, we might see these tools remain part of the teacher’s toolbox.
However, where things are perhaps harder and where teachers may be glad to never return to is that mid-lesson, immediate, responsive assessment – the quick question, the show of hands, the "calling-on-a-student-who-looks-puzzled" moment.
Wiliam says, though, this type of assessment is vital for teachers and should be embedded into live lessons whenever possible.
“One of the best things you can do in the virtual environment is have a good question in the middle of the presentation – maybe on the chat facility or a do a quick poll or multiple-choice questions,” he says
“This means you can check if the students are still with you, you can query their responses and check the understanding is where it needs to be.”
He says it is important that these sort of stop-and-check questions do not allow students simply to nod and say they agree or give a thumbs up, as students are well-known to pretend they understand something when, in fact, they don’t – or to genuinely believe they understand when they don’t.
Pupils hiding behind the tech
One teacher points out, speaking anonymously, that while this is certainly true, it can also be easy for students to hide behind technology in such situations.
“Where students wouldn’t be able to ‘opt out’ from answering questions in a classroom, they can do this more easily from home. Sometimes they will not unmute to answer a question and you are left wondering if they’re still there but stuck, if they’re ignoring you, if they’ve had a connection issue, etc – it’s hard to know for sure. “
Caitlin Gray, a secondary English teacher and extended essay coordinator at an international school in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, notes this can be tricky in subjects like English – especially when it comes to those quick impromptu assessments that walking around a classroom can provide.
“Writing, in general, is much, much harder to assess online. In a classroom, you might a notice three students making the same error as you circulate the room, and then quickly address this with the whole class before asking them to check their own work carefully,” she says.
“Remotely, you often cannot see the students’ work until they have submitted it and therefore you are catching errors or misconceptions later than you would in a classroom.”
This issue leads to another – one that is perhaps harder to quantify but certainly important: providing physical feedback is part of the teaching process. It’s a physical manifestation of that engagement with a pupil’s work and the teacher sharing knowledge.
“I definitely think not being able to interact with work like you would with pen and paper makes things harder,” says Gray.
“Firstly, novice students need to clearly see exactly where they’re making errors sometimes and giving a generalised target isn’t always helpful when they don’t have the knowledge to recognise that mistake in their own work.
“I also think there’s that personal touch that comes from handwriting – you cannot copy and paste a handwritten comment, so I think students engage a little more with it."
You could get closer to this by using a digital tool such as an Apple Pencil, which Ms Gray says she uses, but it’s still not quite the same: “It takes me twice as long so it’s not always practical, especially in this remote setting,” she explains.
While this is a loss at present, teachers everywhere are clearly getting on and doing what they can, taking advantage of all manner of tools that exist – from Google Classroom and Microsoft Teams, to specific education software.
Managing teacher workloads
However, while these tools are unquestionably beneficial, could there be a risk that they create a situation where there are so many types of assessment that can be set – and many more means of providing feedback – that teachers' workloads continue to rise, especially post-pandemic?
Wiliam certainly thinks teachers should be rigorous with the assessments they set and ensure they have a clear purpose. “An important concept is opportunity cost – every hour on one thing is something not spent on something else. So an hour giving feedback may be effective but then another spent thinking about good instructional design would be better [than another hour of feedback],” he says.
“Of course, marking is important to assess and pupils expected work to make, but it is important that you say, for example, that you might only give detailed feedback on 25 per cent of work being set.”
This is certainly something many teachers will agree with to ensure they are not overworked.
However, in the international sector this can be tough as parents are often very demanding about the work being given to their children – especially when they are so close to the learning that is taking place.
“Our parents have very high expectations of what is going on,” says one international teacher.
“We haven’t been able to reduce our timetable at all due to parental demands and threatening to withdraw students/not pay full fees, etc, so we are delivering complete timetable, live lessons [and] in terms of assessments, they’re just expecting everything to run as normal – same content, same assessments.”
This is a tough reality of the international sector – parents are often very demanding due to the high fees they are paying for education.
And this focus on setting the "same assessments" means mock exams, which is not entirely surprising, given that at present IGCSEs and International A levels are still set to take place.
This is why, for example, Topliss says that remote exams have been a core part of assessment work.
“We have developed a clear picture of their current levels of attainment through preparation examinations, extra classes and guidance and mentoring to ensure students are settled and understand where they currently are and what still needs to be completed,” he says.
To help with this, his school has turned to online resources: “During lockdowns, we have used exam.net to put exams on and use that information as part of our tracking across Years 10 to 13.”
Trust and testing
However, setting such tests remotely comes with one obvious issue: how can you know students are not looking up answers or being given help from someone else with them at home?
Topliss says there are ways around this – for example, plagiarism software to spot any clear copy-and-paste answers.
However, for some situations, there is no easy way to counter this issue other than to urge honesty on behalf of students – a point Lindop raises, too, with regards to younger learners.
“There is an element of trust because they could have another screen open or have shared answers with another class, or even use auto-correct software [on spelling tests]. I don’t think you can ever wholeheartedly escape that – you just have to let them know they are only cheating themselves.”
Elizabeth Cloke, head of secondary at Tenby Schools Penang, is another who says that trust is important: “Although not full proof, students are reminded of their own integrity prior to the assessments,” she says.
There are times, though, when the school has found ways around this when the situation requires it.
For example, for age groups that are, currently, set to sit exams in May and June – the IGCSEs and IA levels – Cloke says the school has been able to hold mock exams. However, one student was unable to travel back due to being stuck in another country. This meant a workaround as needed.
“We have had to oversee one student who has been stranded in Singapore, so she sat online and we had a teacher invigilate through Microsoft Teams,” explains Cloke.
Doing this was important because it not only made the student focus on the assessment with the seriousness with which their fellow students would do – but it also gave the score achieved an integrity that may be useful for any future scrutiny.
“We want to make sure that if we do need teacher-assessed grades, that the integrity of our school remains a priority,” says Cloke.
And this is at the heart of everything: integrity. The pandemic has thrown normal teaching life up into the air but, through it all, teachers have maintained a clear-eyed focus on what matters most: learning, delivered through a lesson, assessment, feedback structure.
Yes, there are hurdles and challenges, but as the above insights show, with innovation and determination, they can be surmounted – and the situation may have given teachers new tools that become useful additions to their toolkit long into the future.
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes