Assessment is most effective and efficient when it happens right away.
“The most important takeaway from the research is that the shorter the time interval between eliciting the evidence and using it to improve instruction, the bigger the likely impact on learning … the biggest impact happens with ‘short-cycle’ formative assessment, which takes place not every six to ten weeks but every six to ten minutes, or even every six to ten seconds.”
— from Embedding Formative Assessment, by Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy
Think about that quote. The shorter the time interval, the bigger the impact on learning.
Let that sink in for a bit.
Nineteen years into teaching, I still don’t have the assessment game completely figured out. No matter how much feedback and assessment I provide, I labor under the constant burden of all the other student work that I feel I should be assessing.
In the evenings, on my weekends, on holidays, and even on snow days — especially snow days — I hear that quiet voice.
You should be grading work right now.
However subtle, it’s constant guilt and pressure. You know the feeling.
It’s enough to drive teachers insane. Studies confirm that it’s even enough to drive some from the profession entirely.
Lamenting the Marking Mountain
I started my career in the pre-internet classroom. In my 7th and 8th grade classrooms, I always had at least one tray marked INBOX. Work from learning activities given throughout the day generally ended up there. (Many of them with no names — remember that fun?)
Depending on the day’s activities, I might have anywhere between 25–100 sheets of paper in my inbox by day’s end.
And I would do my best to mark all those papers, of course. But inevitably the constant barrage of paper would start to pull away. My chunk of papers would become a pile, then a stack, then a mountain.
Within a month or two, my school bag was ballooning out of control. And I wasn’t alone. I remember colleagues who resorted to milk crates to ferry their paper mountain back and forth from home each day. Milk crates, filled to the brim with assignments that required marking.
Just take a moment to savor that accumulation of anxiety. Ahhhhhhh.
The Worst Beast of Them All: Writing Assessments
I’ve taught just about every subject in middle school, and I can tell you without a shadow of doubt that the most challenging assessments to complete — at least, in the traditional sense — were the writing pieces in English class.
Combing through a middle school student’s piece of writing was a brutally exhausting endeavor — especially before computers in the classroom. Traditionally, I was looking for form, style, meaning, and conventions. But I wasn’t just evaluating — I was coaching — and so I sought to offer meaningful feedback and notes as well.
“Make sure your subject and verbs agree.”
“Fortnite should be capitalized — proper noun”
“New paragraph here”
The math on this kind of feedback got ugly. To carefully comb through one piece of average writing and offer this level of feedback could take three or more minutes. With 28 students in my class, that was about 90 minutes of marking. Then the feedback had to be recorded — first in a place and way the student could observe it, then in my gradebook or assessment tracker.
Add any time to take breaks, talk to family and friends, or just generally be human, and we’re talking two hours.
Two hours of marking — typically in an evening when I felt exhausted from the day. For one learning activity.
And of course that didn’t count time spent on unit plans, lesson plans, email, parent communication, coaching, etc.
It was too much time.
Who’s the Winner Here?
The bad news about the scenario I just described is that it often failed to yield the results I was looking for. Even if I returned those assignments the very next day, it was unlikely that most students would pay much attention.
To put it bluntly, I could spend five minutes marking one piece of writing only to have the student look at it for five seconds.
And realistically, my timeline on returned writing assignments was decidedly not next day. A week or two, maybe.
Of course by that time, students really didn’t care. Well, they might care briefly about the grade. But it would definitely be a minority of students that would look much further at that point.
So what, exactly, was being learned through this assessment process? Very little, I suspect.
In fact, I knew it was very little, because my writers would tend to make the same mistakes all year long.
Rethinking Our Role: from Boss to Coach
In the last three years especially, my thinking on assessment has started to change in big ways.
For one thing, this is only my second year in nineteen years of teaching that my gradebook contains no numbers. I’ve gone gradeless. By itself, that’s a massive change in mindset with a ton of implications.
For one thing, I no longer regard marks as currency. In older models of education, students and teachers lived under the understanding that for every piece of work done, there ought to be a payment.
Students (workers) completed work for their teachers (bosses) and were paid grades (wages) for their efforts. Every piece of work was worthy of compensation.
The size of the reward matched the level of compliance. The game of school.
The problem with the game of school was that it often ignored the true business of education: the learning.
Putting More of My Focus on Real-Time Feedback
In school and in life, people learn best in the moment. When I learned to launch a podcast, caulk my shower, or build a website, it would have done me little good to receive feedback or assessment a week or two after I attempted the task.
I needed the help and feedback right then and there — precisely when I was engaged, prepared, willing to learn, making mistakes and finding my way.
That’s when feedback and coaching made the biggest difference. That’s when it was powerful.
In Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Starr Sackstein writes that “Assessment must be a conversation, a narrative that enhances students’ understanding of what they know, what they can do, and what needs further work. Perhaps even more important, they need to understand how to make improvements and how to recognize when legitimate growth has occurred.”
And that’s where I’m at today — intensely interested in those conversations, those in-the-moment, real-time, productive struggles.
I’m interested in helping my students wrestle with and through problems, create solutions, collaborate efficiently, and communicate effectively.
I’m interested in helping them understand where they are, where they need to get, and the steps they need to take to get there.
I’m interested in helping my learners assess their peers more effectively, offering feedback that is kind, specific, helpful, and accurate.
And I’m interested in tech tools like Google Classroom, Google Docs, Seesaw, and others like them that facilitate all of these ongoing, powerful, real-time conversations of learning in new and effective ways.
Just as it is on the sports field, my most effective coaching will never happen a day, a week, or a month after the fact. My best coaching and feedback happens right there and then in the classroom as my students study, learn, create, build, design, and share their learning.
That’s where the action is, and that’s why I’m putting less energy into summative assessment and more energy into formative. It’s why I don’t worry about the marking mountain as much as I used to. It’s even why I can relax enough to reflect on my practice and write this blog post.
Because the best feedback my students will ever receive happens right in the moment.