Don’t Play Blind Golf: Formative Feedback

I'm not a golfer (and anyone who has seen me play mini golf will attest to that! – Stop laughing, Holly and Russ!!)

But I have a pretty good idea of how the game is played. You tee up your ball, and look down the fairway to the flag, so you know where to hit your ball. You swing and watch where the ball goes and reflect on your swing and how you can better direct the ball where you want it to go. Then you walk to the ball and try again, until you get it in the hole.

You don't play the game blindfolded.

But largely the way we use assessment in schools, especially testing, is playing golf blindfolded. We let you see the ball, have you put on your blindfold, tell you which direction the hole is, and you swing. Then we tell you what grade you got, and go on to the next hole.

This is called summative assessment. It tells us where a student is in their learning right at the moment. Traditionally, it is used right at the end of a chapter or unit.

Lately, it has been used as part of the rhetoric about accountability. (Which, by the way, if it were anything more than rhetoric, Russia would be a world-class economic powerhouse, since their students have traditionally done well on standardized tests…)

But it is formative assessment that helps us drive learning. It's that assessment that a student gets while they are learning that helps them get better. In fact, the word “assessment” is so often connected to grading, in a negative way, that lots of educators prefer to call it “formative feedback.”

The metaphor of playing golf helps highlight three critical components of formative feedback:

  • A Clear Target or Expectation: Learners need to know what they are aiming at, just as the flag down the fairway tells the golfer where the hole is.
  • Timely and Detailed Feedback: Learners need to see immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, such as watching where the ball goes, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance.
  • Multiple Opportunities for Success: Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn, and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn't about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve their performance.

So even though summative assessment is getting so much attention in educational circles right now, lets not forget that formative feedback is the educational powerhouse.

Don't play golf blind!