Formative Assessment FAQ

During the years that I have been writing, assessment has been the focus multiple times. One component of my assessment repertoire that continues to be elusive for many is formative assessment. Questions that frequently surface are addressed in this issue. Those questions include:


    • What specifically is formative assessment?
    • How does formative assessment differ from summative assessment?
    • What does the research tell us about formative assessments?
    • How should we apply these research findings to their instructional practice?
    • Should formative assessments be included in a student’s report card grade?
    • How often should formative assessments be used?
    • How should we go about using formative assessments to gather achievement data and what are some strategies we can use?


What specifically is formative assessment?
Formative assessment, as defined by the Council of Chief School Officers, is a “process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning, to improve students’ achievement on intended instructional outcomes.” Putting it succinctly, formative assessments provide information, often informal, for both teacher and students about how learning is progressing; concurrently, it informs the teacher about whether or not instruction is working and if true learning is being formed.


How does formative assessment differ from summative assessment?
Formative assessments give teachers the opportunity to provide feedback to students so they can use this data to make corrections or adjustments in their work. Formative assessments let teachers and students know how learning is progressing; summative assessments, on the other hand, are periodically administered to students to determine what knowledge they have learned or what skills students have mastered. Dr. James Popham, a UCLA professor and a huge proponent of the proper use of formative assessment, has said, “Whereas formative assessment intends to improve ongoing assessment, summative assessment tries to answer the question, ‘Was instruction effective?’” Rick Stiggins, President of Assessment Training Institute, Inc., distinguishes between assessments for learning (formative assessment) versus assessment of learning (summative assessment). Stiggins notes that both assessment practices are essential but many educators still do not use formative assessment data properly. Any assessment can be either formative or summative. The category into which an assessment falls is determined by how the information gleaned from the assessment is used.


What does research tell us about formative assessments?
In 1998, British researchers Paul Black and Dylan William published an extensive review of classroom assessment practices and concluded that when properly applied, formative assessment had a significant impact on student learning. In their meta-analysis, they found that gains in learning through the use of formative assessments are “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions.” As the work of Black and William received increased public attention, dialogue in schools also increased as educators contemplated how their current practice compared to the research findings.


How should we apply these research findings to our instructional practice?
There are many justifications for changing one’s thinking about how we assess our student’s progress. Currently, in many grade books, there is a hodgepodge of marks including grades for homework, behavior, participation, attendance, pop quizzes, tardies, and group work. Mixed in with these marks are grades for tests, projects, performance tasks, presentations, essays, book reports, and self-assessments. When determining a report card grade, some teachers combine all of these measures (often weighting different data sources and then averaging everything together) and come up with a letter grade. Unless there are faculty discussions about assessment practices that lead to some uniformity in how schools determine and report student achievement, each staff member can have his own personal and unique system for determining exactly what a specific grade signifies. Hence, grades on report cards vary from teacher to teacher and tell us nothing about what students have actually learned.


Should formative assessments be included in a students’ report card grade?
Current work in the field of assessment provides much greater insight into how we should monitor and report student achievement. Many educational researchers and writers have concluded that a student’s grade should be based on the student’s demonstration of mastery of the learning standards. More precisely, performance on summative assessments should determine a final quarter or annual grade. Formative assessments should be thought of as steps in the learning process; this formative data should be used to provide feedback to students, allow students to adjust their learning strategies, and inform teachers as to how they can adjust instruction to improve learning. It is much like when an athlete or musician learns a new technique; they do not use it instantly in a performance or competition. Instead, the teacher or coach observes the students using the new technique and provides suggestions for improvement until the athlete or musician demonstrates improvement and competence in their quest for mastery. In the same vein, our students should complete self-assessments on work in progress comparing their current proficiency level with a published rubric or a clearly delineated standard. Using the gathered data, the student can identify areas of strength, target areas for improvement, and make an action plan. Practices such as giving a pop quiz or assigning a brief writing assignment, collecting and grading papers and returning the work with a single letter grade on top should be eliminated completely. Using formative assessment data to provide opportunities for growth makes so much more sense if student improvement and learning is the ultimate goal.


How often should formative assessments be used?
From the time students walk in the door, formative assessment is available. Every comment, look, and move provides data about the learners and their learning. Wise teachers are continuously gathering and using that data. Additionally, these wise teachers are purposeful in orchestrating tasks and interactions on a regular ongoing basis that let them know if instruction is working. As University of Virginia Professor Carol Ann Tomlinson has written, “We need to understand where our students are at any point during a unit; in other words, what each student knows, understands, and can do at a given time based on the content goals we’ve established.” Finding out where each student stands in relation to the identified standards can be determined in a variety of ways that do not have to be complex or time consuming.


How should we go about using formative assessments to gather achievement data and what are some strategies/techniques they can use?

As stated above, any interaction between teacher and student can be considered a formative assessment. These interactions may be oral or in writing, can be formal or informal, and can provide data about a student’s progress toward achieving mastery of identified standards. There are dozens of formative assessment strategies. A few possibilities are:


  • Ticket to Enter: As students enter the classroom, they are asked to complete a quick response to a question or writing prompt to activate their current thinking on a topic
  • Ticket to Leave: Students respond in writing to questions or prompts to show what they have learned and submit the slip to the teacher as they leave the class
  • Journaling/Learning Log/Quick Write: Students record their reactions to new learning in a variety of ways
  • Self-assessment: Students complete personal assessments indicating where they see themselves with a work in progress
  • Two Stars and a Wish: Students provide feedback to a peer by pointing out two positive aspects of the peer’s work followed by one suggestion to help improve their work in the future
  • 3-2-1: Students record their summarizing responses at the end of a lesson; for example, the students write about 3 new things they learned, 2 questions they still have, and 1 way they connected their new learning to what they already knew
  • One Word Summary: Students choose one word that summarizes the concept or topic they have studied in class followed by 2-3 sentences that explain why they chose the word
  • Graphic Organizers: Students complete a visual representation of their learning
  • Sentence stem: Students begin a paragraph summary with a sentence stem provided by the teacher such as “The important thing about…”  The students then include details to support the conclusion they reached
  • Whiteboards: Students write answers/responses on small handheld whiteboards and display them for teacher and classmates to see
  • Sticks: The teacher places a craft stick with the name of a student on each one in a container, draws out one stick at a time and asks the designated student a question
  • Clipboard Cruising: The teacher moves around the room as students are working individually or in groups and jots down observations about how students are progressing toward mastering an objective
  • 10:2 Theory (Rowe): After ten minutes of instruction, the teacher provides two minutes of time for students to pause and process what they have learned during large group instruction; the teacher observes/listens in on student conversations


It is important to note that none of these assessments are graded; they simply provide important data as learning is taking place. When teachers use formative assessments to appropriately analyze students’ day-to-day performance and the effectiveness of the instructional program, the results on summative assessments should be predictable.  No one should be surprised. Education Week blogger David Ginsburg says it well when he writes, “Formative assessment efficiency on the part of teachers is the key to summative assessment proficiency on the part of students.”

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this blog post for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Formative Assessment FAQ” gotLearning. Reproduced with permission of Growth Over Time Learning (gotLearning). © 2023 gotlearning. All rights reserved. Available at

It’s a Feedback World

As an admitted digital immigrant for whom modern technology does not come naturally, I have occasionally been slow to adapt to new tools. However, when I purchased a GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation device for my car, I read a lot of literature about the system and spoke with friends who talked about how helpful it was when they traveled. Once the device was in hand, I read the manual; I discovered that even for a digital immigrant it was relatively easy to follow. Soon it was placed on the dashboard of my car and provided clear visual and auditory directions to help me find my destination. The longer I used the GPS, the more comfortable I became with it, and the more I realized how helpful it was. On a recent trip, I listened to the voice explain how I could get to my designated address. As I waited at a stoplight, I realized that the GPS provided excellent feedback, made my trip more enjoyable, increased my confidence in using it, and made me feel more technologically savvy. The more I thought about the GPS device, the more I realized that its operation is a valid metaphor for how teachers should provide feedback to students in the learning process. I came to the conclusion that GPS (Global Positioning System) and GPF (Growth-Producing Feedback) have a lot in common. I started jotting down ways that they were similar and devised the comparison chart you see below:
1. Lays out the entire trip from start to finish… 1. A good teacher will frame the learning by explaining to students how new learning will unfold and how it will be assessed.  
2. Estimates how much time it will take to reach your destination and readjusts the time as the trip continues… 2. A wise educator fully understands that time is the variable in learning; he or she uses feedback data from students throughout a unit to adjust the time required for learning to occur.  
3. Provides on-going and immediate feedback throughout the entire trip… 3. Research teaches us that students learn best when a teacher administers formative assessments and uses the data to provide feedback to the students.  
4. Recalculates when you make a wrong turn… 4. Many teachers use pacing guides to carry out unit plans. However, thoughtful teachers realize that it is often necessary to readjust plans when students do not learn in the allotted time.  
5. Tracks the trip in stages and provides visual and auditory details… 5. By administering a learning styles inventory to students, a teacher can use the feedback from the profile to plan the best way to meet all student needs.  
6. Tells how far you must go to complete your trip… 6. An essential component of good feedback is teaching students to self-assess their own learning and to set goals in order to complete required learning.  
7. Anticipates when traffic jams or roadblocks will occur… 7. By analyzing feedback data from students and completing a task analysis for planned learning, a skillful teacher will be better able to predict when students might experience frustration in their learning and plan accordingly to avoid pitfalls and slowdowns.  
8. Indicates points you will see during the trip and lets you select stops along the way that are important to you… 8. When a teacher incorporates feedback as to how students learn best into the planning process, he or she can often give students choices in how to demonstrate their learning.
  The GPS system is merely one example of how feedback has become a vital part of our everyday lives. From the time they learn to play video games, children receive and expect feedback on how to move to the next level of the game. Numerous reality television shows determine outcomes based on feedback votes from viewers. As soon as a young person acquires his or her first cell phone or learns how to use a computer, instant messaging, text messaging, and responses from peers become a routine part of their day. And who among us has not completed an online survey, made an online purchase, received confirmation for a travel plan, or clicked on an FAQ icon to find an answer to a troubling question. In a world in which feedback is prolific and vital to our daily decision making, it seems only logical that our students should be receiving growth-producing feedback on a regular basis. As teachers assess learning and provide students with clear, detailed feedback, students better understand how to adjust their time and focus to meet learning benchmarks. As a result, they will be more motivated to learn, feel more empowered, will more readily fulfill learning goals, and their self-confidence will increase. Ask yourself: Is my GPF system operating at its peak proficiency?    

Ten Reasons Teachers Are Heroes

The word hero has been used to describe those individuals who are on the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals who fit the heroic description include doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), service providers and a myriad of other brave and intrepid people who have worked diligently to combat the challenges of this unconventional year. As times have passed, and as other workers have provided essential services, a new population has been added to the list of personnel who have moved boldly to the front lines by providing a necessary assistance to a category of individuals who require special care and attention: our nation’s children. Teachers are heroes because of their dedication and perseverance to make teaching and learning possible for all children. More specifically, there are definitive reasons why teachers have earned the moniker of hero. Their qualifications are detailed in ten descriptions below.

  1. Teachers go to great lengths to reach every child and they do not give up on anyone.
    An important component of a teacher’s role is to get to know each of the students entrusted to them. Stories abound as to the lengths our educators have gone during these times of turmoil. Many have personally visited their students at home, especially those who have not responded to enrollment requirements. Our educators have arranged for technology supplies to be delivered to ensure that students can access the online learning available to them. Some teachers have provided supplies to students whose families cannot afford them. Most importantly, teachers have made repeated personal contact with students who are struggling or who require more one-on-one attention. As former NBA star Magic Johnson noted, “All kids need is a little help, a little hope, and somebody who believes in them.” A youngster in my neighborhood has written across the driveway in large letters: Human beings risk their lives to save ours.

  2. Teachers make social-emotional learning a priority.
    As the pandemic became more and more a reality and student isolation became commonplace, educators took to heart the impact COVID-19 was having on the mental state of our children. They realized that content and curriculum had to take a momentary backseat to the psychological needs of their students. When the new school year began, more and more of our teachers included the following practices in their daily routines:

    • Building strong caring relationships with and among their children;
    • Modeling empathy and teaching their students empathic skills;
    • Helping students to become more aware of their own emotions;
    • Including discussion starters that incorporate concepts such as impulse control and stress management in their daily lies;
    • Planning learning experiences that will build a positive classroom culture.

    In her book Social Emotional Learning and the Brain author Marilee Sprenger has the following dedication on the opening page: “I dedicate this book to all the students who needed an adult in their life to help them cope, overcome, and succeed. We didn’t know better. We are trying to do better.” This is how a true hero thinks.

  3. Teachers are finding ways to engage students emotionally and socially at the beginning of each class.
    Conventional thinking of beginning each class with a warm-up dealing with content has changed for many individuals who understand how children on the other side of the screen might be feeling. Some instructors are beginning with a song their students might recognize while others will post a cartoon, emoji, or meme that will make their students smile or even laugh out loud. Still others may tell a short story or read an excerpt from a book and ask their students to react to it. True heroes who find themselves in difficult situations have to think differently. Determined educators understand that they must devise atypical methods to help students’ focus on their learning. Plus teachers may find that they are more relaxed when they move to the day’s lesson.

  4. Like doctors and nurses who do all they can to help patients recover and return to their homes to hopefully live a healthier lifestyle, teachers think more deeply about their time with children and the impact they will have in their lives over time.
    Educator Marcela Montay-Wilson shared the following belief with her students: “As your teacher, my job is not only to help you learn and master our objectives and standards, but much more importantly, to help you become lifelong learners. In order to be those kinds of scholars, I need to give you space and time to ask yourself, ‘What am I curious about? What do I want to pursue?’” This kind of insight enables a teacher to set aside time for students to personally reflect on their learning experiences and to envision what their future might hold. Many teachers share Ms. Montay-Wilson’s belief because they see their profession as more than a series of lessons.

  5. Like hospital workers who work diligently to comfort their patients by offering encouraging words as they combat their illnesses., teachers are becoming more introspective and choosing the words they use with their students in a more conscientious way.
    Teachers Katie Novak and Mike Anderson provide us with examples that may help students’ intrinsic motivation, sustain effort and persistence, and self regulate during COVID-19 and beyond. They carefully select the words they use with their youngsters so that their students feel like they have choices instead of simply following their teacher’s directions. Examples include:

    • Instead of “I expect you all to…” try “Your next challenge is…”
    • Instead of “I want you to…” try “What’s a goal you have?
    • Instead of “Here are three things you need to do…” try “Here are three things to try as you….”
    • Instead of “I’ve created some choices for you…” try “You have several choices to consider.”

    They further suggest that rather than emphasizing a “good grade” refer to it as “high-quality work.” Rather than offering a reward for completed work, a teacher can ask her students about their goals for a particular assignment. When teacher phrase their words more carefully, students will view them as providers of support rather than someone who has power over them.

  6. Many teachers are reevaluating and revising their typical procedures and, as a result, they are minimizing screen time whenever possible.
    Distance learning was a new concept to most individuals in the spring of 2020. Over time prudent instructors realized that studens can become susceptible to “Zoom gloom,” a feeling of attention fatigue from interpreting social cues through live video for prolonged periods. Teachers are applying different ways of thinking as they plan their sessions:Some teachers are limiting direct instruction time to 25-minute segments followed by short 15-minute breaks. They use the “chunking lessons” format to include an introduction, building background knowledge, formatively assessing where students are with the topic, and pausing for a break time. Some educators have found that it is important to cue students to stand up, move away from their computers, and do some form of physical activity.Other teachers are implementing the flipped classroom strategy during which students engage in activities much more similar to traditional homework. This learner-centered model has students working independently, in small groups, or with a partner. Additionally, they are able to access their teacher for help if and when they may need it.As several educators have written, “One of the biggest complaints about online school is the zombie-like after-effects of spending too much time on a screen.” True leaders in their field continually take steps to make sure they are giving the best service to their fellow man. Teachers are doing the same for their youngsters.

  7. Many teachers believe that the focus in the classroom should be on learning and not just grading, and that retakes on tests nurture growth.
    They want their students to see mistakes as learning opportunities; instead of seeing themselves as failures, they should believe that they simply have not reached mastery…..YET. Writer and educator Kimberly Hellerich writes that students should believe that they can achieve success through motivation and perseverance. She notes, “I also provide opportunities for students to submit specific assignments for feedback so they can revise their work prior to the due date.” In order for students to embrace these beliefs, Hellerich begins each school year explaining the concepts of self-perception and mindset, and she shows her children the Carol Dweck TED talk entitled “The Power of Yet.” More and more educators are embracing this kind of thinking which is having a greater impact on learners’ engagement and belief in themselves. As teacher Michele Hope has written, “The only “F” that matters in the classroom is feedback.”

  8. Teachers, like all heroes, are continually making decisions that are leading to the best overall results.
    They reappraise their way to doing things with the following question in mind: “Are my students truly learning and how do I know?” Nora Fleming of the George Lucas Educational Foundation has written a superb article, “7 Ways to Do Formative Assessment in Your Virtual Classroom.” She itemized what she calls “quick pulse checks” that are ways teachers can be more assured that the students are grasping key concepts. Among her many tangible suggestions are the following strategies:

    • Dipsticks – The instructor poses a general question about the previous day’s lesson and asks students to respond through thumbs up or down, holding up a post-it or a piece of paper, or giving themselves a rating of 1 to 5 as a self-assessment.
    • Digital journals and one-pagers – The teacher has students complete an after-class reflective piece of writing. Next, they create a “journal dot” online document using Google Docs to measure how well the students are retaining information.
    • Virtual exit tickets – Educators can keep a running Google Doc for each students by using open-ended prompts such as:
    • What I found most interesting today was…
    • Today was hard because…
    • What do you understand well?
      • What’s something that’s still shaky?
      • What’s something I (teacher) don’t realize?
      • What takeaways will be important three years from now?
      • How does this lesson related to something I learned before?
      • How would you have done things differently today?

  9. Like so many care specialists, teachers experience frustration but continue to stretch themselves to impart an uplifting and optimistic message to their charges.
    But heroes are still human. As teacher Sean McComb has stated, “We’ve all been there… a momentary, frustrated reaction to a student that’s more curt, less kind, and more gruff that it ought to be. Its root is embedded somewhere in our lack of sleep, or a floundering lesson, or unforgiving piles of paperwork.” During these moments, teachers rebound by displaying kindness, positivity, and even an apology. What is most important is what happens in the long term. “Cultivating a culture of trust in the shared virtual space involved building relationships and helping students build empathy and understanding for each other and you,” are important words from teacher Leah Henry. Heroes rebound and return to their goal of building that strong sense of community in their classrooms, continually reminding themselves that the best learning environment is rooted in positive personal relationships.

  10. Words that are synonymous with heroes are models, protectors, saviors, guardians and champions.
    Teachers are all of these things and more. They continue to accommodate the needs of all children based on their on-going diagnoses of learner needs. A recent survey indicates that 80% of parents have a newfound respect for those in the teaching profession. Educators Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson view the future this way: “Throughout this school year, we can be much more thoughtful and intentional about the distance learning experience. We can communicate with students and families about both short-term plans and long-term goals. We can provide engaging experiences and personalized pathways to learning for all students. We can create productive two-way channels with students and families for communications and support that can expand the reach and impact of the learning. And we can work to ensure that this year’s distance learning experience is rigorous, relevant, and has strong relationships at the core.”

Heroic teachers have big hearts. They often intuitively know and do the right thing. Robert John Meechan writes: “When you see something beautiful in a student, let them know. It may take a second to say, but for them it could last a lifetime.” See more Meechan quotes that celebrate the heroism of teachers at

Resources and References

Fisher, Douglas and Nancy Frey. “Three Lessons Learned About Distance Learning.” Teaching Channel, October 13, 2020.

Fleming, Nora. “7 Ways to Do Formative Assessments in Your Virtual Classroom.” Edutopia. October 1, 2020.

Gewertz, Catherine. “Teacher Tips: How to Reduce Screen Time When School Is Online.” Education Week, October 6, 2020.

Gohl, Erin and Kristen Thorson. “Strategies for Fostering a Productive Distance Learning Experience.” Getting Smart, October 3, 2020.

Hellerich, Kimberly. “Using Retakes to Nurture Growth Mindset.” Edutopia, October 5, 2020.

Montay-Wilson, Marcella. “Unstoppable Learning: Making Room for Students’ Passions.” Teaching Channel, March 24, 2016.

Novak, Katie and Mike Anderson. “How To Choose Words That Motivate Students During Online Learning.” Edutopia, September 15, 2020.

Sprenger, Marilee. “Social Emotional Learning and the Brain: Strategies to Help Your Students Thrive.” ASCD Express, September 2020.

Swan, Kathy, Andrew Danner, Megan Hawkins, S.G. Grant, and John Lee. “Zooming Inquiry: Online Teaching with the Pomodoro Technique.” Social Education, September 2020.

Closing the Engagement Gap

As the students enter their classroom, they are alive with conversation and exuberant behavior. Most of the students are carrying their supplies, but a few are empty-handed. Several students are checking their cell phones, while two others have in ear buds listening to music. One boy is playing a hand-held video game while another stares out the window with a sullen look on his face. One girl looks like she’s been crying while three other students are talking about a hallway altercation between several boys that had happened earlier in the day. Three non-English speaking students who are new to the class look a bit trepidatious and nervous. Some students are in their seats, some are still standing, and at the sound of the bell, four students quickly enter the classroom.

This scenario is a typical class on a typical day in a typical school. As the teacher looks around her room, she knows she is charged with teaching each and every one of these young people. She is well aware of the difficult task of closing the achievement gap. She also knows that this goal cannot be achieved until she addresses the engagement gap. As a result, her mission, should she accept it (and she does!), is to capture the attention and maintain the involvement of all her students in their learning endeavors; then, and only then, can the achievement gap be reduced.

As today’s practitioners fully understand, teaching is a complicated, multi-faceted, and potentially exciting endeavor. When ideas click and plans come together, it is a memorable experience for students and teacher alike. As they make their unit and daily lesson plans, teachers know that they need to keep these key questions at the forefront of their thinking:

  • What are the ways in which I can create a safe, non-threatening yet challenging environment that respects and responds to learner needs?
  • How can I enable my students to engage in relevant and rigorous applications of learning?
  • How does active learning and engagement promote the development and use of 21st century skills?

The purpose of this newsletter is to investigate the concept of engagement from different perspectives with the outcome being that teachers can add new ways of thinking to the development of their plans and the execution of their lessons.

Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun
When students are engaged, they are usually responsive as indicated by their excited voices and animated expressions. Students often have fun and truly enjoy themselves as the lesson progresses. In her EduBits blog, researcher and educator Kristin Phillips provides insights that can help teachers move beyond fun to creating situations where high student engagement occurs. In order to surpass the “just fun” factor, she suggests the following practices to keep the flow of the class moving in the right direction:

  • Avoid potential confusion and down time by ensuring that students have sufficient background knowledge in order to complete the task at hand.
  • Create “conditions of wonder” as students work by encouraging curiosity and/or student questions that may temporarily deviate from the lesson content.
  • Devise group interactions where students refine their own thinking by engaging in a free exchange of ideas, especially ones that may not have one clear answer.
  • Present information in story form that helps students create mental images, and thus, a deeper connection to content.
  • Plan experiences that transcend busy work or “cool” activities to lessons in which students know they are engaging in important topics and developing their skills. 

Student Engagement is Multidimensional
The Glossary of Education Reform, created by the Great Schools Partnership, defines engagement as “the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” Additionally, “learning improves when students are inquisitive, interested, or inspired and learning tends to suffer when students are bored, dispassionate, disaffected, or otherwise disengaged.” Further, the partnership elaborates on the varying “complex forms” that engagement can take by describing the five different types of engagement teachers can consider along with strategies to address each type:

  • Intellectual engagement: Teachers can give students a choice of the topic they wish to investigate, a problem or question they can explore, or the different ways they can demonstrate what they have learned.
  • Emotional engagement: Teachers can employ a wide variety of strategies that elicit positive student emotions, promote a secure learning environment, minimize negative behaviors and eventually lead to academic success.
  • Behavioral engagement: Teachers can establish routines or use cues to help students stay on task; they can also break up potential monotony by having students work in groups or move about the classroom to complete tasks.
  • Social engagement: Teachers can place students in pairs or small groups where they discuss societal issues, present their work to their peers, or engage in friendly competition.
  • Cultural engagement: Teachers can proactively make students from different cultures feel welcomed, valued and safe; as well they can plan learning experiences that “reduce feelings of confusion, alienation, disconnection, or exclusion.”

Student Engagement and Student Entertainment Are Not Synonymous
Although we want to stimulate student immersion, fascination, and even enthrallment in our lessons, a YouTube clip I recently viewed contrasted the difference between entertainment and engagement. It is an important distinction to make especially when we consider the outcomes we want to achieve for our engagement. The contrast is illustrated below:

For enjoymentFor learning
Short-livedLong-term results
Doesn’t require relevanceMeaningful and applicable
Escape from problemsSolving problems
Using the creativity of othersUsing the creativity of the learner

Student Engagement Involves Activity and Ownership
Mike Schmoker, in his book Results Nowmakes a strong case for the importance of active learning. He states, “If true learning is to occur, then students have to be at the very least participants in the process, and not merely products.” He distinguishes between teacher-directed learning and student-directed learning both of which may occur in a typical lesson. In his many classroom observations, Schmoker notes that although teachers may be working very hard to maintain student attention and engagement, “if a teacher wants to increase student engagement, then the teacher needs to:

  • Ask students to do something with the knowledge and skills they have learned.
  • Break up the lecture with learning activities.
  • Let them practice.
  • Get them moving.
  • Get them talking.
  • Make it so engaging that it will be difficult for students not to participate.”

Schmoker realizes that establishing such learning environments is a bit “risky,” but he encourages us to “keep trying, improving, and enhancing until we get it right.”


Student Engagement Requires Careful Planning
The teacher described in the opening paragraph fully understands that learning will not occur unless students are invested. They may cooperate for the moment so they can “pass the test” but learning will not last if students are not truly engaged. As the teacher made her plans, she might ask herself are:

  • Surprise them with an introductory attention-getter
  • Use props such as costumes, unusual materials, or creative use of technology
  • Pose an intriguing question to get students thinking
  • Connect the content to the world beyond the classroom
  • Involve students in group work where they will discuss, reach conclusions, answer, or create products
  • Have students move around the classroom in a purposeful, content-related activity
  • Monitor the work of student groups by asking them thought-provoking questions and providing feedback on their work to date
  • Ask students to read and react to a relevant and timely article
  • At the end of class, direct students to complete a brief writing assignment summarizing what they had learned during the class
  • Have students form an opinion based on data and present their findings to their group

As student engagement thrives and student learning improves, teachers will realize the satisfaction that their hard work and deliberate planning can deliver. How exciting, and even enthralling, that sense of accomplishment can be. Not only will the classroom be a place full of excitement and enthusiasm, but the teacher will be able to point to concrete evidence of student learning and achievement.

Resources and References

Delafosse, Sonja. “Teaching in the 21st Century.” Posted 2012. Access at

Great Schools Partnership. “Student Engagement.” The Glossary of Education Reform. Posted April 28, 2014. Access at

Johnson, Ben. “How Do We Know When Students Are Engaged?” Edutopia. Posted November 2013. Access at

Phillips, Kristin. “Student Engagement is More Than Having Fun.” Posted October 24, 2014. Access at

Powell, Marcia. “Five Ways to Make Your Classroom Student-Centered.” Ed Week Teacher. December 2013. Access at

Rutherford, Paula. Active Learning and Engagement Strategies. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2012. Access information about this book at

_____________. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2010. Access information about this book at

Schmoker, Mike. Results Now. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006.

“Student Engagement: Resource Roundup.” Edutopia. Posted December 9, 2014. Access at

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this blog post for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Closing the Engagement Gap.” gotLearning. Reproduced with permission of Growth Over Time Learning (gotLearning). © 2022 gotlearning. All rights reserved. Available at

Growth-Producing Feedback

“Bruce Oliver, a gotLearning 
Contributor lives in Burke,
Virginia USA. He uses the 
knowledge, skills, and 
experience he acquired as a 
teacher, professional 
developer, mentor, and 
middle school principal 
as he works with school 
districts across the USA.” 

NOTE: At the end of this post you will find a Growth-Producing Feedback Discussion Tool, which lists examples of teacher comments about student work. Use this tool to promote in-depth staff discussion about how to increase the effectiveness of their feedback.

Feedback is another topic that is a repeated focus in the literature. It is an incredibly powerful tool that teachers have at their disposal; it can make a huge difference in student achievement. Grant Wiggins writes that when feedback is given to students properly, most students can achieve at the same level as the top 20% of students. He also asserts that feedback has a positive relationship with the rate that students are engaged. Put quite simply, students who are given specific information about the accuracy and quality of their work will spend more time working on their academic assignments. However, many teachers do not follow the suggestions set forth in research on the topic of feedback. So often, teachers simply follow practices which they inherit or which they have fallen into the habit of using. It is important for school leaders to provide their teaching staffs with the most up-to-date research. If we want students to improve their achievement, it is important for teachers to follow specific practices. Many books and articles have been published that provide educators with the best ideas to increase student achievement. The ideas contained in these publications are wide and varied. Some of the most popular topics include reaching the underachiever, unit and lesson design, differentiation of instruction, and assessing student learning.

The first step in improving how and when feedback is provided to students is to understand a clear definition of what good feedback is. Wiggins says that feedback is not about praise or blame, approval or disapproval. Good feedback describes what a student did or did not do for the purpose of changing or maintaining a behavior or performance. Robert Marzano and associates concur that effective feedback should provide students with an explanation of what they are doing correctly and what steps they must take to continue to make progress.

Typical feedback often includes such comments as “Nice work,” “Unclear,” “You need to improve your study habits,” “C+” or “75%.” These types of statements or grades show either an approval or disapproval of what a student has done, and it is evaluative in nature. Research has shown that this type of feedback to students has very little effect on student learning and can have a negative impact on student motivation to learn. Put simply, students tend to ignore comments when they are accompanied by grades or numerical scores. However, students pay much closer attention to written comments when they are not accompanied by a grade. Stephen Chappuis and Richard Stiggins found that “replacing judgmental feedback with specific, descriptive and immediate feedback benefits students.” Productive feedback tells students what they are doing right, pinpointing strengths, and helping learners develop those strengths even further.

The purpose of feedback is to enhance student achievement by emphasizing progress rather than deficiencies. In order for feedback to be meaningful, it is important for teachers to provide it in a timely manner. The sooner students receive feedback on their work, the greater the likelihood that they will learn and grow from the feedback that is provided. Teachers can give feedback through one-on-one conversations, or by circulating around the classroom and commenting on the student work that they see. Marzano has written that “the best feedback involves an explanation as to what is accurate and what is inaccurate in terms of student responses.” In addition, asking students to keep working on a task until they succeed will enhance achievement.

It is also important for feedback to be specific toward a standard or a benchmark. A student must know how closely he or she is coming to mastering the required learning. The teacher should let a student know the specific skill level or knowledge that a student has displayed, and what needs to happen to keep the student moving along the continuum to mastery. In order for feedback to be effective, the teacher should give guidance on how a student can make improvement.

Giving students effective feedback without letting them respond to the feedback by improving their work is an exercise in futility for both the student and the teacher. Students must have the opportunity to listen to what their teacher has said, to make adjustments in their work and to resubmit their assignments for further comments. It can be a matter of personal fulfillment for everyone involved in the learning process when a teacher can see the results of his or her efforts to improve learning.

When teachers provide feedback in a specific and proper manner, there is an added benefit to student learning. When students are given information about their progress, they begin to develop the skill of self-assessment. They can actually articulate what they have learned and what they still need to work on. Ultimately we do not want students to be completely dependent upon their teachers to let them know if they are learning. Self-assessment is a great life skill we can teach our students. The result can be that our students will have greater aspirations to succeed in the future, enjoy greater satisfaction from their learning, and set future performance goals.

Please download the Growth-Producing Feedback Discussion Tool to use with your faculty.

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this blog post for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Growth-Producing Feedback.” gotLearning. Reproduced with permission of Growth Over Time Learning (gotLearning). © 2022 gotlearning. All rights reserved. Available at