Why Formative Feedback is Part of an Equity Agenda

I’ve come to the conclusion that formative feedback is a form of social justice, or at least has the potential to be.
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I’ve come to the conclusion that formative feedback is a form of social justice, or at least has the potential to be.

When we consider technology’s value in the feedback process, we tend to categorize it as efficiency: using technology to collect assignments and deliver feedback to save time. However, formative feedback and assessment delivered through technology is also valuable because it has the unique ability to bring equity to feedback.

In my experience as an instructional leader, I have spent countless hours in meaningful conversations about social justice, equity, and bias in our schools. I have also discussed feedback, formative assessment, and questioning techniques. However, I rarely find that these two conversations overlap even though they should. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that formative feedback is a form of social justice, or at least has the potential to be.

As a principal and supervisor, I devoted a significant amount of time to classroom observations and spent just as many hours meeting with teachers to discuss their lessons. I can’t tell you how many times I posed a questions like this: “Are you aware that when you ask questions, only 7-9 students (often fewer) are actively engaged?”

Discussions stemming from this line of questioning were wonderful. We would discuss how this happened and how to avoid having such low response rates going forward. I am a fan of “every pupil responds” techniques. This type of instruction helps ensure that all students engage in the lesson and it supports the teacher in formatively assessing the knowledge of every student, not just a handful.

That being said, such techniques do not guarantee that every student receives formative feedback, the critical recognition of what a student is doing well, areas for improvement, and actionable suggestions for moving forward. To be clear, it is a great start if teachers take concrete steps to ensure that every student is responding when they have discussions or when they formatively assess. The feedback that they receive, though, is something entirely different, and critical. We know that receiving feedback that is timely, relevant, and actionable is integral for student growth.

So, I find myself asking, what if students are not the recipients of feedback that is timely, relevant and actionable? If they are not receiving information about their strengths and weaknesses, how will they grow as learners? What if bias or time or a lack of understanding or even misconception interferes with who receives the feedback and what type of feedback they receive?

Research confirms that feedback is not reliably equitable: female students are more likely to receive feedback on their learning and process, while male students are more likely to receive feedback on their behavior. African American and Hispanic students are less likely to receive feedback than their Caucasian peers. The question then becomes: what are we going to do about it?

These are not new concerns; educational leaders have been trying to address these problems for many years. Observation and evaluation methodology has changed as a result, and whole bodies of educational research have focused on these questions. Even though countless hours of professional development have been allocated to explore the problem and implement potential solutions, most educators would agree that the problem still exists.

Well, I have a solution: technology. Thanks to advances in machine learning algorithms, feedback can now be completely objective both in regards to the content of the feedback, how often it is delivered, and who receives it. Tools like Turnitin’s Revision Assistant leverage this technology and have the power to provide ongoing, timely, relevant, actionable feedback to every single student, no matter what. And that is definitely a solution worth exploring. I’ve dedicated my career to work with content and curriculum, but if our classrooms and our schools are not places that support the learning of every child, the content and curriculum won’t matter. We will have fallen short on our promise. It isn’t enough to help only some students; we have to find ways to leverage the tools that are available so that we can support all students. 

Patti West Smith, a veteran teacher, principal, and curriculum director, left a 19-year career in public education to spearhead the Curriculum Team at Turnitin. She is passionate about delivering high-quality, actionable feedback at scale and improving writing instruction for all students.