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Blog 207

Blog 207

Switching from Summative to Formative Feedback: Conceptual Challenges

By Vanessa Evans and Breanna Simpson, Department of English, LA&PS

Closeup of Vanessa Evans in front of a brick wall
Closeup of Breanna Simpson in front of a body of water

This is part two of a three-part blog post about working with formative feedback in a second-year English literature course given online. This part looks at conceptual challenges in implementing formative feedback. For part one, click here and for part three, click here.

Making the switch from summative to formative feedback can be challenging. Whereas a summative model focuses on generating and justifying a grade, the purpose of formative feedback is to facilitate learning. As a result, formative feedback is more complex and calls for closer collaboration between instructors and students in the learning process. This sense of contributing more effectively to student engagement and learning can be an important motivator in adopting formative feedback. Nonetheless, shifting one’s marking approach from assessment to learning involves considerable rethinking about how to conceptualize and formulate feedback. In this part of the blog, we will look at some of these conceptual challenges and the strategies we adopted to address them.

Decentering evaluation and recentering learning

One of the greatest challenges we found in working with formative feedback involved decentering the end goal of student evaluation and recentering the ongoing process of student learning. Part of why shifting one’s grading worldview/outlook from an evaluative to a formative approach is so difficult stems from where and how our approach to feedback is learned. For many undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities, feedback often consists largely of summative comments at the end of assignments with, occasionally, a few notes included in the body of the work. The focus is on evaluative language rather than issues-based comments, on summative conclusions (praise or criticism) rather than formative suggestions and solutions. Moreover, this form of assessment is often recommended. From the instructor viewpoint, it can be carried out relatively quickly, and easily serves the summative purpose of justifying the grade given. When one starts out as a TA or instructor, it is easy to mimic this kind of feedback, without really looking into its effectiveness from the student point of view: how it encourages or discourages students from working on their skills, whether the relationship between body and summative comments is helpful to students seeking to improve their writing or whether other ways to provide feedback would be more supportive of learning.

Consequently, one of the trickiest aspects of adopting the formative feedback guidelines was unlearning the grading strategies and terminology inherent in summative models. As with any new skill, the learning curve that comes with changing what had become habitual was challenging, particularly with respect to how to reframe comments from evaluative terminology to issue-related and solution-oriented formulations. Making this shift from simply highlighting “errors” (e.g., “incoherent argument,” “repetition,” “awkward sentence”) to reformulating those “errors” as part of a learning process and offering students next steps or solutions required a surprising amount of energy and focus. We had become so familiar with diagnosing what students were doing wrong, and doing so in a particular way, that rephrasing comments in terms of solutions required a great deal of careful attention at first. We had to shift gears from a well-learned evaluative language to articulate how, specifically, students might revise what they were writing and what that revision would achieve so they could see why it made their text more effective. One strategy for facilitating this shift was thinking from the student’s point of view about what we might need as specific indicators to improve the piece of work.

Formulating feedback in text-based terms

It can also be difficult to shift feedback style away from one that situates the grader as the arbiter of what is good or bad writing. This style of feedback is often integral to the feedback we receive as students and is easy to replicate as a TA. Expressing positive feedback and compliments through adjectives such as “good point” or “well-written” becomes automatic. Providing affirmations and comments such as “good thesis” and “excellent introduction” are pedagogically coded as positive and helpful inclusions in the grading process. Nonetheless, even such positive comments inherently privilege the instructor’s own opinion and preferences. They also anchor the evaluation in an inter-subjective framework, which can encourage contestation rather than collaboration. For this reason, the formative feedback guidelines asked us to decenter our presence and personal judgments and instead offer suggestions related to what could improve the effectiveness of the assignment. For example, “excellent thesis statement” would shift to “effective thesis statement” or “cogent argument.” While these are still positive comments, they remain focused on how essays function, rather than on the evaluator’s personal viewpoint, and set up writing effectiveness within a text-based framework where both grader and student are working together. Adopting this text-based rather than grader-centered style was not easy. Giving oneself room to go back and briefly edit feedback was crucial in those early stages of using formative feedback. Rereading comments and making the necessary edits during the grading process was helpful until the new approach and vocabulary became more automatic.

Keeping formative feedback manageable for students

Another challenge can be deciding how much feedback to give. This can be a struggle in a summative context as well, where feedback, from an evaluative point of view, is often seen as the principal means to rationalize grades for the marker and the students. However, this issue can take on new proportions with the change to formative feedback: how many trending issues should I provide suggestions for? How many in-text edits should I provide? How many difficulties will students be able to address in a single revision? The guidelines called for keeping the feedback manageable for students. However, determining within each paper what would be the right amount of feedback to give so that students could engage in a learning process without being overwhelmed and discouraged was challenging. As we applied the feedback guidelines from the first to the third course assignments, it became easier to see what comments might be too focused on small details (and would have a minimal impact on a student’s grade after revision) and which comments would result in a more meaningful revision. Accepting that feedback was part of a learning process and was not a fixed outcome was ultimately confidence-building.

In sum, reframing the grading process as an extension of the teaching process, rather than something strictly evaluative, can be empowering for the grader as well as the student. Formative feedback facilitates teaching as an active component in grading. Thinking about feedback as part of a larger pedagogical process puts less pressure on the instructor to diagnose everything that could be improved upon. What is important is to engage the student in a learning mindset. Overall, once its initial challenges are overcome, formative feedback can offer benefits not only for students but also for instructors.

Some helpful references on using formative feedback

Andrade, Heidi L. and Margaret Heritage. Using Formative Assessment to Enhance Learning, Achievement, and Academic Self-Regulation. Routledge, 2018.

Pickford, Ruth and Sally Brown. Assessing Skills and Practice. Routledge, 2006.

About the authors

Vanessa Evans (she/her) is a doctoral candidate and settler scholar in York’s English Department. Her dissertation is a comparative project interested in the ways diverse and distinct Indigenous novels from North America, Oceania, and South Asia represent resurgence through storytelling, language, and relationship with land. Her essays appear, or are forthcoming, in The Palgrave Handbook of Incarceration in Popular Media(2019), Studies in the Novel (2022), and with co-authors Agnes Whitfield and Breanna Simpson in The International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design (2022). Vanessa is also Copy Editor for The Journal of Transnational American Studies.

Breanna Simpson (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in York University’s English Department. Her dissertation, In Pursuit of Cupid’s Daughter: The Construction and Control of Desire in Ancient and Victorian Narratives, interrogates the concept of desire by examining forms and practices of reception, power, subjectivity, and identity. She is a contributor to Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom (2020-22), a digital humanities project focused on the creation of peer-reviewed pedagogical material through a positive, race-conscious lens, and has a publication with co-authors Agnes Whitfield and Vanessa Evans in The International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design (2022).