Unexpected Consequences of More Formative and Low Stakes “Feedback” in College Courses

When I write and talk about education, technology, digital culture, innovation, and change management; I regularly point people to the concept of affordances and limitations. If you implement or try something that is new in a given community, culture, or context, there are always benefits and downsides.

Some are expected and can be managed.

Others are surprises.

The pleasant surprises are just that. They are welcome, pleasant, and tend to be among the more gratifying aspects of successfully starting something new.

After leading a change or new initiative, I admit to regularly being disappointed that I did not predict some of these surprises, especially the unpleasant ones. With a little more careful thinking, planning, and analysis, perhaps I could have anticipated and included the best risk mitigation efforts. I tend to scold myself by asking, “How could I have missed this possible outcome?”

That is the thing about trying something different in a complex world amid complicated people with varying backgrounds and values. Schools certainly fit such a description. A mission-minded approach to leading change in a learning community is inspiring, enriching, and rewarding work; but I confess to being one of my greatest critics when it comes to such efforts. Leading change is an honor and often joy-filled, but it is also something that comes with responsibility for the actions taken—as well as the results.

All of this is a preface to the main point of the article, that I am experiencing one of these moments of self-criticism right now, specifically as it relates to my longstanding advocacy for the benefits and role of low stakes, informal, formative feedback in learning environments.

For over a decade I wrote, presented, and led workshops on nurturing schools and classrooms that are cultures of learning more than cultures of earning. I taught courses on “Learning Beyond Letter Grades” and still have an unpublished manuscript on the subject. Something just kept me from sending it to the publisher (a contract that is now expired). Scanning the different courses, workshops, and seminars that I led on the subject (including a Massive Open Online Course), I estimate a formal reach of at least ten thousand people, divided between K-12 educators, higher education faculty, and instructional designers.

I still stand behind the main message of the work, and it is my hope that educators, as well as their students, benefitted form these courses and workshops. Simultaneously, I now see some of the unexpected consequences of the ideas, especially in higher education.

To be fair, what I witness today is not my doing, but the result of a larger movement and group of others who also taught and championed these same ideas and practices about low stakes and formative feedback. Nonetheless, it is somewhat predictable that an idea or set of practices like this eventually take a life of their own. Even the designer of a new technology does not get to decide how it will be applied in the future. When it comes to education methods or practices, everything gets hacked, repurposed, or simply interpreted through the lens of a given person or group of people. So it is with low stakes and formative feedback.

Before I finally provide my list of observations, I offer one more clarification. When you see the list below, it is possible to kindly give me a pass by claiming that these negative consequences are the result of people applying the concepts with inadequate depth or understanding. There is truth to that. Yet again, this is to be expected. Complex education practices rarely find their way into classrooms intact. Faculty (and instructional designers) more often treat such practices as a buffet and not a carefully prepared plate. Among some, not all, there is almost a ridicule for what seems like a prescribed educational recipe. The art of education, even amid the most scientifically-minded, dominates modern K-12 and higher education classrooms.

All this said, what are the unexpected consequences that I am seeing, especially in higher education, when it comes to low stakes and formative feedback? I offer four.

Undergraduate College Courses That Look Like High School Courses

In higher education, I’m seeing some faculty add more low stakes quizzes and sources of feedback in courses that previously had a couple of exams and papers. The downside is that this is often done with little consideration for the impact on a student’s overall workload and schedule. The faculty added more work without a clear plan on how this will impact both student and faculty. The result is increased student anxiety, forcing students to choose what will not get done, driving students to shallow learning, and low quality (or no quality) feedback. As such, what was supposed to be a practice to reduce anxiety and increase meaningful and in-depth learning just turned into busywork.

More Assignments But Still High Stakes

The next common outcome is that faculty embrace the idea of smaller and more frequent quizzes and assignments, but they do not get the part about it being focused upon low stakes feedback…practice. Students are just getting graded earlier and more often, which results in digging letter grade ditches that are nearly impossible to climb out of later—even after they have actually developed increased mastery or proficiency in the subject matter. From an educational perspective, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. What was intended to be a practice that helps everyone learn as much as possible ends up helping some and hurting others.

Fragmented & Story-Less Assignments

Faculty add lots of smaller “assignments”, but there is no clear path in mind, no scaffolding from simple to complex, nothing that helps students see how their practice on earlier assignments contributes to their understanding of later and more complex ideas. There are encouraging exceptions to this, especially among skilled math faculty, but too often these smaller assignments are not part of a larger story. They don’t lead to vistas of understanding.

Assignments & Not Feedback

The entire point of low stakes and formative feedback is to promote a culture of learning by giving students ample opportunity for real, authentic, meaning-rich feedback that helps them grow, over time, in their understanding and proficiency. Assignments do not accomplish this without feedback. In fact, feedback is one of the few irrefutable laws of learning. There is no learning without feedback. This does not mean that all feedback must come from the professor, but it must be present, and I see far too many instances where it is not. Once again, it leads to busywork but not deep engagement or meaning-rich learning.

A culture of learning is one where students are motivated by the desire to learn and the joy of learning. It is about creating a learning community where students know more about themselves, their strengths and weaknesses as they relate to the subject. It is about nurturing a hopeful and inspiring learning community where students work hard because they see that their effort can and does lead to increased knowledge and proficiency. This type of learning is contagious and it is inspiring to witness. Feedback, especially the low stakes and formative type, is a powerful tool to help cultivate such a culture, but it must be done in a thoughtful way. It is not enough to add more assignments to an existing course and call it a day.

As such, I take responsibility for my role in promoting low stakes and formative feedback without doing enough to help people avoid some of the common pitfalls, like the four listed above. Consider this my first public effort to do something to remedy that misstep.