Session 3: Focusing on Formative Feedback

I really struggled putting this session together. I want to help teachers understand why formative assessment is so powerful, but I encountering a big roadblock: How do we deal with learning outcomes and success criteria in an inquiry-based curriculum?

Moss & Brookhart (2009, 8) succinctly stated that formative assessment is guided by three central questions for the learner:

  • Where am I going?
  • Where am I now?
  • What strategy or strategies can help me get to where I need to go?

I think these three questions are really useful in thinking about the day by day decisions we need to make as teachers in response to student learning, but how do they fit within the inquiry classroom?

Where am I going? usually requires the teacher to identify at the beginning of the lesson what the learning outcome of the lesson is going to be and then (hopefully!) checks in with students that they understand what this means. But does telling them the learning outcome stop students from asking the questions they really want answered? Does it give them the answer before they have a chance to think about it for themselves? Does it take some of the wonder out of learning?

Then I found this video by Dylan Wiliam, who explains that telling students the learning intention may not be the best way to approach a lesson, sometimes a question or a provocation can work more effectively. Whew…. I appreciate that there are many times when giving the learning intention is effective, but perhaps it does not need to come at the beginning of the lesson. And then I read this post by inquiry guru Kath Murdoch and I felt much calmer. She states, “A practice that sits much better with my inquiry principles is to share intentions in the form of questions rather than statements.  I want our learning experiences to remain intentional and transparent – but it feels better when I articulate this in question form.”

Consider this example:

Instead of telling students that they are going to learn about the relationship between lines of symmetry and the number of sides in regular polygons, the teacher gave the students a number of paper polygons (regular and irregular) and asked them to find all the lines of symmetry they could by folding the paper and create a chart to show their findings.

Students work together at the table groups to find the number of lines and design and fill in their chart. As the students work the teacher moves through the room checking to see who knows how to accurately find a line of symmetry and reteach those who don’t. She also checks to see what information the students are recording and any connections they are making between the shapes and the number of lines of symmetry, as well as providing assistance to those who aren’t sure how to design their chart.

Through the sharing of the charts and discussion the teacher leads the students to consider whether there is a relationship between the number of sides in the polygon, whether it is a regular or irregular polygon, and the number of lines of symmetry.

Towards the end of the lesson the teacher tells the students that the learning intention is to write a rule about the relationship between the lines of symmetry and the number of sides in a regular polygon. This approach allows the students to be clear that this rule only exists between regular polygons and their lines of symmetry, not irregular. This opportunity, plus a lot of thinking, would have been lost had the teacher told the students the learning intention at the beginning of the lesson.

However, that still leaves me with the problem of how we deal with learning intentions and success criteria. A search of the web led me to a couple of great teacher blogs that explained how learning intentions are used in their inquiry classrooms. To summarise, they said that it is essential the teacher and students work together to clarify the learning intentions in the early phases of the inquiry, what strategies they could use and how they will know if they’ve achieved their goals. I love this idea of the students and teacher negotiating this together as it allows for the students to go beyond the mandated learning outcomes, focuses student thinking on how they could learn, and helps the teacher understand where the students are at the beginning of the unit. It helps answer the Where am I now? question.

As a result of today’s struggles, I rewrote the success criteria from my last post from statements into guiding questions. I agree that the differences are subtle, but to me it positions the learner as an active agent, not a passive recipient. A small, but significant difference.

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Madly Learning (2016, July 22). Talking Inquiry – Learning Goals and Success Criteria [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

Moss, C.M. & Brookhart, S.M. (2009). Advancing Formative Assessment in Every Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Murdoch, Kath (2013, August 4). The Question of Learning Intentions [Blog Post]. Retrieved from

NWEAvideo (2012, December 14). Unpacking Formative Assessment. [Video File]. Retrieved from



One thought

  1. Hi Heidi!

    I love this post. It is such a great breakdown of effective Formative Assessment.
    You included three central questions to guide formative assessment:

    Where am I going?
    Where am I now?
    What strategy or strategies can help me get to where I need to go?

    These resonated with me in a variety of ways.
    Firstly, I think these are good basic life check-in questions. Image more people took the time to do this type of check in with themselves and their loved ones? Imagine how much clearer the path to their goal achievement might be!
    As an educator, I know that I need to ask myself these questions when I am planning, and throughout a unit. That backwards design, starting with “where am I going” is essential to making a clear plan.
    In my opinion, it is essential that we teach students to ask themselves these questions because it teaches them to be reflective. It also teaches them to take ownership over their own learning and to really see themselves as being in control of their own success.

    Thanks for this important and thought-provoking post. I really enjoy reading your blog entries!


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