Feed-Forward Assessment Feedback
“I want [my assessment] to be more valuative than evaluative” –Sally St. George
Dr. Sally St. George is a professor in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. She teaches many courses including SOWK 699: Advanced Clinical Interviewing, a course for graduate students pursuing a Master of Social Work degree. These students are preparing to work as independent clinicians in a wide range of places, with different populations and problems. Sally notes that social workers often work in a variety of settings over their careers, so they need skills that will carry over from one context to another. Being able to facilitate a conversation and generate new ideas through listening and speaking is one of the most important practices for social workers. Sally uses assessment as a process to help students move forward in their learning to facilitate conversations, rather than just as a static, summative event.
In order to promote the development of conversation and interviewing skills, students spend most of their class time in group discussions or role-playing various scenarios. Approximately one-half of the course grade comes from their participation and contribution in these activities. This might sound intimidating to students at first, but they soon realize they are progressing by being engaged and dedicated to practicing their social work practice. They also see and experience the value of receiving feedback in class in these simulated sessions. Sally spends class time moving among groups of students providing formative feedback as students are working with each other. Sally finds that feedback is easier for students to integrate when they receive small recommendations mid-conversation rather than an extensive list at the end of an evaluation.
Students do several written assignments in the course as well, including process recordings, remembered conversations with clients that are anonymized and transcribed so that they can be analyzed. Students have to reflect on the specifics of their practice and notice their languaging, turning points, and changes in the conversations. Sally integrates feedback into these assignments by using the “Track Changes” feature on Microsoft Word. Once students submit their assignment, she adds comments along the side of the work, mainly in the form of reflective questions for students that are intended to generate new thinking about strengths, alternatives, and possibilities for the future.
Sally’s major work is to find the right way to word feedback. She also has to find questions to ask that fit each student’s specific needs. For up to 39 unique students in one class, this can be difficult, but it also provides a model to her students. When giving compliments, she wants to be encouraging and promote confidence, and encourage student to stretch their thinking. It is also essential that she find the right times to interject her comments into student’s role-play conversations. While it is important to give immediate feedback, it is equally important to let conversations unfold organically.
Students often comment that they leave the course with an increased sense of confidence in their competence. Many start the course feeling apprehensive and shy, but finish knowing how to communicate effectively with clients. The course experience is positive for students. It does not feel like a regular lecture, but rather an opportunity for practical learning.
Observing students as they are practicing in small clusters means that Sally does not get to see every part of the students’ “performances,” but she notes that this does not mean she cannot really understand how students are progressing. Through small snippets of their authentic work each day, she is able to get a glimpse of students’ thinking and growth. An advantage too is that students feel less pressure when they know they are not being assessed at all times. At the end of a series of classes, Sally has a good idea of each student’s practices and conceptualizations, even if she didn’t see every moment.
Sally’s main recommendation for colleagues who want to increase the feedback they give to students is to think about what they would have liked to hear when they were students. She also believes in living out her philosophical stance and principles for the entire course and to always have a reason for doing something.