Why investing in real-world feedback R&D could revolutionize assessments


Mar 21, 2019

Last May, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) jointly requested new approaches to education to help tackle issues regarding student nonfiction writing, math comprehension, and executive functions—all challenges that have implications for future college and career success. Fast forward to today, and a recently released report details the over 400 responses the foundations received from field experts and practitioners.

As someone who writes for a living, I was especially interested in one of the suggestions for improving nonfiction writing learning and assessment: investing in programs that connect students with “authentic” audiences, like career professional or community residents, to read and offer feedback on their work. For example, one proposal suggests expanding a program that brings recent journalism graduates into the classroom to work alongside English language arts and social studies teachers as readers and mentors. These mentors coach middle and high school students on how to use Skype to connect with experts to write about topics of personal interest to them. In teams of four, students research, interview, take notes and photographs, write stories, peer edit, and publish online using journalism strategies. Another proposal suggests students upload real-world projects to an online platform where they could give and receive feedback from peers and industry professionals, including through video conferencing.

Not only could turning to connections outside of classroom teachers help improve students’ writing skills beyond test-mandated five-paragraph essays, investments like these could also be the tip of the iceberg to disrupt traditional K-12 assessments as we know them, with massive implications for tackling chronic challenges posed to bridging the gap between employers and schools in meaningful but affordable ways.

Investing in models that recruit feedback from beyond the four walls of school could offer at least three major benefits:

First,  real-world feedback could address real  constraints on schools trying to do ‘work-based learning’ on a tight budget

The cost of creating high-quality, work-based learning experiences is not minor. Not to mention, from a quality assurance perspective, some critics rightfully raise concerns that students in internships may be given low cognitive demand work, like filing documents or answering phones, sacrificing critical learning time. Inviting industry professionals to provide authentic feedback on the back end of student work—rather than expecting them to deliver coherent, high-quality learning experiences on the front end—could start to address both cost and time constraints.

This is already happening in some project-based schools where demonstrations of learning involve inviting community members in to witness and react to student projects. That sort of feedback could be even more frequent (and formative) if school systems unleashed the wide range of technology tools and platforms that exist to connect students and real-world experts virtually.

Second,real-world feedback could push authentic definitions of  competencies

With feedback coming directly from industry professionals, such assessments could also function as something of a trojan horse for articulating the actual competencies employers are seeking. We hear all too often that the interface between school and work is broken. But many efforts to define competencies fall flat because employers and HR professionals struggle to describe what exactly they want employees to know and be able to do.

The result of this disconnect can manifest as watered-down notions of broad competencies—like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘collaboration’—that are difficult to measure and mean different things to different people. Authentic feedback occurring directly between adults in the real world and students in schools specifies that interface between learning and work in small but vastly more concrete ways. In a moment of genuine feedback on a project or essay, employers are forced to articulate their precise preferences and students (and educators alongside them) gain visibility into what an employer wants.

Third, real-world feedback could provide students with the critical connections they need to succeed in their careers

Sometimes conversations about “real-world” assessments devolve into obsessing over carefully constructed simulations or elaborate word problems. While those have a purpose, they fail to offer one of the key benefits citizen- and employer-led feedback could offer: relationships.

Brief, low-stakes feedback on a piece of work or project may sound cursory at best, but it could plant the seeds of new connections, serving to diversify students’ networks across a variety of industries over the course of their education. This could be especially powerful in cases when students have never met anyone who works in a particular industry.

There are of course a bevy of questions around dosage, quality assurance, and unintended consequences (do you really want your potential employer seeing a half-baked project or essay?) of real-world assessment; but these are the very questions that  R&D investments can endeavor to address.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"