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“Teachers’ conceptions of quality are typically held, largely in unarticulated form, inside their heads as tacit knowledge” (p. 126).

This quote from Sadler’s article “Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems” (1989) helped give words to feelings about many of my experiences as both a teacher and a student of writing.

Before coming to the University of Michigan, I studied in a creative writing graduate program. My classmates — all fellow writers who bravely put up their work for peer critique each week in our workshops — and I came to joke about what we called the “more cowbell problem.”

Of course, we were all also guilty of giving the type of vague feedback that we found so confusing — the type of feedback that might appear as a note in the margins next to a particularly dramatic scene: “More?”

Or the circuitous remarks that demonstrated the commenter really really liked our work, but felt that it, you know, needed … something? Maybe more scenes? Maybe fewer scenes? Maybe you should change the point of view?

Or the workshop chestnut that we mocked and occasionally invoked: “I don’t really feel like you’ve earned the ending here.”

Then, the times when — as a teacher of composition — I met with occasionally frustrated, occasionally worried students who confessed, “But I don’t know what you want with this paper!”

Feedback — it’s no easy business.

That’s why I appreciated Sadler’s ability to pinpoint the way teachers encounter and create ever-shifting and contextual content in response to student work. His explanation of “fuzzy” and “sharp” criteria was especially useful to my understanding of the ambiguity I and my students had both experienced.

He writes: “If a student is to be able to consciously use a fuzzy criterion in making a judgment, it is necessary for the student to understand what the fuzzy criterion means, and what it implies for practice. Therefore, learning these contextualized meanings and implications is itself an important task for the student” (p. 124).

In attending writing workshops for several years, I came to understand the shorthand language used to describe the craft and to be able to interpret when I had broken a convention intentionally (and well) or intentionally (and poorly) or unintentionally (and usually always terribly).

I am still learning, of course.

And what about new college students? What are they to think when first encountering the conventions and feedback of the academy — marginalia like “Awk.” or “Coherence?” or “Unconvincing”?

While writing teachers may sometimes joke about investing in a set of standard commenting stamps to make short work of student essays, they know it would not teach anything (at least, not anything about good writing). Formative feedback arises in unique contexts, is process-focused, and is perceived and received differently by different students.

The authors of How People Learn remind us well of this last point — that one’s own home culture and language shape how students understand school as well as what it means to be “educated” in a country when education has also acted as a form of colonization for some. I am reminded of the boarding schools for Native Americans that persisted through the 1970s, where children lived apart from their families, and were forced to forgo their native languages and forget their cultural traditions.

How might children today who understand the pain of that legacy make sense of participating in a classroom?

Indeed, in reviewing both of this week’s readings, I can’t help but feel that making the connection between students’ existing knowledge and culture — and the type of formative assessment that will be instructive and empowering — lies at the very nexus of the art and the science of teaching.

I’m looking forward to our discussion in class. I think we’ll have a lot to say.