[New ebook] Competency-Based Education: Empower authentic and skill-based learning

Nurturing a growth mindset with quality feedback and holistic scoring

Nhi Nguyen
Rebecca LeBoeuf
Rebecca LeBoeuf
March 9, 2023
Table of Contents

Higher education should no longer be about accreditation or certification. It should generate a learner-centered environment where students can engage in meaningful interactions, develop lifelong skills, and most importantly acquire the ability to learn beyond classrooms. In essence, building a growth mindset for students is among the critical objectives of teaching and learning now and for the future. 

How can faculties curate a growth-oriented learning environment? According to Dr. Kim Chappell, Associate Professor at Fort Hays State University, targeted feedback and holistic assessment are two effective strategies to achieve this goal. In this article, we will elaborate on practical strategies and opportunities to implement growth-oriented assessment and feedback. 

The input for this article is inspired by Dr. Kim Chappell’s presentation at inspirED 2022 – "The role of feedback and holistic scoring in building a growth mindset”

A selection of use cases and rubric templates for self, peer, and group assessment, which have been designed and successfully adopted by institutions worldwide.
Join Rotterdam School of Management to explore the best practices for implementing CBE and discover the new FeedbackFruits Competency-Based Assessment solution.

The importance of nurturing a growth mindset

The ultimate goal of education is not about accreditation, but to equip students with essential skills and knowledge that help them thrive beyond their study.  Dr Chappell remarked: “I think most of us would say we want them to carry these knowledge and skills with them further into additional study, as well as into their careers and in their lives.”

Dr. Chappell’s philosophy of teaching has always been about helping students to  become lifelong learners. That means creating an environment that develops a lifelong learning attitude, or so-called a growth mindset.

“We often say we want students to become lifelong learners. Well, what does that mean? That means that they need to have a growth mindset, and to understand that learning isn't a fixed point in time.”

In order to develop a growth mindset and increase self-efficacy, instructors need to keep in mind 3 main principles, and most importantly, implement targeted feedback and holistic assessment. 

Principles for Developing a Growth Mindset Culture

1. Be intentional

When designing any courses, instructors need to specify the end goals – that is, which skill sets students should accomplish in the end aside from the subject matter. Furthermore, the desired skills should be closely aligned with the learning activities. Whether it is critical reading and thinking, information literacy, or evidence-based decision making, faculties need to provide a transparent description and link to the corresponding course activities. This will help students understand the purposes and benefits of the tasks, thus motivating them to engage in the learning process. According to Dr. Chappell, being selective of the desired skill sets allows instructors to focus their feedback on supporting students’ growth and fostering the development of these skills.  

“We can't feed back everything, we cannot teach everything. So it's really important that we focus on specifically what we want to accomplish within a course, that's outside the content in order to build a growth mindset. Because that's what will help to support not only a growth culture, but also support the skills you're trying to build.”

Below are some resources to help you with designing clear course objectives: 

2. Assessing for growth 

In order to build a growth-oriented course, “the real kick and key is whether or not you assess for growth”, as remarked by Dr. Chappell. If faculties only administer a midterm and final exam within the entire course, students are under the impression that they only need to know everything at certain fixed points in time, rather than continually progressing. This leads to disengagement throughout the course and emergency cramming for exams at the end. Relying solely on summative assessment is then definitely not an ideal approach to cultivate a growth mindset. Instead, instructors should combine both periodic and final evaluations to measure students’ progress throughout the learning process. There are a number of strategies to achieve this triangulation of assessment, namely: 

  • Allowing for resubmissions
  • Integrating peer and group assessment opportunities 
  • Dividing one big assignment into bite-size tasks
  • Issue growth-infused feedback

Dr. Chappell especially values the impact of peer review activity in developing a growth mindset, and how it is easier to facilitate this approach with pedagogical technology: 

“So you gotta love FeedbackFruits for that. I've issued peer assessment activity using their Peer Review tool, and I have found it to be super successful in helping students to give each other feedback.”

3. Think long-term 

The course design needs to show students how they can progress over time. This means considering what we want our students to achieve throughout the entire course from start to finish and gradually building towards those goals. 

Faculties can communicate to students that they are expected to grow, by presenting assignments that are progressively more challenging, regardless of levels or importance within the course. As Dr. Chappell stated, “Whether the assignments are high-stakes or low-stakes, we should give them more weight in the course to emphasize their significance in promoting long-term growth.”

Feedback strategies for nurturing a growth mindset

1. Provide growth-infused feedback 

Focusing on positivity is the key factor when delivering growth-infused feedback, according to Dr. Chappell. 

“I use positive terms and leave things open for students to interpret so they take responsibility for their own growth.”

It's also important to provide growth-oriented feedback on both correct and incorrect work. If a student receives an A, they need to know which parts of their project were done correctly so they can replicate it in the future. On the other hand, if a student defines a topic but fails to provide examples, instructors should acknowledge what they did correctly but also suggest ways to improve. 

Dr. Emilia Illana Mahiques, lecturer at Cornell University shared a similar opinion on the use of positive feedback. “People tend to say that positive feedback doesn’t work, that’s not true.”

Positive feedback can have positive effects if it is accompanied by detailed reasoning and elaboration. “When you point out to the students “why do I like this?” and especially if you justify “I like this because …”, students are able to incorporate this feedback again into their learning”, Dr. Mahiques explained.

Simply saying “It is good” or “Great job” doesn’t do much, but when saying “It’s good because...”, explaining to their peers why, the comment becomes much more helpful. These reasoned, positive comments will leave a lasting impression on the students, thus motivating them to repeat this in their future work. Furthermore, asking students to focus on what they like about their peers’ work allows them to learn from each other.

So what positive language should instructors use when giving feedback? Dr. Chappell provided a list of commonly used phrases: 

a. To suggest improvement actions: 

  • Try this…
  • You might start….
  • Let’s do this…
  • Let me encourage you to consider….

b. To let students know what they did right and wrong: 

  • You wrote detailed reasons for….
  • You defined the topic, however you needed to provide examples of …..
  • You gave examples that accurately explained…
  • Best to avoid pronouns without referents

2. Encourage peer review on formative and low stakes assessment

Besides instructor input, peer feedback is a critical element in nurturing a growth mindset, and it needs to be delivered on a continuous basis. Formative and low stakes assessment are therefore effective ways to ensure students are frequently presented with opportunities to engage in feedback exchange. There are multiple ways to incorporate formative elements into the curriculum, especially with the aid of available digital tools. For Dr. Chappell, she often utilizes online discussion, in which students are required to produce and upload videos related to the week’s topic onto the discussion platform, then watch, discuss and provide feedback for each other. This approach is a fun and engaging alternative to the traditional discussion boards. According to Dr. Chappell, her students really enjoyed the activities and even put more effort into these than normal assignments. 

“And as some of my students have told me, they actually prepare more to do a peer review session, something that's peer reviewed, like a discussion board or a peer-to-peer video, as opposed to how much effort they put into an assignment for me, which I have found to be extremely interesting.”

For more suggestions on how to integrate formative peer assessment into your course, check out the following articles: 

3. Feedback from the front

Giving feedback right from the start is as important as doing so during and after the course. That is, instructors should draw students attention to the focus points of a particular assignment, a week, or a module. This approach provides a certain level of transparency, allowing students to understand what they should do to achieve the required learning goals. Straightforward and concise syllabus, weekly reminders, or activity instructions act as a detailed roadmap for students, guiding and motivating them to engage in the learning process. For instructors, crafting quality guidelines from the beginning would help save so much time having to repeat and explain to students what needs to be done. 

Marnie Roestel, Associate Director of Learning Systems Support at Central Michigan University provided great tips on crafting a concise, easy-to-read course syllabus that encourages growth-oriented learning. 

Holistic scoring to encourage self improvement

Another critical component when designing a growth-oriented learning experience is holistic scoring. As Dr. Chappell stated: 

“In order to build a growth mindset, you need to have a grading policy that shows growth. That is, the course grade must represent the highest performance level that the student obtained, rather than the grades that are taken at fixed points in the turn.”

In essence, the grading policy should encourage student improvement throughout the courses. Most importantly, the final mark should showcase what students have achieved by the end of the learning process, instead of being an average of fixed grading points such as midterms or quizzes. It is therefore important to adopt a holistic approach to grading that generates ample information that reflects an objective picture of students’ performance level. And below are some strategies to implement holistic scoring, shared by Dr. Chappell: 

1. Use words instead of numbers

Instead of assigning a numerical grade, instructors should describe students’ accomplishment of each criteria with a word. Dr. Chappell uses “developing, proficient, and exemplary” to represent students’ performance. Assessment scores are calculated as an average of the rated criteria in the rubric. In other words, focusing on describing the competencies that you expect students to achieve, rather than using a number to label the performance levels. 

2. Score over time

Grading needs to show students that they are growing and improving across time. This can be done by creating multiple scoring components that contribute to a final project, or incorporating formative assessment opportunities. For example, a big writing assignment can be broken down into smaller tasks, namely: materials comprehension, first draft creation and submission, peer feedback, second draft iteration based on the comments, final submission, self-reflection, and teacher feedback. Each of these steps will be graded to make sure students receive constant feedback and have opportunities to improve and reach their highest performance. 

More examples of implementing the “Scoring over time”: 

3. Allow for resubmissions

Students will learn at a deeper level when they are working with materials over and over and over again. Most importantly, giving your students an opportunity to improve their work indicates that you expect and welcome them to grow. This can be achieved by creating opportunities for resubmissions, such as letting students work on several versions and iterate on them before producing the final product. By incorporating this approach into the syllabus, faculties “will start building a culture of growth within the courses” – said Dr. Chappell. In other words, this simple act showcases instructor understanding and openness to growth among students. 

According to Dr. Chappell, students really appreciated the ability to resubmit their work. 

“What students have told me is it was comforting, and it was encouraging to their own self efficacy, to know they didn't have to be perfect out of the gate, and that there would be opportunities to improve, to revise and to change.”

4. Use growth-oriented rubric 

Finally, the assessment rubric needs to inform students of the highest point where they should reach, at the same time detailing what the competencies to be demonstrated to achieve the indicated criteria. 

“It's not the amount as it is the quality. And that's the difference between a true growth oriented type of rubric.” 

Dr. Chappell provided her growth-oriented rubric for research synthesis, which outlines 7 components of the writing and their corresponding requirements. The completion level of these components is indicated on 4 descriptive scales, from “Needs intervention”, “Emerging”, “Proficient”, and “Exemplary”. This rubric design clearly demonstrates the highest level students are expected to obtain, and what they should do to reach this level. Most importantly, students are aware that the assignment focuses on growth, rather than accreditation. 

Example of a holistic scoring rubric
Example of a holistic rubric

Below you can find more resources to help with designing holistic rubrics: 

The positive impact of effective feedback and holistic scoring

After implementing feedback and holistic scoring to develop growth-oriented learning, Dr. Chappell noticed changes in her students’ learning. 

“My students are now more focused on improving themselves and growing rather than achieving high grades. The approach also increases their self efficacy and responsibility throughout the learning process.”

In conclusion, feedback and holistic scoring are powerful tools that can be used to promote a growth mindset in students. Effective feedback provides students with the information they need to improve, while holistic scoring helps students to focus on the process rather than the outcome. By creating a learning environment that promotes a growth mindset, students are more likely to embrace challenges, learn from their mistakes, and achieve their full potential.

About the instructor

Dr. Kim Chappell, Fort Hays State University

Dr. Kim Chappell is an Assistant Professor at Fort Hays State University in the Advanced Education Programs Department of the College of Education. Dr. Chappell has been teaching more than 32 years including 18 years in higher education. Her experience and research interests include effective teaching, assessment, curriculum, and leadership in higher education.

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