Whenever you get results back from a test, an assessment, or a piece of work, there are two competing priorities at work in your mind. On the one hand, you want to feel good. You want to feel proud of what you have achieved. You want your teacher, or whoever has assessed the work, to have recognised the effort you have put in and what you have achieved.
On the other hand, you want to learn. You want to know how to improve so that you can get even better next time. Your eye is instantly drawn to the questions you got wrong, to the notes in the margin, which tell you that you’re not quite there…yet.
It would be great to turn in the perfect piece of work, to get it back 100% correct, with full marks and a shiny gold star on it. That would feel amazing. But, as I tell students and their families when they join the Academy in Year 7, if you’re getting everything right then you’re not learning anything. The chances are the work wasn’t challenging enough: it just gave you an opportunity to show things that you already knew, or to practise skills you had already mastered. That has its place – but the real learning happens when you’re grappling with material you haven’t quite nailed down yet, or attempting a really difficult problem that you haven’t quite grasped…yet.
Researcher Dylan Wiliam calls these two types of response to feedback “ego-involved” and “task-involved.” When you get your work back, or receive some feedback, your ego is always involved. This is the part of your brain that wants to preserve your wellbeing. It wants you to feel good about yourself. It wants you to think you’re brilliant. The problem with this is that it gets in the way of learning. It means you will be afraid to try difficult and challenging tasks, in case you fail: it protects you from the damage to your self-esteem that failure can dish out.
In the other side, a “task-involved” response means that your first reaction when getting your work back is not to react emotionally, not to act to preserve your wellbeing, but instead to think. A task-involved approach means that you are analytical in response to your feedback, and focused overwhelmingly on the learning you can gain from it. Of course, you are interested in what you did well: it’s important to recognise the progress you have made, the hard work that’s paid off, and the knowledge and skills that you have secured. But you are also focused on the room for improvement: the silly mistakes you’ve made, the ideas you hadn’t quite grasped yet, the bits of knowledge you had misunderstood or not expressed clearly enough. And – crucially – you are focused on what you are going to do about it. How you are going to avoid the same mistakes next time. The bits of the course you are going to go back over. How you are going to improve.
It’s impossible to divorce the emotional “ego-involved” response altogether. It’s natural to feel disappointed if a mark isn’t as high as you wanted, or if you made a silly mistake that dropped you from one grade to the next. That’s normal! But, at Churchill, we work really hard to help our students to manage their emotional responses to feedback, and focus as rapidly as possible on the learning that comes from it. Because the only point in doing school work at all is to learn from it!
Over the coming days, our Year 11 students are getting their mock exam results back. There is a lot of emotion tied up in these results for our students, especially with the additional pressure that the pandemic has placed on mocks after two years of cancelled public exams. But the most important thing for our Year 11 students – and for any students, at any stage, getting a piece of work or an assessment back – is to focus on the learning. What did I do well, and how can I improve? What does this assessment tell me about where I am in my progress in this subject? And what do I need to do to make sure that I continue to get better?
The grade or mark you get on an assessment only matters twice in school: in your actual GCSE exams in Year 11, and in your actual A-level exams in the Sixth Form. At every other point in school, the grade or mark is not the most important thing: it’s what you learn from it.