Making a Connection with Assessment and Feedback — Rick Barth

FIDeLity Feedback

L. Dee Fink, in a comprehensive article Integrated Course Design [1], sets out an actionable list of components for designing learning-centered course.

When I read this piece as part of a summer online workshop, I was immediately struck by the approach to assessment and feedback described there and its similarity to what I think was the most successful part of my spring 2020 online course. Fink says “As the students seek to learn how to perform well, teachers need to provide feedback that has “FIDeLity” characteristics:”

  • Frequent: Design your course with daily assessment if possible
  • Immediate: Give students feedback on their work as quickly possible
  • Discriminating: Make it clear to students what is good about their individual work and what needs improvement.
  • Loving: Be empathetic and sensitive when delivering feedback.

OK, I don’t know if I’m all the way on board with “discriminating” and “loving”. For me the idea was “detailed” and “supportive and positive”. That disrupts the acronym, though. Here’s a quote from one of my students on the course evaluations that I was happy to see: “Dr. Barth got assignments back so quickly it was awesome. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced turnaround that quick at K. Comments on homework were always positive, even when critical, and helpful for continued learning.”

How I budget my teaching time for FIDeLity Feedback

A little explanation is in order: Why would being a fast grader build meaningful connection with students? In the old days, I spent nearly four hours each week with students in the classroom during which time connections got formed moment-by-moment with the natural give and take that is natural to that setting. I confess that sometimes, back in those golden old days, my formal feedback on assessments was brief (hopefully concise), mostly impersonal, and maybe occasionally perfunctory. Ouch. My in-class time was designed to fill the gaps: “Let’s revisit the assignment I just turned back” or “Are there questions about what you read in my comments on your papers?”

This approach was reflected in the way I allocated my time as a teacher: I often found myself spending dedicated time planning classtime lecture and activities, and of course the scheduled classtime was inviolable! Then I somehow squeezed grading into my day (or evening) as an add-on. In the online spring, when time lost all its former meaning, I set out from the beginning with a daily time budget for my class that started with a dedicated block of 90 minutes for giving individual feedback (in Moodle) on the daily work. With that time in mind, I worked (and got better with practice) to create assignments that were meaningful for both formative and summative assessment, and were designed to be grade-able in the allotted time.

I didn’t get to know my spring 2020 students like I did in previous in-person classes. But of course not: Different times, different challenges. That said, I tell you with confidence that I did get to know my students’ work better than I ever have. I saw growth in students’ work that either wasn’t there in the past or I simply was too rushed to notice back in the good old days. I think my feedback with FIDeLity characteristics in the spring made my students better in the ways that are most important for them as lifelong learners: more careful thinking, clearer presentation, more attention to detail, and greater realization that they were engaged in a two-way communication with a responsive and supportive reader.

And so back to the idea of making a personal connection, with a little bonus idea about motivation: I’ve done a lot of thinking about student motivation in my classes[2] through the framework of self-determination theory. That’s a model of human motivation that boils it all down to three things: Competence, Autonomy and Relatedness. The world of online learning requires and provides all manner of autonomy in our students. I think FIDeLity feedback helps to provide the other two legs of the motivation stool. The detailed, discriminating feedback gives students an authentic way to view the competence they are building through the work of the class. The “Loving” characteristic provides the relatedness.

[1] Adapted with permission from Creating Significant Learning Experiences by L. Dee Fink, Jossey-Bass, 2013

[2] Eric Barth & Ryan S. Higginbottom (2020): The Calculus Mastery Exam: A
Report on the Use of Gateway-Inspired Assessment Tools at Liberal Arts Colleges, PRIMUS, DOI:

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