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This content is taken from the National STEM Learning Centre's online course, Feedback for Learning: Implementing Formative Assessment. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 3 seconds A concern regularly raised by educators is the puzzling observation that even when teachers use feedback with students, improvement does not necessarily follow. With students often showing little or no growth or development despite regular, accurate feedback. In this course we have explained that for students to be able to improve, teachers must support and move them from being passive novices in the feedback relationship, to experts, who are able to monitor the quality of their own work during actual production. In a sense we can think that by supporting students to engage with feedback we are helping them train as learning apprentices.

Skip to 0 minutes and 49 seconds As teachers we become experts in our subjects and hold conceptions of quality largely in unarticulated form, inside our heads; this is what researchers call tacit knowledge. This tacit knowledge enables us to make judgements about the quality of students’ learning, or our own understanding. However, tacit knowledge can only be built up over time and by engaging with a variety of different evaluative experiences that allow us to gain an understanding of the criteria. These are the type of evaluative experiences we need our students as learning apprentices to experience, so that they also have the opportunity to become learning experts.

Work as learning apprentices

Below is an adapted extract from Sadler R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18:119-144 (1989)

Improvement can, of course, occur if the teacher shares detailed feedback and the student follows it through. This, however, maintains the learner’s dependence on the teacher. It is insufficient for students to rely upon evaluative judgments made by the teacher.

Students are novice learners in our lessons, and as such they are unable due to their lack of experience to making refined judgments about quality. As the experts, we can support them as learning apprentices by creating opportunities for them to engage in evaluative activity, so they can experience and build up their understanding about ‘the rules of the art’, including those which are not explicitly known to the master.

Connoisseurship… can be communicated only by example, not by precept” (Polanyi, 1962, p. 53-54).

The transition from teacher-supplied feedback to learner self-monitoring is not something that comes about automatically. In other words, we need to facilitate direct authentic evaluative experience for students to enables them to develop their understanding about quality work and learning. This requires that students possess an appreciation of what high quality work is, that they have the evaluative skill necessary for them to compare with some objectivity the quality of what they are producing in relation to the higher standard, and that they develop a store of tactics or moves which can be drawn upon to modify their own work.


  • What for you is the most important point made in the extract?
  • How have you helped the learning apprentices in your lessons start to understand what high-quality looks like?

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This video is from the free online course:

Feedback for Learning: Implementing Formative Assessment

National STEM Learning Centre