We fell in love with Ted Lasso for the obvious reasons–it’s heartwarming, smart, peopled by interesting characters, and full of clever dialogue. But we also fell in love because we are educators who are passionate about assessment. Ted, it turns out, is an excellent reminder of the power of what we might call formative assessment. Throughout the series, he guides his players into various experiences requiring personal and collective reflection about their life goals. Not only does the formula make for some emotional character arcs, but it also serves as an important reminder for all educators, namely, that assessment can be transformational.
Unfortunately, assessment is too often a euphemism for “accountability.” The goal, it seems, is to ensure that we are doing what we say we are doing. Furthermore, accreditation bodies are looking at assessment to ensure colleges and universities are “living up to what they advertise.” For example, consider a faculty member who pursues assessment for the strict purpose of “satisfying the Dean.” This faculty member may give exams and may collect student artifacts, such as projects or papers, but the faculty really doesn’t connect student performance with the course design or classroom experience. In this scenario, the faculty might be more preoccupied with the question, “Am I doing my job?” than the question, “Are students learning in the best possible way?”
Assessment as accountability is a boring account of education, and one in which students and faculty members are adversaries who are both just trying to check a box. It’s similar to a team that has lost its way. The players simply do what they are supposed to do without purposeful practice. The stark reality is that more often than not, folks who engage in assessment are doing so to ensure compliance.
For us, assessment is so much more. It is how we help students recognize where they are and how far they have come. And, it’s not as much about “product” as it is about “process.” The show, Ted Lasso, serves as a good metaphor for this. In many ways, Ted is an expert assessor. He helps his players achieve success as humans. He wants them to grow. He wants them to discover who they are. He wants them to become “the best versions of themselves,” aspirations that are analogized through Ted’s on-the-field strategy: total football. Total football requires all the players to understand one another’s positions and ambitions, creating a synergy in which everyone is interdependent on one another. Through continuous assessment–of self and others–players adapt to any situation to help support one another. In the final season of the show, Trent Crimm, the author documenting the team’s Cinderella story, has this exchange with Ted.
Trent Crimm: Ted. It’s going to work.
Ted: Great. What is?
Trent Crimm: Total football.
Ted: Okay. Why?
Trent Crimm: And I’ll tell you why. The Lasso way. You haven’t switched tactics in a week.
Ted: I haven’t?
Trent Crimm: No. You’ve done this over three seasons.
Ted: I have?
Trent Crimm: Yes. By slowly but surely building a club-wide culture of trust and support through thousands of imperceptible moments, all leading to their inevitable conclusion. Total football.
Ted: Well, how about that.
Formative assessment, by definition, is designed to provide both students and instructors with evidence that helps them understand how to proceed as they move through learning content. In a more rigorous explanation, Peggy Maki talks about “real-time assessment” which is designed to be done frequently, with very low stakes, so students and faculty alike can help understand how to move forward (or not) in content.
Rather than treating assessment as endemic to grades or any other static category, assessment should prioritize movement. Susan Brookhart defines a fundamental aspect of formative assessment as the action towards identified goals. In many ways, this definition extends Vygotsky’s concept of movement between zones of proximal development. For both Brookhart and Vygotsky, action is often driven by feedback. In my (JT) first-year writing courses, for instance, students work to synthesize texts in order to create new conclusions not represented in any single text. Rather than simply correcting students when they struggle with the high-level task of synthesis, I try to provide feedback as an open-ended conversation, asking them questions about their strategies as well as about their understanding of the texts. In my modest attempts to evoke the spirit of Ted Lasso, these interactions often require a sensitivity to who my students are and where they are trying to go in life. In other words, a standardized approach won’t always work. To dive deeper into my approach, just as Ted provided books to his players that represented their life journeys–A Wrinkle in Time to help Roy Kent learn leadership or The Beautiful and the Damned to help Jamie Tartt learn modesty–I often suggest new texts that help illuminate possible pathways that students might take; in other words, my feedback might actually assign more homework in ways that make student projects easier to complete. Or, I might follow recent recommendations in educational research to provide multiple opportunities for students to engage with my feedback, create a revision plan, and try again to meet the project’s objectives.
In short, rather than collecting data at one particular point of learning and calling it a day, I am always trying to find ways to cycle the data back into the learning experience so that students can develop metacognitive and self-regulatory strategies, employing assessment for their personal and professional growth.
It was never about Ted
One of the most inspiring epiphanies on the show comes when Ted reviews Trent Crimm’s draft of the book he wrote about the team. Initially entitled “The Lasso Way,” Ted leaves a note that reads: One small suggestion: change the title. It’s not about me. It never was.
To create the sense that the courses we teach are about our students–and not about us–we intentionally tap into situational interest. Situational interest occurs when students become engaged in a particular learning situation due to the environmental factors cultivated by course design elements. One of the most reliable ways to create situational interest is to invite student choice. When students make decisions about what or how they learn, they are more likely to take ownership of the experience and exhibit higher levels of engagement. Of course, inviting student choice requires trust. Not only do I have to believe in my students’ capability to make appropriate decisions about research topics, questions, or texts they would like to incorporate into their projects, but they also have to trust that I will not judge or evaluate them based entirely on their decisions. Sure, I will certainly provide feedback guiding their ability to critically evaluate a text if they want to use a blog or questionable website, but even that approach relies on open-ended conversation (e.g., What indicates that this particular source is credible or valid?). Cultivating trust when it comes to student choice means sharing agency in the learning process, which relies on collective participation in assessment.
During one particular total football practice, Ted assigns each player the name of another player. The goal is for the player to become the other, developing empathy and awareness of how each person fits into the team. When Jamie Tartt, the player who spends the majority of the series thinking about himself and his own development, realizes he’s been assigned himself, he approaches Ted, suggesting a mistake has been made. Ted responds, “We just figured you’d wanna keep doing what you do best for us. Playing striker and scoring goals, right?”
Jamie, who by now had become situationally interested in “the Lasso way,” is bothered by the suggestion. Rather than correcting Jamie, Ted continuously provides opportunities for Jamie to become reflective and make the best decisions about his play on the team. This example illustrates the patience required to realize the power of formative assessment; it illuminates data about student learning that, through reflective decision making, can be used to improve performance.
Teaching is relational. It depends on trust, vulnerability, and openness. Assessment is no different. Done right, assessment elevates all students in advancement towards clearly stated goals. Assessment is often messy in that it usually works differently for different people, whether based on time, task, or performance outcome; but with a little bit of patience and belief, assessment creates a supportive culture that allows students to try new experiences, reflect on the data of the experience, and modify action in constant relational movement.
Chris Hakala is the director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching, Learning, and Scholarship at Springfield College. JT Torres is the director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Quinnipiac University
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