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Washback

2 min read

Even if you are not familiar with the term, you are probably familiar with the concept of washback (commonly called backwash in educational assessment). It refers to the effects of assessment on teaching and learning, and anyone who's studied in an exam-oriented system would have experienced this.

We tend to think poorly of washback because we often think of negative washback, e.g. ignoring what's in the syllabus in favour of what will be in the exam, even if we think that the syllabus has more worthy learning outcomes. While washback can be very problematic, I think we do need to consider two things.

First, as long as high-stakes exams determine a person's educational prospects, it's pretty unfair to blame teachers (and parents and learners) for their preoccupation with preparing students for exams. I don't mean to say that teachers etc. should willingly let exams lead them by the nose, and applaud those who can look beyond exams to think and act with true education in mind. However, we would be doing our students a disservice if we didn't prepare them adequately for exams (think face validity and student-related reliability). The point is not to obsess over them and let them overrun the curriculum.

Second, washback can be positive, and we should try to leverage this. While national exams are not within our control (though we may be able to exert some subtle influence), classroom assessments are -- make sure these are aligned with our intended learning outcomes. I believe that real learning will serve students well in their exams, and that obsessive exam prepping is unnecessary.

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