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Achieving mastery: Pupils’ perspectives on engaging with feedback and assessment in secondary school

Gary Standinger, Teacher of Physical Education at Loughborough University


Assessment and feedback play a key role in pupils’ learning at all levels of education. However, there is much debate about whether feedback, in particular, is given in a way that is effective, constructive and timely enough for pupils to act on it (Winstone & Boud, 2020). Certainly, many pupils view feedback as problematic and challenging, and as something they struggle to comprehend. Although identified as important and essential to learning, limited research has examined how pupils perceive and use feedback in secondary education contexts (Quinlan & Pitt, 2021). Moreover, few educational studies to date have focused on the voices of young people in this area, especially those considered ‘high achieving’. 

Research focus 

My practitioner research study sought to address this notable gap by exploring the views of 12 ‘Lead Learners’ (that is, those identified as high-ability students) through informal conversations combined with unstructured and semi-structured interviewing regarding assessment and feedback in the key stage 3 (KS3, ages 11–14 years) Mastery Curriculum within one secondary school in England. As part of an iterative process of simultaneous data collection and analysis, techniques and procedures specific to Corbin and Strauss’s (2015) evolved grounded theory were used, which identified and developed concepts in conjunction with bringing context and process into the analysis. Categories were carefully integrated to form a substantive grounded theory titled: ‘Achieving Mastery (core category): how “Lead Learners” self-manage their response to feedback (major process)’. 

Figure 1 presents an integrative diagram showing the major process and the five sub-processes surrounding it. 

Figure 1: How ‘Lead Learners’ self-manage their response to feedback

Diagram template credit: Slidesgo/Freepik 

Summary of findings 

For the participants, responding to their teachers’ feedback hinged on their understanding of the Mastery assessment criteria (that is, Emerging, Developing, Secure and Mastery), Lead Learners felt they did not have the feedback literacy to independently use their teachers’ feedback and develop their work to achieve Mastery. Subsequently, Lead Learners decided to self-manage their response to feedback, and became savvy, independent student agents, using various individual and collective metacognitive/self-regulatory practices – for example, by foraging for Mastery information, and using peer assessment outside of the classroom to understand the Mastery assessment criteria better and gradually increase their feedback literacy. In fact, Lead Learners preferred to network with their peers rather than ask questions of their teachers because of a lack of guidance (in the feedback) to help them Achieve Mastery. Thus, the interplay between student agency and peer assessment encouraged Lead Learners to challenge their teachers’ feedback and question why their response to this feedback continued if it didn’t meet Mastery descriptor criteria. 

‘Lead Learners decided to self-manage their response to feedback, and became savvy, independent student agents, using various individual and collective metacognitive/self-regulatory practices.’


Lead Learners in this study were shown to be capable and emotionally mature enough to take ownership of their learning, including engaging with and learning from feedback. Because of the subjective nature of the school’s Mastery assessment descriptors, Lead Learners worked tirelessly to understand what Mastery ‘looked like’ to enable them to make refinements to their work in their quest to Achieve Mastery. Although their strategies did not always work, listening to how the Lead Learners made use of these to overcome problematic situations offers a unique insight into how KS3 students engage with/use their feedback. 

Interestingly, the way in which Lead Learners devised these strategies, made choices and shared their voice to impact their own and others’ learning aligns with the concepts of student agency, where students take an independent and active role when studying. In addition, the learners developed their feedback literacy, which helped them to understand and use feedback more effectively. While some previous studies speak of ‘student agency’ and ‘feedback literacy’ (Carless & Winstone, 2020; Winstone & Boud, 2020), it is notable that the focus of the vast majority is primarily on higher education students. Because few feedback studies focus on secondary-age students, this study makes a valuable contribution to the field by demonstrating the relevance of such processes (that is, challenging feedback) to earlier stages of education. 

Final words 

These findings could be used to help practitioners to gain a better understanding of how their KS3 students manage their response to feedback. More specifically, teachers need to be aware of how students use their feedback. Arguably, the strategies outlined in this study not only provide practitioners with an insight into what Lead Learners were doing, but they should also challenge them to critically evaluate their teaching practice and consider ways in which they could help their own students make better use of these processes. 


Carless, D., & Winstone, N. (2020). Teacher feedback literacy and its interplay with student feedback literacy. Teaching in Higher Education. Advance online publication.  

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2015). Basics of qualitative research: Techniques and procedures for developing grounded theory. SAGE Publications. 

Quinlan, K. M., & Pitt, E. (2021). Towards signature assessment and feedback practices: A taxonomy of discipline-specific elements of assessment for learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 28(2), 191–207.  

Winstone, N. E., & Boud, D. (2020). The need to disentangle assessment and feedback in higher education. Studies in Higher Education, 47(3), 656–667.