It’s not teaching that causes learning, after all — as painful as it might be for us educators to realize. Learning is caused by learners attempting to do something and getting feedback on the attempt. So learners need endless feedback more than they need endless teaching.~ Grant Wiggins
When I was a child and “played school” with my siblings, my favorite part, as a teacher, was “grading” the assignments I had created. In hindsight, I think it was more about “being right” than anything else; it certainly wasn’t helpful feedback on improving. Over the course of my 24+ year teaching career, I have assessed and provided feedback on countless assignments, but it was the lessons I learned 5 years ago at the Science of Teaching and School Leadership Academy at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac, Maryland that made the biggest difference in how I provide feedback. There were a couple of important lessons about giving feedback that leads to real improvement which has stuck with me ever since and influenced the way I teach.
Knowing the end goal of an assignment is a key piece of providing useful feedback. According to Hattie and Timperley, in their article The Power of Feedback,
“Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?) These questions correspond to notions of feed up, feed back, and feed forward.”Hattie and Timperley
One of the important changes I have made to my practice of feedback is ensuring that students know the end goal. I have collected and/or created a variety of exemplars that demonstrate what a final product should look like. With my sixth graders, the opportunity to see what a final product could and should be is significant; they are interested and will often ask clarifying questions about what they see. They want to create fine quality work and seeing an example is important for them.
There are two types of feedback, formative and summative. Formative feedback serves to provide guidance about how a student is progressing towards a summative goal and what they can do to redirect or improve their performance. It also informs a teacher as to how they can provide corrective or additional instruction to individual students or their class. In my classes, we teach grammar using a particular pattern. We introduce the concept and engage in practice together. Next, students are provided with three formative assignments that progress in complexity and allow them the opportunity to practice their skills of compound sentence creation. During this phase, I am very clear that this is the place to make mistakes and is specifically designed for them to make errors and learn. We finish each unit with a summative assessment checking their skills. This summative piece is similar to the formative assignments, but often asks students to apply what they have learned along with previously studied patterns of comma use and sentence crafting. This step as well can be formative, as a student who has not yet mastered the topic can retry as many times as necessary. It isn’t usually needed, though, as I work with students to reinstruct or correct misunderstandings during the formative phase. This pattern was developed after I noticed that, when I handed out the practice worksheets, many students rushed right in to finish it without really engaging in a thoughtful way. They were more concerned with completion than with understanding. It was eye-opening, and I spent some time, that first year, explaining that this was not about finishing, but about building the competency of a skill. As a matter of fact, it is ungraded. The reduction in a frenzy when they learned there was no grade was remarkable, even after that first discussion. When a student neglects to submit an assignment, it also provides me with the opportunity to have a conversation about practice and a progression towards mastery instead of busywork. Some students don’t need the practice, and I often let them skip one or more of the worksheets. Explicitly communicating that this work was not for points and was ungraded, but was instead a deliberate sequence of activities to build their sentence-building skills transformed this from a compliance of completion situation to one of learning and building.
Feedback should be timely, specific, and actionable. I keep this mantra in mind consistently as I go about my work with my students. Let’s talk about each of these recommendations individually. We will look at the timely recommendation first. It makes sense that feedback should be as closely aligned with students’ completing the work as possible, but as teachers, we are often so buried under the day-to-day demands of the profession, that the days pile up, and the next thing you know, it’s a week later. Any feedback that is delayed loses its power and usefulness for students. Teachers that spend hours and hours reviewing and assessing student work, without ensuring that students must use the feedback revising or applying it soon after, on another attempt at learning, will find it to be a futile exercise. I used to assume that students were looking carefully at the narrative comments I provided on their work and would recall and apply them when necessary. This was an erroneous assumption and one that ignored what we know about mind-brain education. For feedback to stick and to be meaningful, it needs to be directly related to students’ attempts. If you are unable to provide timely feedback, narrow the number of assignments you are having students complete for assessment or turn to peer feedback strategies as a way to create more efficient feedback loops.
Providing specific feedback means ignoring generic phrases such as “good job” or “well-done” and that you are choosing one to three clear pieces or parts of a student assignment that can be improved. This article by Starr Sackstein includes some excellent suggestions about making feedback more specific. Referencing the exemplar or the final goal for an assignment in your narrative comments should limit the number of skills in an assignment that a student needs to work on. This can be really challenging for me as an educator, as I want to document everything, but if we overwhelm our students with commentary, they become overwhelmed and shut down. So, now, I force myself to include only two or three references to specific tasks a student can work on. I can then build on these as the year progresses, reminding them of the work they have done before. I will also keep a running record of skills and competencies for myself that I want to keep in mind for working with a particular student, even if it is not a priority at that point in time.
Feedback that is actionable means that it provides guidance on specific actions or strategies. When I provide a student with commentary or a rubric, I will try to choose pieces of their work that they can improve and suggest the strategies or steps that we might have worked on in class to do so. For example, when we write personal narratives, we have mini-lessons such as “Show not Tell,” and “Active vs. Passive language.” I might remind a student of a specific lesson in their feedback, and even ask them to go back and look at the activity itself to refresh their memory. An even stronger practice that we have begun is to have students look at the feedback they received on a similar assignment earlier in the year and write down a goal or two based on what the teacher said at that time. When we begin a new reading partnership, for example, I will often ask students to look back at the suggestions I made on their previous collection of activities and signposts and set a goal for how to continue their good work, or improve. This puts the onus of the feedback response onto the student. I am warmly demanding that they make use of the suggestions I made and put them into practice on their next attempt at learning.
A few years ago it hit me that the extensive comments and suggestions I made on students’ final drafts of their research papers were wasted effort on my part. They couldn’t or wouldn’t put them into practice. So, I decided to “grade” the rough draft and require that students use that feedback when writing their final draft. This is now the regular practice for our sixth grade Humanities curriculum with any major writing assignment. We provide feedback and suggestions on a rough draft as well as a rubric with a grade. However, there is a row on the rubric that is titled “Habits of a Learner: Use of Feedback” and that row does not receive a score the first time. We have students go back and revise the pieces on which they are assessed. The second time around, they can increase their score on any of the rubric’s criteria and receive a score that indicates the strength of their response to the feedback. I am much less frustrated by the quality of the final products, and we are modeling for students the iterative process of writing. It doesn’t work perfectly for all students, and some need more guidance in making their revisions, but we feel that it demonstrates our commitment to revision and improvement.
Trust and belonging are critical elements of giving and receiving feedback. Research such as that done by the Student Experience Research Network shows that when students feel as though they belong, they will take more risks, believe they are capable and will try harder in their schooling. Before you implement any of these feedback tips and strategies, remember that the first piece should always be to build personal relationships with your students so that they understand you believe they can succeed. This article explores the SEL of giving feedback and some of the barriers to a students’ using feedback effectively or at all.
Providing feedback to students that will encourage them to use it to promote their growth and mastery means considering both the strategies and the content of the input you are providing. Make sure you consider the above factors when you plan for feedback. The next article will talk about some of the different ways in which teachers can give feedback.