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Learn how to give effective feedback to others

October 11, 2012

I have recently finished a series of articles in Educational Leadership, a publication from the Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).  I must say it is one of the best editions of any educational magazine I have seen in the last five years.  There are a plethora of excellent articles on assessment and feedback by some of the most esteemed thinkers on the topic.  For this post, my intention is to give you a snapshot of some of the articles I read so that in case you do not have access to them, you will have some idea of the author’s position.  In addition, I have put links to the articles where you can read a summary if you are not a member of ASCD.

Electronic Feedback, Doug Johnson, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 84

Three roles for technology in the classroom.  (1) For electronic submission and review of student work.  (2) Sharing, collaborating, and peer editing with tools like Google Docs.  (3) Student and parent portals for keeping track of progress.  Johnson doesn’t see technology as the answer to increasing student achievement, but he does see it as a tool that can “support, extend, and amplify identified best practices.”

Good Feedback is Targeted, Specific, and Timely, Bryan Goodwin & Kristen Miller, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 82

“One of the most powerful tools to unlock student motivation and perseverance is feedback.”  However, not all feedback is good nor is all feedback useful to students.  Here are suggestions.  (1) Link feedback to learning objectives.  (2) Make guidance in feedback specific so the learner can use it.  (3) Give feedback at the right and appropriate time.  (4) Make classrooms more like video games in that the feedback guides the learner on the path to mastery.

Keeping the Destination in Mind, Angela Di Michele Lalor, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 75

Good feedback lets students know: (1) how they are progressing; (2) how close they are to their goal; and (3) what to do if they take a wrong turn.  They use the analogy that feedback to the student should be like a GPS system to the driver.  They point out Susan Brookhart’s seven practices for high-quality feedback as a guide for how to manage a system that gives students good feedback.  Break feedback down into strengths, questions and concerns, and next steps.

7 Keys to Effective Feedback, Grant Wiggins, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 11.

What is feedback?  It isn’t advice, praise or evaluation.  “Basically it is information for how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.”  Here are Wiggins 7 keys to giving effective feedback.

  • Goal-referenced
  • Tangible and transparent
  • Actionable
  • User-friendly
  • Timely
  • Ongoing
  • Consistent

Wiggins believes that learners are often unclear about the target they are meant to hit.  When the feedback is tangible and obvious is works for the learner.  Feedback must be concrete, specific, and usable.  Feedback needs to be user-friendly.  For example, good coaches provide feedback that is not overly technical or abstract.  For feedback to be useful it has to be timely, but not necessarily immediate.  Gauge the readiness of the learner to hear the feedback.  Wiggins points out that in schools we have to remove ourselves from the myth that only the teacher gives feedback.  But if value student-student feedback we need to put in time to train students on how to give meaningful and useful feedback.  Ongoing feedback is a critical factor in helping the learners improve.  This is why many assessment experts are promoting a culture of formative assessment, feedback during the learning process.  In this model, the feedback can be used to make a mid-course correction with students learning from their mistakes.  Finally, feedback needs to be consistent or “stable, accurate, and trustworthy.”

If our response to Wiggins is that we have no time to give this type of comprehensive feedback, his response back is “then there is no time to cause learning.”  He points out that research points to “less time teaching and more time for feedback yields greater student achievement.”

Know Thy Impact, John Hattie, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 18

This fabulous article lays out a compelling model for how every teacher should view the feedback they give students.  Here are three questions Hattie opens with:

  • Where is the student going and what does the student need to improve?
  • How is the student going or where is the student on the journey?
  • Where to next?

“Students welcome feedback that is just in time, just for them, just for where they are in the learning process, and just what they need to move forward.”  Timely and personal are key qualities of good feedback.  So Hattie then goes on to point out that he is most concerned with the question: How do we make feedback more effective for students?  He answers this question by reflecting on three components of effective feedback.

  1. Clarifying the learning goals (see Wiggins above)
  2. Ensure that students understand the feedback
  3. Teachers need to seek feedback from their students about the learning journey

So if the goal is clear students will listen to feedback and if the teacher understands what each learner needs then the feedback can be personal.  Be sure that the feedback we give students is being processed accurately.  Since students are the beneficiaries of the feedback we owe it to them to seek their input on how effective our feedback is.

Hattie advocates that we have to know thy learner well for our feedback to be effective and useful to the learner.  We need to be able to target the feedback.  He also advocates giving positive feedback (praise) but not mixing it with constructive feedback that addresses gaps in learning because research indicates that students hear the praise and not the other feedback.

Feedback for life requires that teachers “know thy impact.”  “Gathering and assessing feedback are the only ways teachers can know the impact of their teaching.”

Preventing Feedback Fizzle, Susan Brookhart, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 25

Brookhart’s suggestions for giving effective feedback resonate with Wiggins and Hattie.  Here is her answer to what constitutes effective feedback:

  • Timely
  • Descriptive of the Work
  • Positive
  • Clear and specific
  • Differentiated

One interesting point that she raises in her article is that feedback without “next steps” is generally useless to students.  “When students get feedback on a performance that’s not followed by an opportunity to demonstrate the same knowledge or skills, feedback will fail.”  For Brookhart, its feedback that fizzles versus feedback that sparkles.  Having the opportunity to perform a skill again or to retool one’s understanding concepts gives students a reason to integrate initial feedback into their learning process.  In summary, Brookhart offers the following three steps for teachers to take:

  1. Make sure the performance for understanding (assessment) is a spot-on match with your learning target.
  2. Whether your feedback is oral or written, choose your words carefully.
  3. Follow episodes of feedback with timely opportunities for students to use the feedback before giving them a grade.

If mastery is our goal then the three steps will be relatively easy to integrate into our practice.

Feedback, Part of a System, Dylan Wiliam, Educational Leadership, September 2012, page 31

“Just as a thermostat adjusts the room temperature, effective feedback helps maintain a supportive environment for learning.”

He compares giving students feedback to positive and negative feedback systems in engineering.  Wiliam references the a study by Kluger and DeNisi that consolidated the work from 131 studies.  They concluded that while giving feedback did significantly improve learning, its impact had more to do with its influence on the learner and how the learner responded. Wiliam points out that we cannot think about feedback in isolation, it is part of a larger system.  We have to take into account how the learner responds to the feedback. He shows an interesting table on page 33 that illustrates why feedback is so complex. Of the eight responses that a student can give to feedback, six of them are “bad,” that is they will negatively impact the learner.  So Wiliam suggests that the most important question regarding feedback on assessments is: what response does the feedback trigger in the learner?  In designing feedback Wiliam suggests that we consider two outcomes: (1) we want students who fall short of a goal to strive to reach it; and (2) we want those who have already reached it to aspire to higher goals.

I definitely recommend reading this edition of Educational Leadership if you have an interest in building a more comprehensive approach to assessment and feedback.  Also, I have written a number of blog posts on assessment, feedback and grading.  Here are links to some of them that you might find interesting.

Learning about Assessment, Grading and Practices that Matter from Rick Wormeli

When Students Fail Should They be Allowed Do-Overs?

Grading and Assessment: Where should we be going?

Grading, Assessment and Student Achievement

Grading, Assessment and Student Achievement: Revisited

Assessment in the 21st Century

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