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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teacher at the chalkboard looking toward students

We run the risk of giving the wrong kind of feedback for students, and it's not because we are bad people. We love our students. We want them to be successful, and sometimes these desires can actually get in the way of a student truly learning.

Take a typical situation of a math problem involving money. A student is unable to determine the percentage that he or she should be getting, and is struggling with multiplication of decimals. Often we notice this struggle and "swoop in" to save the day. As educators, we sit down with that student and show him or her how to do it, pat ourselves on the back, and move on the next student. In fact, we didn't "save" that student's day -- we may have made no difference at all. Feedback that simply shows a child how to do something won't cause that child to think. He or she will merely learn to replicate what the teacher did without truly "getting" the concept being taught.

3 Strategies for Structured Teaching

We need to move away from this type of feedback and toward feedback that causes thinking and metacognition. Here are three ways that teachers can guide students in the right direction, as described by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in their book Better Learning Through Structured Teaching.

1. Questions

We all know that asking questions can help us check for understanding, but questions can also be great tools for having students really articulate their ideas in a deeper way, and allowing them to think about it. Try asking open-ended questions to probe student thinking and push them to think deeper. Instead of "Do you understand that?", move toward questions that cause students to explain and justify their ideas.

2. Prompting

Prompts are statements and questions that cause students to do metacognitive work. We teachers should not be doing their thinking work for them during guided instruction. We should be empowering students to think by using the right type of question or statement. Take this example. A student is working on a written assignment, and the teacher notices that he or she may be missing commas. The teacher says, "I see this paragraph has some commas in it, but the next paragraph seems to have none." This will cause the student to look at the paper with the idea of adding more commas if necessary.

3. Cueing

Similar to prompting, cueing "shifts the learner's attention." Cues are often more specific. There are many types, such as verbal, gestural, and visual. Even highlighting an error on a paper can cause students to think about how they might fix the error without necessarily giving away the answer. With this cue, you prompted thinking. Similarly, a verbal prompt like, "This step in the problem is tricky, don't forget how I modeled it this morning" will shift the students to think and reflect about their process and perhaps move in the right direction. Don't forget that even pointing to something can serve as a cue for students to think.

Errors Versus Mistakes

As you see students struggle with concepts and notice a "wrong" answer, consider this reflective question: "Is it an error or a mistake? How can I find out?" Through specific questioning, you can dig deeper to find out what's going on in a student's head, and make the thinking visible for both of you. Sometimes a wrong answer means a mistake. This implies that a student really does know a concept and only made a misstep in the application of learning. As the teacher, you only need to redirect. However, if you uncover that there is an error, it means that a student really does not understand the concept, and he or she will require a different type of instruction, perhaps further modeling or teaching, and different kinds of prompting, cueing, and questioning.

Dylan William, in Embedded Formative Assessment, says "Feedback should cause thinking," and I couldn't agree more. If we focus on feedback to cause thinking, we can prevent "learned helplessness" in our students. When we limit ourselves to showing students how to do something, or maybe do it for them, we may be communicating to kids that only the teacher can persevere and solve the problem. If we want students who are self-directed learners, then we have to scaffold appropriately -- and then remove the scaffolds. Modeling a concept and thinking aloud are critical components of teaching, but we then need to turn the power over to students and let them struggle and finally experience success. Feedback for thinking creates a "can-do" atmosphere in the classroom.

What are your strategies for encouraging students to think?

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Tricia Whenham's picture

Great point about the difference between errors and mistakes. It's interesting how similar these two things can look until you actually talk to students about their thought processes.

Another key issue when it comes to feedback is timing - is it given at the end of a project or while it's in progress (or both). And if in-progress feedback is important (and I firmly believe it is), how can teachers manage this without magically being everywhere at once?

Andrew Miller's picture
Andrew Miller
Educational Consultant and Instructional Coach

Tricia, I think you make a good point about ongoing feedback. The other piece (not written about her) is how can students be part of the feedback process, as well as other adults and experts. Also, related to timing, not everything deserves this type of feedback. It should be about working smarter, not harder!

Tiffany Bixler's picture

This was a great reminder to make students think, question and work for their answers. When we as teachers sit down with students and give them the answers (wholeheartedly trying to help the students), instead of making them think, we are eliminating their opportunity to be successful on their own and the pride/courage that comes from that. Thank you for the reminder to question, prompt, and cue students to help them learn and grow.

Sherry Doyle's picture

Great point regarding focusing on feedback that encourages student thinking in order to avoid "learned helplessness." As teachers, we need to reflect on the long-term effects of our actions, and remember our goal is to challenge and motivate a student to choose to learn and grow to reach his or her full potential. Great insights on the question, prompt, and cueing strategies and a reminder of just how valuable they are to student learning.

Ruby Odai's picture

This is good information for us teachers on how to use some strategies appropriately in the classrooms.Knowing the differences and learning the appropriate use of these strategies can enhance better performance of our students in the class and also improve our personal growth in the profession.

Udaramati Pope's picture

Reference typo for those who want to look it up - it's Dylan Wiliam, not Williams, who wrote Embedded Formative Assessment.

Ellie Cowen's picture
Ellie Cowen
Educator and math specialist

Great post, Andrew -- thanks for sharing! I liked the section on errors vs. mistakes. When I was a math specialist with middle schoolers, I encouraged them to categorize their own mistakes. I gave them a little list with six types, ranging from mislabeled units (think: "meters" instead of "square meters") and arithmetic slips, to more serious process errors. It was a relief to many students to see that their wrong answers weren't indicative of failure -- and a wake-up call to others that they hadn't mastered a concept yet, and needed to spend more time with it!

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