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We don't know what we don't know, but with help, that can change. Feedback is key to learning. Growth occurs when someone offers a perspective that causes a person to reconsider his or her current stance. The impact of high-quality assessments is partially lost unless feedback is targeted and timely so that the information received is purposeful to the individual's needs. The same principle applies for students. Here are some guides to ensuring great returns on formative assessments.

1. Be Constructive, Kind, and Specific

What if during a professional evaluation, a supervisor spent the entire meeting discussing the problems in performance? How would the employee likely feel? Answer: diminished and lacking confidence in his or her capabilities. This is how students feel when they are only told the errors. Soon, they will likely tune out the conversation and miss what's needed.

When receiving constructive feedback, learners need to know what they did well and whether their understanding is on target. Recognizing what's working reinforces those practices. Too often the inclination is to focus only on what's missing or underdeveloped. These concerns do need to be addressed, but receiving the message is just as important as delivering it.

Start with what's working.

This is a much kinder approach because individuals feel that their efforts are productive and their time is well spent. They become more receptive to dialogue about what skills and concepts are missing. Word choice is important to feedback. Consider using these starter stems to frame coaching students on giving constructive feedback:

  • I like. . .
  • I notice. . .
  • I wonder. . .
  • What if. . .

Kindness doesn't mean avoiding critique.

Ask, "What kinds of details -- facts, examples, or illustrations -- would help your reader better understand your position?" It's more helpful than saying, "You need to show more effort in your writing if you want readers to value your position." How we phrase feedback impacts how it's received.

Relevant feedback makes the most sense.

Specificity of feedback helps the person understand its relevance. As with the quoted example above, focusing on the specific kinds of details that will be most helpful illuminates a clear direction. Vague feedback leaves behind confusion and resentment.

Combining these three components -- constructiveness, kindness, and specificity -- helps establish a strong working relationship between those giving and receiving feedback.

2. Reflections, Then Revisions

A common concern expressed by teachers is that when students are given back assignments they've handed in, they don't look at the comments. We need to teach them how to reflect on feedback. For years, students are conditioned to look for a grade as the only value of a returned assignment. This tends to occur when no time for thoughtful reflection is provided. Consider:

  • Taking 5-10 minutes to have students review comments through a think-pair-reflect activity
  • Using guiding questions or thinking maps for students to review and reflect on feedback

One teacher passes back assignments with no grades, just comments. Students reflect on the feedback. The grade is provided later. Reflection in small groups, alone, or with the teacher helps students find areas to replicate what they know and address areas that are missing what's needed.

Revision opportunities lead to learning, once reflection occurs with sufficient time. The act of making changes after reflection gives students the chance to reevaluate what they now understand. If we break the cycle of accepting assignments without requiring revisions, students will develop a new culture for practice. First drafts are rough caricatures of achievement. True learning results from reflections, then revisions.

3. Next-Day Service

Feedback should be within 24-48 hours. This idea seems overwhelming for a teacher who sees 150-200 students in a day. But if students wait too long for feedback, they risk losing the context for the valued learning of the work. Strive to attain this response time as a goal, not a policy. With diligence, successes will happen when students need them most.

As Grant Wiggins noted, feedback doesn't have to be solely from the teacher. For example, there could be informal conversations or peer reflections. Technology supports feedback via discussion boards, comments, and videoconferences. Formal feedback needs to be strategically used for greatest impact. Stagger assignments to give yourself manageable, daily portions of student work for review. For greater learning impact, if the turnaround response time is longer than 48 hours, consider rethinking the assessment or narrowing the focus of the outcome.

"Slow is smooth and smooth is fast."
-- Stephen Hunter, The 47th Samurai

Hunter's quote about skill building is wisdom for rebuilding a culture that shifts students' value of feedback. Incorporating these elements take patience and time both in practice and buy-in. Start slow if you feel that need. For many grade levels, teachers must undo a mindset that's become well established from years of being a student whose first draft is the final draft. Undoing this mindset and that of the posted grade as the only valuable data means providing the rationale for the power of feedback and committing the time for powerful feedback experiences.

Start with one of the sections above. Build on this foundation with these feedback resources. Ask colleagues for feedback. Comment here or tweet me for feedback, and I'll respond in a timely fashion. The commitment to these concepts will empower your students as even more thoughtful learners.

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Sponsored by Scholastic
Checking for Understanding
Sponsored by Scholastic, this series offers tips to use formative assessment through feedback, student reflection, and sharing processing strategies.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

Great suggestions here. I have learned that if I take the time to help my students understand WHY I spend so much time giving them written feedback on their work, they are more likely to take the time to read and use my suggestions. I tell them my red pen marks are like a big red bow -- my gift to them -- so they can improve. They laugh at that, but I point out that I could easily just return their work with a grade on top and no comments (hello, weekend fun!), and they all say they wouldn't like that because they wouldn't know why they earned that grade. Eventually they come to me asking for more feedback so they can improve. It's more than just good feedback -- it's also teaching why our feedback matters.

Joe Montuori's picture
Joe Montuori
Instructional Technology Coach & Social Studies Teacher

I found this post very helpful in rethinking feedback and assessment of student writing. I'd love to hear suggestions for improving these in our school's very competitive, high-achieving culture, in which students often argue for more points, rather than guidance, and teacher feedback often takes a critical, almost defensive, stance. Generally, the opportunity for revision is discounted by some teachers for fear that parents and tutors will do the work. In-class, on-demand writing is the default written assignment for these colleagues.

I think giving students the opportunity to revise outside of class -- and the benefit of the doubt on academic honesty -- outweighs the potential downsides. Can anyone offer help in making this argument to my colleagues/clients?

Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Joe,
I think that you've really hit upon one of the challenges of teaching and learning in high pressure environments. It sounds like an interesting place to work! For what it's worth, I agree with you. In fact, in my district in Australia, there is an explicit requirement for different kinds of assessment tasks - they can't all just be the same type. This gives all students the chance to show their particular strengths - after all, sometimes being fast isn't the same as being good. As for academic honesty - I think there are two ways to approach this. Firstly, by creating a culture of integrity in the school (which can be tough as a single teacher), but also by knowing your students well enough to know what they are and aren't capable of. Is that an option in your school?

Mia's picture

As I sat in my classroom this afternoon correcting assignments, I was thinking many of these same thoughts you spoke of while scribing my lengthy notes to my students. It takes a great deal of time to add the many comments to my students' papers, and I always wonder if they truly take the time to read them all and absorb the messages that I am providing them. I have tried the strategy in the past of giving my students a number of minutes to read the comments, but I have struggled with believing that they are truly being reflective. For this reason, I appreciate your suggestion of passing back just the comments on one day and allowing students to make revisions before giving them their final grades. I believe this will lead to more reflective students who understand the importance of learning through revision.

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Crystal's picture

This is a great information for me to share at my next collaborative team meeting. We have spent the last two months discussing how important it is for the students to receive immediate feedback to guide their learning. My students are very interested to read the comments that are on their finished products. I will use your suggestion about giving feedback without a grade. This will allow for my students to be reflective. I have noticed that my students did not make the corrections on the next task after reading the comments on the graded assignments. Therefore, I appreciate your suggestion of allow the students time to revise their work before grading it. Our common goal is to help our student to learn and understand what we are learning.

Arlene's picture

What a wonderful reminder! I particularly benefited from the second idea that reflection must precede revisions. Sometimes we, as teachers, have the tendency to point out a mistake, show our students how to correct them, and expect them to make the necessary changes right away. There is no time to think in such a procedure. The action taken by the student in this case is almost mechanic. Allowing time for them to process the new information is crucial.

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