George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

3 Ways to Encourage ‘Coasting’ Students to Reach Their Full Potential

Students who are doing well—but could be doing much better—benefit from feedback that encourages self-monitoring.

December 21, 2021
High school student raises his hand in class
skynesher / iStock

There are a number of students who are commonly found to be in the place of high proficiency in their learning but demonstrate low growth in terms of their progress. They meet deadlines, support others in their work, and take the lead on projects, but their busyness doesn’t always yield the growth one would or should expect for these children.

Such students require instruction that is, in many ways, different from the approach when learners are working to reach the basic facts and skills of a subject. Interestingly, students who are typically in the situation of high achievement/low growth don’t require a separate class or shift in grade level. Moreover, they don’t need more of the same—more homework and reinforcing their understanding by helping others.

What these students need are subtle shifts in tasks, instruction, and feedback. One of the best ways to start making the impact we desire for students when they are cruising along the high-achieving/low-growth phase of learning is to differentiate our feedback.

While feedback for emerging learners is found to be best when it’s corrective and prescriptive, these approaches are less than ideal for students as they gain proficiency. Often, the feedback that people who have gained proficiency but show low growth need is designed to focus on self-monitoring performance, making and reflecting upon self-correction, and receiving feedback on how to take proactive steps for future challenges. They need feedback by approximation, not precision.

3 Strategies to Support Coasting Students

Strategy 1 Nudge. Provide just enough feedback for students to self-monitor and take action in their learning. As students gain proficiency, they need less direct feedback related to their performance on a task and more feedback tied to their own ability to detect errors, monitor their performance, and find ways to take initiative on their own learning.

The following daily teacher actions help nudge students toward those dispositions.

  • One of many is incorrect: In lieu of sharing with students which question is wrong and what to do, share that one of the questions is wrong or could be improved. Give the student a few minutes to inspect their own work and determine next steps. Have students share with you (or others) which answer was incorrect, why the error occurred, and next steps they will take to improve.
  • Sticky notes protocol: Provide corrective feedback on a few sticky notes for a group of students on a task. Give the group those sticky notes, and ask them to figure out which comment goes to which task. Listen to their level of clarity and feedback to each other.
  • Dots, not comments: Place a dot near an error on a task, and give the work back to the student. Once the student receives the work, share that the dots provide a clue for the proximity of a place to improve. Debrief with the student after 5 or 10 minutes to determine if they detected the error and how they fixed the problem. Focus your feedback on their efficacy of detection skills with their own work. (Did they analyze the task? Did they review work samples?)

Strategy 2: Establish social norms. Ensure that collaborative agreements and processes are in place so that peer-to-peer feedback is accurate and helpful in students’ deciding next steps. With feedback, we need to shift away from the gradual release of responsibility to center on the need to cultivate the mutual responsibility of learning. Instead of shifting from teacher-centric feedback (“I do”) to student-centric feedback (“you do”), we need to focus on the learning-centered environment (“we do”).

One way to start this work is by refining peer-to-peer feedback. Graham Nuthall’s research has shown that students often receive and use feedback from their friends. Interestingly, he found that most peer feedback is inaccurate. To rectify this, we need to prepare students to give and receive accurate feedback.

We can support students by engaging in the following actions.

  • Feedback protocols: Establish a structured way to have a feedback conversation. Examples include a tuning protocol, critical friends, and a Charrette protocol. As a teacher, our role is to monitor the quality and accuracy of feedback.
  • Consultancy protocol: Small groups review a student’s current work and offer ways to help the student improve their learning. Establishing the norm of having students share their own challenges and having others use inquiry to enhance the students’ learning is a great way to improve the whole group’s achievement.
  • Game film: Record the student engaging in a presentation or discussion, and ask students to reflect on their strengths, opportunities for growth, and next steps.

Strategy 3: Highlight nuance. Focus on range and/or subtle shifts in feedback to promote self-direction and prime creativity.

  • Divergent feedback: Instead of corrective feedback, provide a set of questions that promote creativity. Ask: What would you do differently? How would your response change if the context or conditions changed?  
  • Contextually different work samples: Give students examples of exemplary work in different contexts or task types. For example, if students are focused on persuading others via a podcast, give them the opportunity to evaluate other forms of persuasion, including essays, debates, TED Talks, etc.
  • Open success criteria: If students have met the success criteria on a rubric, give them options to go deeper within the criteria. For example, imagine that students need to include a conclusion when writing an essay. Go to those students who have completed this objective and state that the work would be much better if they used a cliffhanger or metaphor to end the essay.

When the criteria are opened, students see that work can always be improved. This is also an opportunity to ask students what they can do in the future to be proactive in going beyond the requirements of a task.

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  • Formative Assessment
  • Student Engagement
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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