Student Voice

How to Avoid the ‘Feedback Hole’

Students may become reluctant to share their thoughts if their teacher and peers don’t seem to listen. These strategies make the value of their thoughts clear.

December 22, 2023
Maria Carluccio / The iSpot

Two students sit in class together, peer-reviewing one another’s work. “Your project is really good,” Lila says, handing it back to her classmate with a shrug. “I don’t really have anything to add.”

In a classroom down the hall, as the teacher shares a link to an online survey with his class, a student sighs and turns to her friend. “I’m not going to fill out another pointless exit survey. It’s not like Mr. Davies ever looks at what we say.”

When kids are asked to voice their thoughts, they often have negative feelings about the process. Many of them have fallen into what I call the “feedback hole,” which occurs when students share their opinions and see no subsequent evidence that their teachers or classmates listened to them. If that happens often enough, a sense of disenfranchisement can emerge that feels irreversible.

To restore faith in the power of qualitative voice data (data that is grounded not in numbers but in information, such as survey results or exit ticket responses), a process known as “feedback on feedback” creates authentic connections among students and teachers by valuing what kids contribute and prioritizing follow-through on the ideas they share.

Student-to-Student feedback

“In a minute, you’re going to peer-review your partner’s project,” Mr. Adams tells his seventh-grade life science class. “Please follow the handout and make sure you give them a suggestion or comment on each item. This should take at least 15 minutes.”

A student raises her hand. “Then why are we reviewing projects for the entire class period?”

“Great question,” Mr. Adams says. “Once we’re finished with this first step, everyone will have time to respond to at least one suggestion from their partner. That makes it easier to show them what you’ve revised or where you might be confused, and to take full advantage of their feedback.”

Another student asks, “What if we don’t agree with what they want us to do?”

“That’s totally fine, but you still want to explain your thinking and have a conversation about it so that you can understand one another. In the last 10 minutes of the period, we’ll debrief as a class to discuss what was helpful about this activity and what you’d like to do next.”

In this scenario, students experience a comprehensive peer-review process that allows them to engage with feedback in a way that prevents possible miscommunication and facilitates meaningful follow-through. Mr. Adams has built a learning environment where it’s not enough for students to give one another feedback and hope that classmates listen or understand what to do. Instead, the process is designed to prioritize feedback on feedback so that students can see the direct impact their suggestions have on one another’s work and are therefore able to improve their projects on the spot. 

To add another layer to the peer-review process, teachers can encourage students to ask open-ended questions about one another’s work instead of making statements. This practice is conducive to inquiry and elicits a higher degree of critical thinking.

Suppose two students are looking at one another’s slideshows for an upcoming presentation. Rather than say something like, “Your slides have a lot of text,” a student should think about how an interrogative statement might be more helpful, like “How can you create more balance between the visuals you include and the information you share in the bullet points on each slide?” That way, the student receiving the suggestion must respond and address the concern in a way that closes the feedback loop and creates a stronger end product.

Once students have had a chance to finish their peer reviews, the teacher can bring everyone back together to debrief with discussion prompts that encourage critical thinking, such as “Share a suggestion your partner made that helped you make your work better.”

Teacher-to-Student feedback

“OK,” Dr. Ramirez says, pulling up a slide on the smart board. “At the end of class yesterday, here’s what you all told me about the test review.”

The slide is divided into two parts. The left-hand side of the slide is titled, “You Said,” and the right side is titled, “So We Will…”

“You said that the review sheet I gave you was a little boring to study and suggested gamifying the process,” Dr. Ramirez says as she points at the slide, “so we will explore a way to do a class-generated quiz the next time we have a review.”

With so little time in the day, teachers tend not to solicit student feedback at all, or if they do, they struggle to make changes that address what students shared. Teacher-to-student feedback on feedback is a quick yet effective strategy that works best after a learning objective has been completed or a unit has ended. When I engage students in this process, I ask them to share the following on a slip of paper or index card:

  1. What has been helpful for your learning?
  2. What is getting in the way of your learning?
  3. Share any lingering questions or concerns.

Once students have shared their responses, I go through each piece of feedback carefully. The next day (immediacy is important), the class gets a summary of their feedback, and then I share what will change as a result or what cannot change. With the latter, I need to thoroughly explain why I can’t always make requested adjustments.

For example, if students ask to complete a project in groups instead of individually, that might not fit the upcoming content standard they need to meet in the best way, or it might be a great suggestion that can be adopted in the near future. Either way, the class understands that their feedback is heard and that the teacher cares about their opinions, which works wonders for improving their sense of validity as contributors to the classroom community.

We all want our opinions to matter. When there is tangible evidence that people are listening to us, we feel more valuable and appreciated, not just for our contributions but also for the roles we inhabit within a school. That level of affirmation is powerful enough to allay student burnout, increase overall investment in a learning community, and create relationships that are built on genuine understanding.

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