Formative Assessment

Feedback That Fosters Growth

Teachers can give feedback that produces learning growth by making sure it’s meaningful and directed at the skill rather than the student.

February 2, 2023
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Teachers are all generally aligned on the purpose of feedback. We want our students to grow and learn. So we ask ourselves, “What action, based on the feedback, will result in growth?” Practices surrounding feedback are widely varied, and extremes are pretty common.

Feedback is sometimes limited to “Nice job!” or the opposite, where the page is covered in red ink. Though well-intentioned, neither is conducive to action on the part of the student. And feedback is often given long after the opportunity for action or significant impact on learning. Students receive feedback either after the assignment has closed, so no changes can be made, or too far from when they did the work, so they can’t really acquire the learning that’s intended. 

Finally, feedback is too often directed at the person instead of the skill, which can feel personal and less like part of a learning journey.

Enter third point feedback. By focusing the feedback on a specific skill or goal, we can target immediate action steps. The reality is that the more targeted and skill-oriented the feedback is, the more the student learns. And that’s the goal of feedback—growth.

Third point feedback

What is third point feedback? A third point is something tangible that takes the focus off the two people involved in the conversation. This concept has been used in coaching circles for a while now. The idea is that feedback is less threatening and people are more receptive to receiving feedback when the focus is not on them, but instead on the skill they’re trying to achieve.

A key factor is that the third point should be a physical thing that represents what you’re trying to assess—the rubric for the assignment, a sticky note, the essay they wrote, the graph they drew, your notes from a speech they gave—something tangible that can be referred back to and held as the goal center point for the conversation.

This is particularly powerful for peer-to-peer feedback. Crafting language that doesn’t make people defensive is a skill that most kids haven’t yet mastered, so offering them an objective tool to help frame and focus their thoughts can be effective.

Even in self-assessment, students can feel deflated when they count the number of math problems they got wrong. It’s really powerful to redirect from a generalized feeling of failure to a specific list of skills as a third point, outlining what they’re working on. This makes it very clear what exactly needs to be developed and what they’ve already achieved.  

Strategies for giving feedback

Consider these options as a third point for centering feedback:

  • The use of a single point rubric. This will offer students something very targeted to look for or for you to give feedback on. Are there other things that need to be worked on? Yes. Can you acquire the learning on all of them at once? No.
  • The use of a guiding question. Though there may be many pieces involved in the learning, the guiding question serves as a central point for discussion around action steps and growth.
  • The use of a single paragraph from a larger work as the third point. We might even consider layers of feedback, selecting a paragraph to self-review, along with one for a peer and one for the teacher.

Any combination of these will offer focused action for a student to improve their skills. Letting the student choose what elements and skills to get feedback on is something to consider, as self-directed learning at certain times is the most impactful. 

Changing our language

Let’s consider for a minute the crux of third point feedback. It’s not about the person, it’s about the learning. The words we use are important. If we’re focusing on the skill, avoid using “you.” This is really hard to do. Though we’re often hardwired for taking ownership through our language, there are lots of other ways to put the focus where the learning is.

The books What We Say and How We Say It Matter and Students at the Center both offer some detailed advice on conversations with students and language for feedback. Two key examples: Instead of “Good job!” say “Wow! You did [enter skill here]!” and instead of “I like the way you worked so hard,” say “You made a lot of progress on that assignment. What helped?” Many students are capable of self-reporting the difference between this time working on a task and the last. That’s clear growth for them to see.

Realities that make effective feedback hard

The reality is that educators are too short on time and there’s too much to teach. Additionally, behavior can dominate over academics. The reality that every kid is different and targeted feedback is needed is daunting. We have no time to waste. Third point feedback is a strategy that can lighten the load a little while deepening the impact. After all, what are we giving all the feedback for if it isn’t resulting in the maximum amount of learning possible?

The bottom line is, have your students do something with the feedback as part of the learning process. If feedback is given, it’s more effective if it’s actionable, reasonable, and not personal. Empower students to be informed about what they’re gaining. Self-reporting progress is one of the most powerful things we can offer them, and using a third point keeps it objective and focused.

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