Here’s a common scenario: Mara doesn’t know how things got so bad, so fast. Ninth grade started just a couple of months ago, and she’s already close to failing three classes. Last night, her mother saw her English grade, got really angry, and told her to ask for help from the teacher.
What Mara’s mother doesn’t realize is how challenging that will be. Mara is having a hard time understanding why she got Ds on her first two essays, especially after she looked over both assignments carefully and did her best. Her teacher gets irritated sometimes, and Mara is afraid that if she tells him that she cannot understand how to do well, she will make him mad. Besides, she can’t keep giving a class so much energy if she keeps getting nowhere. She doesn’t know what to do.
Many middle and high school students find it difficult to achieve and maintain success. Juggling an increasingly demanding course load presents heightened friction for kids who are in the transitional stages of sixth and ninth grade. As the year progresses and demands on time increase, it also gets harder for teachers to know how to support struggling students. Tapping into the power of streamlined feedback strategies can help everyone remain focused on the learning target.
‘I Do, We Do, You Do’
When students learn new skills, they often do better with a gradual release of teacher-directed instruction. Many classrooms follow an “I Do, You Do” model and skip the middle step: “We Do.” For example, an English teacher might model writing a specific kind of sentence for students and then say, “It’s your turn.” The expectation with this “I Do, You Do” teaching style is that students can immediately apply a new learning skill by seeing it in action.
However, the problem is that many students need more time to process information. Instead, if the class tries a “We Do” approach for a few minutes to write their sentences collaboratively (perhaps in small groups and with teacher support), that provides more opportunity for discussion around areas of confusion.
With “We Do,” the feedback process becomes far richer. Art teacher Brandon Ryan shared a practice with me that he finds essential in having students understand how feedback directly comes from having clear learning criteria: “Before we start working, we review the criteria for success as a whole group, and it stays visible while students are working. I have students work in table groups or pairs to analyze one another’s work and determine if the criteria have been met. We do whole group critiques where we look at two or three student examples as a class in order to give objective feedback to the student who created it.”
As a result, students understand how to be successful, what to do next if they encounter struggle, and best of all, benefit from the energy and productivity that comes from normalizing learning as a process.
Higher-order questions, which spur student thinking by taking the learning in a more complex direction to promote critical thinking, are too often underrated as a strategy for uncovering important information. At the close of nearly every class I teach, I ask students to write an open-ended question on a small slip of paper, which also serves as their exit ticket. Content-based questions reveal just as much about what students understand as what they do not and provide a necessary window into how to proceed next with instruction.
For students who are afraid to ask the teacher for help and are consequently struggling in class, the process of anonymously writing questions at the end of class provides a risk-free avenue to getting some clarity. It is therefore tremendously important that teachers follow up with answers in a timely manner and that they validate all questions as being vital pathways to learning so that kids don’t have any reason to feel that their questions were considered worthless.
With the consistent knowledge of where all kids in the room stand with daily learning, the class momentum will be far more consistent, as the teacher is able to address concerns and issues before they snowball. All students need this kind of regular check-in, but it is especially helpful for students who either are new to a school or have differentiated needs.
When teachers get bogged down in grading a large number of assignments, students do not receive feedback in time to make necessary adjustments to their understanding and are therefore more likely to give up. Providing feedback is not synonymous with giving a grade, and the value in letting students know where they stand informs their future success. Deciding which assignments deserve a grade and which exist solely to give the teacher data requires some discernment, but it’s well worth the effort. As for student pushback about not getting graded on everything, they will not be as vocally opposed to feedback for its own sake once they see the value of correcting their mistakes before their work is evaluated.
Suppose a sixth-grade science teacher wants to assess how accurately students identify mutually beneficial relationships within ecosystems by asking them to make a list of such interactions among organisms. Rather than grade the assignment or spend time making numerous comments, the teacher can divide student understanding into two categories labeled “Met” and “Not Yet.” Then, looking for overall patterns, the teacher makes notes about what mistakes students who are in the “Not Yet” category seem to encounter and uses that information to guide next steps.
This process is short and direct and provides the sort of visibility about student outcomes that makes instruction more relevant. In addition, students receive far more incisive feedback that helps them improve before a higher-stakes opportunity presents itself in terms of grades, and they are therefore less likely to get bogged down in a sense of failure.
Thinking back to Mara and her discouragement, imagine that her English teacher has engaged in even just one of the feedback strategies suggested above. She will have a much better idea of why she is failing, or perhaps she will not be failing at all. It just takes effective feedback processes to help a new secondary student—or any student, for that matter—understand how to be successful and maintain that momentum through the school year and beyond.