There’s More to Math Feedback Than ‘Correct’ and ‘Incorrect’
Teachers can help students master grade-level content by giving feedback that supports independent learning and progress.
As a new school year starts in person and we focus on the academic growth and well-being of our students during the hardships of an ongoing pandemic, one of the most powerful ways we can leverage our time as educators is by providing students with effective feedback. Since many educators will continue or return to teaching in an online environment, it’s important to note that structured, intentional feedback can raise student achievement in either setting.
When math educators give feedback, we often look to see if an answer is correct or incorrect. However, there are a few adjustments that we can make in order to set students up to be independent learners who make goals and progress on a path of continuous improvement and self-reflection. Teachers can engage students in a feedback loop where the teacher helps their students to be aware of learning goals, collects and analyzes data, confers with their students, and adjusts instruction in a personalized way.
Understand the Qualities of Effective Feedback
John Hattie, a researcher who evaluates the effect sizes of many aspects that affect learning outcomes, identifies that feedback is a high-leverage strategy that increases student achievement if used correctly. In his 2019 book Visible Learning for Teachers, he writes that “the aim is to provide feedback that is ‛just in time,’ ‘just for me,’ ‘just for where I am in my learning process,’ and ‘just what I need to help me move forward.’” In other words, the goal is to offer feedback that is timely, specific, individualized, and ongoing.
Specific feedback can be based on naming what students are doing well as mathematicians, along with their next steps. This will build their confidence, utilize their strengths, and embed an opportunity to celebrate progress. A way to establish timely and individualized feedback is through conferring.
This one-on-one structure of conferences is beneficial for face-to-face and virtual students alike. Conferring uncovers student thinking by letting the student explain how they solved the problem and why, which gives teachers a deeper understanding of each student’s proficiency. This practice can be done easily in a face-to-face classroom but can also be achieved online with tools such as Whiteboard.fi, Nearpod, and Google Jamboard. When on Zoom or Google Meet, these interactive tools allow teachers to talk with students while seeing the student work in real time.
Feedback can be given repeatedly throughout the year in an ongoing manner until students have mastered grade-level content. This ongoing feedback loop allows teachers and students to have purpose and structure in the learning process while providing autonomy and instruction that meets specific student needs.
Change How You Deliver Feedback to Students
The way in which feedback is delivered by teachers and received by students is a vital piece that can determine effectiveness of feedback in the elementary classroom. Professional learning around conferring helps teachers identify the difference between motivating and discouraging feedback.
Before this learning, the feedback that might have been given to students could have been a grade on an assignment that looked something like “76%. Great job here. Need a more thorough answer here.” Students would get their assignment back and be very unlikely to return to their work on their own to reflect or deepen understanding of what they missed.
After doing much work with our elementary reading and writing curriculum in our district and trying to utilize best practices across content areas, we created learning experiences for teachers in which they tried a new approach with math conferring. It consisted of the following four components.
1. Research: “Jaden, can you tell me how you solved this problem?” (Student explains.)
2. Compliment: “Wow, Jaden, can I give you a compliment? You are the kind of mathematician that represents their work in several different ways. I notice you’ve drawn a strip diagram like we learned this week in class, and you even have an equation that matches your representation. That’s what good mathematicians do! I want you to continue this great work.”
3. Teach: “Can I give you a tip? When you are reading through a problem that has multiple steps, it’s important to go back and reread the problem to ensure that you have done all of the parts and that you have answered the question being asked. Go ahead and reread the problem.” (Student does most of the talking, and the teacher facilitates based on student need.)
4. Link: “Whenever you are doing this type of work, remember to reread the problem to ensure that you understand what the question is asking. Here is a note to remind you when you come to another problem that is similar to this one.”
This structure has allowed teachers to connect more deeply with students, both in person and online. Teachers get to know their students on a more personal level and can readily see the difference they are making. When the time and space for continuous intentional feedback is created, it builds student independence and sets classrooms up to make substantial gains with student progress by creating future-ready students who take ownership of their learning.