Last week when I picked up my 5-year old daughter from gymnastics I asked how she did. She excitedly replied, “My teacher said I did a good job with my forward rolls, and I need to start working on my strong arms and straight legs in my cartwheels.” During previous weeks, we had similar conversations and had gone home with a clear goal in mind. She had been working on her forward rolls based on the feedback from her instructor—not using her arms to support her to stand, finishing with her arms up, and keeping her knees together. I am consistently impressed with the fact that my daughter has such a clear idea of where she is and what she has to work on to improve. Of course, this type of feedback makes sense; her instructor can’t quantify her achievement. Her instructor also wouldn’t think to tell her she had a C+ and just send her on her way. Instead, she helps my daughter set attainable goals and provides her with next steps for improvement.
My drive home from gymnastics had me wondering how we got to a place in education where giving students a “B” (or any other letter) on an assessment became an acceptable form of feedback. Did the students know what their next steps in learning should be? Were they aware of their strengths and weaknesses? Did the students know what their end goals were? When utilized effectively, feedback is powerful. It has been described as, “the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement.” (Hattie, 1999)
As educators, we look for this same type of feedback from our administrators during our evaluations. If a singular letter grade or symbol was delivered after an evaluation, frustration would ensue. In order to grow as educators and learners, we need to know: What were my strengths? What were my weaknesses? What am I supposed to do to improve next time? We look for guidance and direction from our administrators, as our students do from us. We also appreciate them taking a look at the process instead of just the product. We don’t want a single snapshot into our classroom to determine our value as a teacher. Like good coaches and administrators, educators see the value of ongoing assessment and meaningful, specific, personalized feedback that guides the learning and teaching process. It is time that we change the way we provide feedback to our students to make it more meaningful. So how can we provide this feedback – the kind that inspires, that students listen to, and the kind that promotes growth?
- Feedback should relate to our learning targets
As teachers, we want to be transparent in our teaching. As we know, a target is much easier to hit when we know where it is. Students need to know what the end goal of their learning should be and how they are going to get there. Thus, when we provide feedback, it needs to be centered around the learning targets. We too often get distracted by the student’s mistakes and communicating what they did wrong. These mistakes should definitely be addressed, but just like my daughter in gymnastics class, the student needs to know the next step. Communicating what’s wrong doesn’t explain how to be right.
- Feedback should be student friendly
If our feedback is too complex or sophisticated, the feedback will lose its value. We need to make it manageable for our students and easy to understand, while not overwhelming them. The existence of feedback is simply not enough. Feedback must be accessible to students so that doing something with the feedback is more likely. Wiggins (2012) says, “That’s how we learn to walk; to hold a spoon; and to understand that certain words magically yield food, drink, or a change of clothes from big people. The best feedback is so tangible that anyone who has a goal can learn from it.”
- Feedback should be actionable
When students receive their feedback, they should know definitively what the next steps in learning are. Through actionable feedback, we can acknowledge correct understanding while guiding future thinking. Students should understand what they did right and what they need to do next. As well, we want to look forward instead of backwards. Instead of identifying what was done wrong, we should tell students the steps they need to take to improve their learning. Just as we use formative assessment to adjust our instruction, students should be able to use the feedback from formative assessment to adjust and guide their learning.
- Feedback should be timely
If we want students to be reflective, students will need timely feedback. If we want to create reflective learners, assessment should be ongoing and feedback should timely. A student receiving feedback a week after an assessment will not have time to reflect and grow. In fact, they have probably already moved onto learning a new topic.
- Feedback should be ongoing
The effect of assessment for learning on student achievement is approximately four to five times greater than the reduction of class size (Ehrenberg, Brewer, Gamoran, & Willms, 2001). We want to make sure that we are continuing the teach – assess – feedback loop to develop that growth mindset in our students. Assessment should not stop the learning, but should be imbedded into the learning process. If we are constantly communicating with our students, they are constantly growing.
- Students are active participants in the feedback process
At it’s best, our feedback will allow students to take ownership over their own learning to be more reflective learners and effective goal setters. Increased feedback does not mean that the teacher is simply identifying the student’s mistakes and telling them what to do next. We are just narrowing the target and guiding the students’ learning.
It is time that we start using our feedback to help inspire our students to grow and not limit our feedback to a number or a letter. We have the power to create reflective students who know what they are learning and how to succeed. Let’s create learners who have a growth mindset and who OWN their learning. We owe that to our students.
Hattie, J 1999, Influences on Student Learning. Inaugural Lecture: Professor of Education, University of Auckland (downloaded August 2015 from https://cdn.auckland.ac.nz/assets/education/hattie/docs/influences-on-student-learning.pdf)
Ehrenberg, R. G., Brewer, D. J., Gamoran, A. & Willms, J. D. (2001). The class size controversy (CHERI Working Paper #14). Retrieved August 2015, from Cornell University, ILR School site: http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/workingpapers/25/
Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16.