Week of April 11-15

The Secret to Effective Dylan William

Feedback is only successful if students use it to improve their performance.

It's a universal process in education—so universal that we regularly fail to appreciate its complexity. Here's how it goes: (1) A teacher looks at a piece of student work; (2) The teacher writes something on the work (sometimes a grade, sometimes a score, sometimes a comment); and (3) Later, the student looks at what the teacher has written.

Of course, the idea is that what the teacher has written on the student's work improves the student's learning. But as many studies have shown, students often learn less when teachers provide feedback than they do when the teacher writes nothing (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). The apparently simple process of looking at student work and then giving useful feedback turns out to be much more difficult than most people imagine. We could make the whole process considerably more effective by understanding one central idea: The only important thing about feedback is what students do with it.

Keeping Purpose in Mind

In psychology and education, it is common to define feedback as any actions taken by an external agent to provide individuals with information regarding some aspect of their performance. At its simplest, therefore, feedback might identify the quality of the work, as happens when a typing teacher tells a student that his typing speed is 45 words per minute. More helpfully, the feedback might indicate the gap between the current performance and the desired performance—for example, by also telling the student that his target speed is 50 words per minute. More helpfully still, the teacher might tell the student that his typing speed will increase if he uses only his thumb to depress the space bar. In other words, the best feedback provides information not just about current performance, but also about how to improve future performance.

In the typing example above, and in most sports coaching, this point is obvious. When a coach gives a softball pitcher feedback on her pitching action, it's clear that the purpose of the feedback is to help the player improve her pitches. This is also true in many school subjects. For example, a visual arts teacher might give a student advice on how to develop a piece of sculpture or a painting, and a language arts teacher might give feedback on the draft of a story so the next draft is better.

In general, however (and this is what makes feedback so challenging), the main purpose of feedback is to improve the student's ability to perform tasks he or she has not yet attempted. If the language arts teacher advises the student that his story would be improved by swapping around the third and fourth paragraphs, the student can do this, but he will learn little. The intellectual heavy lifting has been done by the teacher, not the student. Similarly, if a math teacher corrects a student's arithmetic errors, there's nothing left for the student to do but note how many of her calculations were incorrect. It's easy to see why such forms of feedback are unlikely to be effective. And if we don't keep the purpose of feedback in mind, the same problems may also crop up in more subtle ways.

For example, many school districts allow students to revise assessed pieces of work and resubmit them for a higher grade after receiving feedback from teachers. Such a system can create incentives for students to turn in poor-quality work, wait for the teacher to tell them how to improve it, and then just follow the instructions. The feedback has improved the work, but the student has probably not learned much from the process.

The real issue is purpose. Why are we looking at student work in the first place? Sometimes we do want to focus on improving the existing work. For instance, when I'm reading a final thesis draft from one of my PhD students before it goes to the bookbinder, it would be rather perverse for me to just tell the student that I saw a typographical error in one of the equations on page 36. It's possible that the student would learn something by checking the equations on page 36 and locating the error herself, but given this particular context, it would be far more sensible for me to tell the student what the error was.

Most of the time, however, the student work we're looking at is not important in and of itself, but rather for what it can tell us about students—what they can do now, what they might be able to do in the future, or what they need to do next. Looking at student work is essentially an assessment process. We give our students tasks, and from their responses we draw conclusions about the students and their learning needs.

When we realize that most of the time the focus of feedback should be on changing the student rather than changing the work, we can give much more purposeful feedback. If our feedback doesn't change the student in some way, it has probably been a waste of time.

Giving Feedback They Can Use

There's an old joke about a driver lost in a remote region, trying to find a way to get to the city. Eventually, he asks a local about how to get there. The local replies, "Well, if I were you, I wouldn't start from here." It's a joke because we can see that this is not a particularly helpful thing to say. The driver has no other choice but to start from where he is.

Yet, we do this to our students all the time. We say things like, "You should be able to do this. You're in 5th grade"—which, when you think about it, is not helpful. The crucial insight here was captured by David Ausubel (1968) many years ago:

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach … accordingly. (p. vi)

In other words, we need to start from where the learner is, not where we would like the learner to be. We need to use the information we obtain from looking at the student's work—even through that information may be less than perfect—and give feedback that will move the student's learning forward.

A Look at our Week Ahead

Monday: B Day

4th grade Civil War explores the traveling trunk

Child Development travels to Richland Northeast

3:30pm Staff Meeting focusing on Standard 3 AdvancED indicators

Tuesday: C Day

1pm TA State Testing proctor training

This is strictly for proctors and will not include test administrator information. It will include a presentation, answer questions, and sign security forms.

7pm Board meeting at Polo Road

Wednesday: D Day

Upper Montessori leaves for overnight field study

7:30am Tech Team meeting

State Testing training for all 3-5th grade teachers and Sped and Global during planning

Thursday: E Day

7:45am SIC meeting

1pm IAT

3:30pm Calendar meeting for 2016-2017 school year

6:00pm AVID parent night

Friday: F Day

Military PURPLE UP day! Wear your purple in honor of military-connected students.

Understanding Others Day hosted by Special Education department

ESOL students travel to Global Education Day


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