Seven Strategies for Improving Student Feedback

We know feedback is important. But what happens when students ignore it? In this article and podcast, we explore how to integrate feedback into every part of the learning process so that students can increase in metacognition during their PBL and design thinking projects.

 

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When Feedback Goes Unnoticed

We’ve all been there before. You sit down in front of a Google Document and leave tons of specific comments only to realize that the student didn’t even bother to open up the document again. Or maybe you leave specific comments on essays only to watch students check their grades and then immediately toss the essays in the recycle bin. Students often view feedback as something that occurs after the learning is over. However, authentic feedback is an integrated part of the learning process.

Feedback is critical for building metacognition. If you look at the metacognition cycle, students need to be able to assess the task, determine their strengths and weaknesses, plan their approach, implement strategies (while also modifying and adjusting), and then reflect on their progress. This type of metacognition requires students to know how they are doing.

Here’s where the feedback comes in. Through self-assessment, peer feedback, and teacher feedback, students gain a deeper understanding of their progress. They can then plan for their learning, making frequent adjustments along the way. This is especially true with project-based learning and design thinking, where the learning is iterative. Students engage in tons of tiny experiments, making little tweaks to both the process and the product. Here, the feedback should fuel the learning.

Unfortunately, I’ve had moments when this didn’t happen. I remember crafting projects where the only true feedback occurred at the very end when I filled out a rubric. When I first created a makerspace, I remember focusing so much on the hands-on side of learning that I never asked students to self-reflect or to offer any kind of peer feedback. When we hit a time crunch, I had an easy time justifying prototyping but a harder time justifying feedback and revision.

However, I also had times when students made the most out of feedback. In these moments, they grew in their understanding of the concepts and the skills within the standards. They internalized the design process and grew as creative thinkers. They improved in their craft, whether it was in multimedia design or in coding. But more importantly, they began to develop a growth mindset.

 

Seven Strategies for Improving Student Feedback

The following are some ideas for how we can integrate student feedback into the learning process. This is based on trial and error (in other words, I’ve made tons of mistakes in this area) but also from observing other teachers who are really strategic about how they use feedback in project-based learning.

#1: Explain the purpose of the feedback

Right now, I’m sitting at a Starbucks with my laptop open, reading a student’s initial unit plan. Her initial concept is genius and I’m convinced this set of lessons could be stellar. However, she still struggles with objectives and she hasn’t thought strategically about how to vary the grouping. I also wonder if she’s being too optimistic about how quickly her students will accomplish the task. Right now, my feedback is on the craft of her lesson. How does this initial lesson look and what does she need to do to improve it? In this moment, the feedback is very product-driven. Other times, however, I will focus my feedback on the process or on the acquisition of a skill.

As we think of the larger scope of feedback, it’s important for students to know what they are receiving feedback on and why it’s important. You might provide students feedback on their ability to use the design thinking process in a project. Or you might provide feedback on their current product so that they can continue to revise and improve it. Or you might focus more on the standards themselves, asking students to identify key areas where they need to improve.

Here’s where it helps to be explicit with students by saying something like, “I’m not going to give you feedback on your documentary right now but I’d like to talk to you about how the process is going, so that you can figure out how you might use this process in the future.” Or you might say something like, “We’re going to take a look at your current progress on your project and compare it to your initial project management document so that you can see if you are on schedule.” Note how this includes both the rationale for feedback and the parameters for it.

#2: Don’t provide a grade with your feedback.

In my experience, when I provided a grade with the feedback, my students focused almost entirely on the grade and not on the feedback. This was true for rubrics, for checklists, or for overall grades on things like blog posts or documentaries. Jennifer Gonzalez has an excellent thought-provoking post on this topic. She suggests the following steps:

  • Write comments on student work and write the grade on the rubric separately
  • Return just the papers to the students.
  • Have the students read your feedback and write three observations and two questions based on your feedback
  • Have the students use the rubric to give themselves a grade.
  • Conference one-on-one with students and have them share their rubric while you share your rubric with them. This helps clarify any misunderstandings they might have.
  • Give them a chance to revise their work.

I’ve actually been using a modified version of this with my current pre-service teachers as they develop their lesson plans and unit plans. As a result, each teacher candidate has a clear sense of what they know, what they don’t know, and what they will do to improve.

#3: Provide revision time in class.

Often, in education, we value speed and accuracy more than depth and mastery. Students take timed math tests and focus on fluency in reading. They watch the tight time deadlines, knowing that if they fall behind, they’ll be seen as slow. I’ve seen some students struggle with the whole idea of revision because they’ve rarely needed to revise their work at school. But if we want students to make sense out of feedback, we need to block out time for revision.

This is why I love using project-based learning and design thinking. Both of these frameworks include a section for student revision. This is possible, because they spend less time in direct instruction and they are often learning multiple standards at the same time. Students in a PBL classroom are also assessing as they go rather than stopping to take a multiple choice test. In the process, they gain additional time to focus on making sense out of their feedback and using it to revise their projects. Here, students begin to view revision as an iterative part of the process rather than a punishment for getting things wrong.

#4: Build bridges from feedback to revision.

Ask your students the question, “What are you going to do with this feedback?” Often, they struggle with this. In their schooling experiences, they have typically had a grade and walked away. Or, in some cases, they had a teacher who told them, “Use _________ feedback for __________ revision.” The goal, though, is for students to become self-directed. If they understand the purpose of the feedback, they are better able to make modifications, set goals, and own the learning process.

#5: Use a mix of feedback tools.

Use a variety of tools and structures to guide students in the feedback process. Vary it between open-ended and tight, diagnostic and descriptive, qualitative and quantitative. You get the idea.

  • Tracking Goals: Students create their own goals. These can be quantitative or qualitative. Then they keep track of the progress. It might mean a graph, a progress bar, or simply a description of progress.
  • Self-reflections: Here students answer reflective questions about what they are learning, where they are struggling, and what they need to do next.
  • Verbal Feedback with Sentence Stems: Students can engage in meaningful feedback through open-ended reflection questions, where they share their insights with a partner or a group. They can also use diagnostic questions to figure out what they need to improve or they can compare and contrast strategies.
  • Structured Feedback:  Here students use a visual or a graphic organizer to guide them in the feedback process. It might complete a SWOT assessment (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats), a carousel activity, a see-think-wonder, or a 3-2-1 feedback document. It could be any number of quick, visually-structured self-assessments, group assessments, or peer assessments.
  • Student Surveys: Sometimes students struggle with open-ended self-reflection questions. Surveys provide a blend of the objective and the subjective. So, they might use a Likert scale, selecting specific words from a bank, or ranking items. This added structure helps students make sense out of something that can feel abstract.
  • Self-Assessment Rubrics: Students are able to look at the progression from emerging to mastering with specific descriptions in various categories. They are able to gain an accurate view of how they are doing, while also having a clear picture of where they need to be.
  • Checklists: These can be a powerful diagnostic tool that students use before, during, and after a task. Pilots, doctors, and engineers all use checklists as a way to determine whether their work has fit specific criteria. When students use checklists, they are learning how to make sense out of systems. There’s actually a great book on checklists called The Checklist Manifesto that I highly recommend.

#6: Vary the Grouping

If you visit a skatepark, you’ll notice that feedback is happening everywhere. Some of it is verbal, with skaters offering tips for one another in how to accomplish a trick. Sometimes, a skater will simply need another set of eyes. Other times, they might videotape a trick and analyze it to figure out what to do next. But the reality is that nobody at the skatepark depends solely on experts and coaches for feedback. They are constantly engaging in self-assessment.

According to John Hattie, self-assessment and self-grading are two of the most powerful educational interventions (learn more here and here). This makes sense. Self-assessment increases student ownership and self-awareness. Students are able to assess what they know, what they don’t know, and what they will do in the future. This, in turn, boosts metacognition. You can find some of these self-assessments in the toolkit at the bottom of this post.

It also helps to use peer-assessment. I use a twenty-minute peer conferencing system. Similar to Critical Friends, this structure helps students engage in constructive criticism and honest feedback on one another’s work. This creates a culture of collaboration and sends the message that vulnerability and candor are valuable in a classroom setting.  You can download the full resource by signing up for my newsletter and for the assessment toolkit at the bottom of this post.

Here’s how the structure works:

Part One:

Time
Phase
Description
Directions for Partner A
Directions for Partner B
0-2
Elevator Pitch
Partner A explains the process, product or idea in two minutes
Explain your process, product or idea
Take notes on what you are hearing or listen actively
2-4
Clarifying Questions
Partner B asks clarifying questions without giving any feedback
Answer clarifying questions
Ask clarifying questions
4-6
Feedback
Partner B gives feedback to Partner A
Take notes on the specific feedback you have gotten
Offer feedback in the form of two things that worked well and one idea for an improvement
6-8
Paraphrase
Partner A paraphrases what he or she has heard from Partner B
Paraphrase what you have heard
Listen to see if the paraphrased information is correct
8-10
Next Steps
Partner A makes a list of future revisions
Make a list of future revisions
Check the list of revisions

Part Two:

Time
Phase
Description
Directions for Partner A
Directions for Partner B
10-12
Elevator Pitch
Partner B explains the process, product or idea in two minutes
Take notes on what you are hearing or listen actively
Explain your process, product or idea
12-14
Clarifying Questions
Partner A asks clarifying questions without giving any feedback
Ask clarifying questions
Answer clarifying questions
14-16
Feedback
Partner A gives feedback to Partner B
Offer feedback in the form of two things that worked well and one idea for an improvement
Take notes on specific feedback you have gotten
16-18
Paraphrase
Partner B paraphrases what he or she has heard from Partner A
Listen to see if the paraphrased information is correct
Paraphrase what you have heard
18-20
Next Steps
Partner B makes a list of future revisions
Check the list of revisions
Make a list of future revisions

Still, there is a time and a place for teacher feedback. This is why I love one-on-one conferencing. Here, the students meet individually with the student while classmates engage in project and workshop time. Again, this is one of the strengths of using a PBL framework. You get the opportunity to maximize face time through short, five-minute conferences. When I taught self-contained (all subjects), I would meet with every student at least once a week. When I taught departmentalized (one subject with multiple groups) I would aim for once every 2-3 weeks.

I used three different types of conferences. The feedback conference is all about learning specific skills that students are missing. Each student must ask the teacher a series of questions based upon an area where he or she is struggling. Think of it like consulting or even short tutoring sessions. This is a chance for targeted one-on-one attention and explicit help with a strategy. Students guide the process, tapping into the teacher’s expertise. The reflection conferences have a different focus. Instead of telling students what to do, the goal is to draw out student reflection. The teacher uses a series of reflective questions to lead students through the process of meta-cognition and into the setting and monitoring of goals. The final approach is the mastery conference. Unlike the reflection conference, the focus here is less about reflecting on the process and more about students judging their own mastery of the content. We use the Standards-Based Assessment Grid (attached to the resource you can download) as a way to figure out the level of mastery on particular standards.

Feedback Conference Reflection Conference Mastery Conference
The Focus Targeted help / instruction in specific areas of reading Guiding students toward self-reflection A conversation about the mastery of standards
Role of the Student Ask questions and seek out specific feedback Answer questions and reflect on his or her learning Talk about progress toward specific standards
Role of the Teacher Answer questions with accuracy and precision and allow for students to practice a strategy under supervision Ask questions, paraphrase answers and guide students toward self-reflection Asks questions about progress and share information based upon evidence of student work.
Further Application Students leave with actionable steps to fix a particular work Students can select the strategies and plan for future improvement based upon self-reflection. Students can figure out what standards still need to be mastered and how to get there
Role in Cultivating a Growth Mindset Every student has a chance to admit to failure and learn from it Every student has a chance to articulate areas where they are growing and where they still need to grow Every student is able to realize that there are as many retakes as necessary until they master the standards

#7: Make it visible.

A colleague of mine named Keelan recommended Making Thinking Visible and it has reshaped my thoughts on metacognition and reflection. When the learning is explicit and visible, feedback goes from an abstract idea to a set of concrete steps. This is why I love the idea of creating visual representations of feedback. Whether it’s a concept map, walking through the steps kinesthetically, or maneuvering around concepts with sticky notes, feedback becomes even more powerful when it is visible to the student.

The bottom line is this: assessment isn’t something you take. It’s something you do. And feedback isn’t something that happens when things are over. It’s something that happens throughout the learning process. The more we can integrate feedback and revision into the projects and lessons, the better off our students will be. They will have more ownership of the process and they’ll increase in the metacognition they need in order to grow into life-long learners.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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6 responses

  1. Ouch — "other classes watching holiday films…" That cracked me up. The NWP writing workshop model is a great way to help students orchestrate and manage their critiques of work. Using my BFA/visual arts training has served me well in terms of collaborative and meaningful feedback scenarios. Thanks for this article!

  2. Loved this post! I’m glad you liked my post about delaying the grade on Cult of Pedagogy. My kids have acknowledged that this method works for them to actually read their feedback! haha! I also have my students make three observations, ask two questions, and then grade themselves based on the rubric. It makes for a great reflective discussion with each student.

  3. […] Seven Strategies for Improving Student Feedback – John Spencer […]

  4. These strategies are wonderful. #2 really makes me think. How did we end up in a world where the end result was more important than the process? Thank you for sharing these thoughts. I’m always a fan of process-based learning.

  5. Praising effort instead of intelligence increases intrinsic motivation and provides a template for students to follow next time. Researchers have found that the type of praise children receive drives the type of feedback they seek out themselves.

  6. […] Seven Strategies for Improving Student Feedback. We know feedback is important. But what happens when students ignore it? In this article and podcast, we explore how to integrate feedback into every part of the learning process so that students can increase in metacognition during their PBL and design thinking projects. If you enjoy this blog but you’d like to listen to it on the go, just click on the audio below or subscribe via iTunes/Apple Podcasts (ideal for iOS users) or Google Play and Stitcher (ideal for Android users). […]

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