Giving effective feedback that helps students instead of discouraging them requires planning and very intentional strokes with that red pen.
As teachers, a lot of our time is spent grading student work. At the elementary level, teachers grade work for 20 to 30 students from each subject every day. At the middle and high school level, teachers grade work for the 110, 120, or even more students they see each day. The focus of all that time should not be on marking things right or wrong, but providing meaningful feedback to help bridge the gap between what students know and what students should know.
Jo Boaler of Stanford University, a globally recognized thought leader and researcher, is a proponent of the importance of establishing a growth mindset in students. People with a fixed mindset believe that their talents and abilities are fixed – no amount of training or practice will have a huge impact on how smart they are or what they are capable of. People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence and aptitude can be increased through time and effort. Teachers must be very intentional about which mindset they are encouraging in their classrooms – from the way they treat failures and mistakes to the praise and feedback they provide.
In the paper “Assessment for a Growth Mindset,” co-authored with Amanda Confer, Boaler discusses the importance of feedback instead of grades on student work. As she puts it, “Achievement increases when teachers stop grading students – which communicates fixed messages – and instead give diagnostic comments, showing what students have done well and what they still need to work on (Butler, 1998; Boaler 2015). When students receive a grade, they compare it to others around them, with half or more deciding that they are not as good as others. This is known as ‘ego feedback,’ a form of feedback that has been found to damage learning. In studies of grading researchers have produced consistent results. Study after study shows
that grading actually reduces the achievement of students (Boaler, 2015).”
Rethinking Feedback Means Rethinking Assessments
When considering your own assessments and feedback, remember that there are two types of assessment: formative and summative. Formative is meant to determine where a student stands in the learning process so they can move forward. Summative is designed to present a summary or snapshot of learning at the culmination of a particular concept or skill. Both types can be used to provide effective feedback to students, but it’s important to understand that not all feedback is equal in every situation.
Formative assessments, which include things like homework assignments, in-class assignments, projects, and other things leading up to a chapter or unit test, are really meant to be checks for understanding. They should not be graded for correctness, but viewed as an opportunity to see what students know and what they are still struggling with at this point in the course of learning.
Giving Constructive Feedback
Too often, we treat formative assessments as summative assessments and expect students to get all of the answers right on their first try. We forget that they are still learning a concept and should not yet have achieved mastery. Instead of giving students a grade on these formative assignments, consider following these tips to provide them with meaningful and effective feedback.
1. Give feedback promptly and treat assignments with respect.
First and foremost, treat student work with the same care and respect that you expect them to show. Take care of their work. Don’t let it get crumpled, don’t sit your coffee mug on it, and don’t lose it. You expect students to put a lot of effort into their work and turn in to you on time. Expect the same of yourself. Formative assessment is so valuable because it allows teachers to see where students are on their learning journey within a specific concept, so you need to grade it promptly to determine what, if anything, you need to reteach before moving on to the next concept. Students pay attention to which teachers truly value their work – and which ones take a month to return it – and put in a corresponding amount of effort. Even the most valuable feedback will be ignored if the opportunity for improvement has passed because you took too long to return their work.
2. Be specific.
The more specific you are with your comments on a student’s progress, the more effective feedback they’ll receive. Comments that pinpoint precise mistakes or misconceptions are often more valuable than overarching statements and are less likely to be interpreted as a personal critique. Try something like “I see that you’re adding the numerators here because that’s what we did with whole numbers. When we add fractions, we have to think about the numerator and denominator working to create a single number together. The denominator tells us how big each part of the whole is, which is why we often find common denominators before we add.” Clearly actionable feedback gives students a clear starting point and is more valuable than advice that is vague or generalized. Also ensure your feedback is clear and doesn’t cause additional misconceptions to form.
3. Remind students that mistakes are good.
Part of a growth mindset is knowing that we all make mistakes, and that mistakes are not only to be tolerated, but celebrated. We don’t really learn anything from doing something correctly, but we have tremendous opportunity for learning when we make a mistake. As Boaler has found many times in her research, our brains create many new connections when we make mistakes. Take the sample feedback from #2 above and add “I’m so glad you made this mistake because it shows that you tried to apply what you already knew about whole numbers to fractions. Your brain is growing!” to truly foster a growth mindset in your classroom. Isn’t that way more valuable than a red X on a piece of paper?
4. Encourage questions.
Follow-up with students to ensure that they understand the feedback given to them. If students thought they had a handle on a new concept but performed poorly, it might be hard for them to connect the dots and turn your comments into effective feedback. By creating an environment that encourages questioning, students will feel comfortable asking for effective feedback themselves when they are struggling and truly need it.
5. Tailor to the individual.
Effective feedback should not only be clear, but tailored to the individual situation and student. As you have likely experienced, no uniform solution ever works for every single student. Think about your students’ personalities, along with past struggles and successes when deciding the type and how much feedback to provide. If you know a student struggles with academic confidence, for instance, adding a sentence like “I’m giving you this feedback because I know you can do this!” can help bolster their confidence and change their attitude in your class.
Giving students effective feedback can be a little more time-consuming than giving them grades. Choose when to provide the most detailed comments according to your students’ needs and level of understanding. The extra time will pay off in the increased performance and engagement of your students. Remember that effective feedback can take on many forms according to the learning opportunities given to students. Learn more about alternative teaching techniques here.