How Much Feedback Are You Giving Your Students?

Feedback is the most powerful tool we have as teachers. Seriously, research proves it. Nothing will further student learning more than effective feedback.

It makes sense. Learning happens when:

  1. We try apply knowledge or a skill.
  2. We fail.
  3. We learn what we did wrong. 
  4. We successfully reapply the knowledge or skill. 

Here are some things you can do to make your feedback better. Some are easy to implement, some you might find challenging. 

1. Stop Waiting to Give Feedback

The traditional method of feedback is a letter on top of an assignment, with maybe a few comments in the margins, often returned to the student days after it was turned in. That method limits feedback the effectiveness of feedback. It isn’t timely, the student likely can’t act on it, and they only look at the grade anyways.

Try This Instead: Make your feedback immediate. Not the next day. Today. It’s the way our brains work. It’s why video games and gambling are so fun. Instant feedback. (Incidentally, it’s why gamification is such a great teaching strategy) Here are few things you can do:

Use red, yellow, and green Solo cups to let students alert you when they need help. When a group or student needs immediate help, they put out a red cup. Yellow means they are struggling, and green means they are fine. Feedback is a two way street, and this is a very simple way to direct you to where you are needed most.

Have a place for questions. I’ve heard it called a “Parking Lot” or “Question Board”, but make a spot in your room where students can post questions they need answered. You’ll usually encounter some repeats, letting you know where the class is struggling or in need of reteaching.

If you assign a grade on it, get it back to them as soon as possible. Don’t wait a week. Don’t wait until the end of the week. If at all possible, return it to them the next day, with specific, actionable feedback.“But wait!” you say, stressed out between lesson plans, meetings, parent conferences, and trying to get coffee before your next class starts, “there is no way I can do that!” Yes you can, if you follow step number 2…

2. Stop grading everything

As a teacher I feel an urge to slap a grade on everything I assign. It holds kids accountable. It rewards the dedicated students. It fills up the grade book. Kids expect it. Parents expect it.

Stop grading everything. Yes, you heard me right. Stop grading so much! Step back and ask yourself “What was the point of the learning activity I gave my students?” If the point of the assignment was to teach something new, practice a skill, or is otherwise a formative assessment, DON’T GRADE IT. Give feedback.

You want students to take risks, make mistakes, and then be able to learn from them. Let them fix errors, make corrections, see what they did right, and learn from what they did wrong. Save your grading for your summative assessments. There are other ways to track their progress and learning.

Try This Instead: Instead of grading, create a time for peer and teacher feedback, followed by a “fix it” session.  

Whenever my students finish a formative assignment, we have the “Feedback 5.” For 5 minutes students leave feedback on each other’s work and generate questions they might have for me that they can’t answer for each other. I hop around the room, visiting as many students as I can, while they post questions on the board for me to answer.

Then, after a quick reteaching of common questions, I give the students at “Fix It 5” to make corrections. Then, based on peer and teacher feedback, I have the students assess how well they understand my learning goal. I track their ratings throughout each unit.

That’s what works for me. The goal is to create an environment where risk taking is encouraged, mistakes are seen as valuable, and where above all learning is the goal, and not receiving a grade.

“What about the students who don’t do their work in class, or don’t do their homework?” One of the surprising things I’ve found is, when I stopped grading most homework and formative assessments, more kids completed their work than before. 

Students that don’t complete the assignments are now only hurting themselves. The teacher is no longer the task master whipping the student with 0’s and lunch detention for missing work, but the shepherd guiding students willingly. By giving them a space to make mistakes and learn from each other, learning became safer and more fun. But it also gives them more responsibility. The burden to learn is now on their shoulders, and that resonates with every kid I’ve taught.

3. Stop Praising Students

I know it feels good to tell a kid how smart they are, but it’s bad for them. Really. Carol Dweck has done a ton of great research about the Growth Mindset, and found that kids who are constantly praised for being smart are less likely to take risks for fear of failing. 

Try This Instead: Make your feedback specific, and not personal. Explain what they did well. Explain what they did wrong. Above all, make your feedback actionable. Give them things to fix, areas to explore, skills to strengthen. If you must praise, praise the effort, and not some innate smartness the student might appear to have.

4. If You’re Giving Feedback, Stop Being A Stickler About Retakes

A student doesn’t study, and bombs your summative (graded) test. “Please Mr. Teacher,” he begs, “let me try again.”

“No,” you say, secretly hiding a smile. “I hope you’ve learned your lesson!”

I’ve been that teacher more than once in my career. Students get one chance, just like in life. If you’re not prepared, you fail. That’s the real world. Except, it’s not. 

Try This Instead: Let them redo their work

There are very few tests in life we cannot retake. People fail driver tests, bar exams, and teacher licensure attempts on the first, second and even third try.

If a student attempts an assessment and fails, then whether our fault or not, we have failed. So if a student wants to redo an assessment, by all means let them! 

This is a natural extension of giving immediate, actionable feedback. We want students to act on it. Don’t deny them that second chance. “But my students won’t study then, they’ll just want retakes” is a common objection I hear.

Baloney. They will study. Students don’t want to fail. That hypothetical lazy student I mentioned above, the one you’re afraid is going to game the system, doesn’t come around that often. What I do see a lot of is children from difficult backgrounds, learning disabilities, or that speak English as a second or third language. And they, and all children, deserve a second chance. And with good feedback, from you, their teacher, odds are they will make the most of it.

High School
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