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Descriptive Feedback

Giving descriptive feedback to students about their work before the final assessment is a critical component of the instructional process.  Several years ago I was attended a fantastic presentation by Dylan Wiliam on assessment.  He gave the audience three scenarios.  We voted on which one we thought would increase student achievement the most:

  • Giving grades
  • Giving descriptive feedback
  • Giving descriptive feedback plus a grade

The majority of the audience voted for the third option–grades + feedback.  I very smugly voted for option # 2–just feedback.  I was basing that vote on personal experience from high school.  If I received less than a B on an English paper, it immediately went into the trash without a glance at the comments.  My fellow language arts teachers were appalled when I owned up to this behavior–didn’t I want to improve? What trumped possible improvement and a better grade was my interpretation of  grades as a commentary on my worth as a human being.  Perhaps not a mature attitude but it was my motivation.  Well…lo and behold, for once my smugness was well deserved!  Feedback alone had the biggest impact on achievement.

How does this information about feedback relate to teaming? One of the major purposes of a team is to collaborate in order to help each child achieve academic success. Giving effective feedback has to be part of the process.  Two positive actions teams can take are (1) work together to better understand effective feedback and how to give it and (2) approach a type of assignment that cuts across the curriculum by being consistent with the type of feedback given.

I. Work together to better understand effective feedback: a recent article in the Washington Post entitled “Four Leadership Lessons from American Idol” suggests that the judges on American Idol give the type of feedback leaders should give their employees in order to improve performance.  These characteristics of effective feedback can be applied, for the most part, to that given to students also.  Watch this short clip and notice what the judges say:

They are very specific.

  • Good pitch
  • Audience appeal
  • Good transitions with his falsetto

They tell the contestant what is good about his singing so he knows what to transfer to other performances.  Too often we just say Good job! That comment doesn’t let the student know precisely what s/he did well so that s/he can repeat that strategy in another situation.

The article suggests four things to do when giving feedback:

1. Make your motivation clear.  “You have some good ideas here, and I think I can help you make your audience sit up and take notice of your arguments.”

2. Focus on facts, not feelings. The teacher is clear that the comments are about improving the work, not a reflection of the student’s work ethic, intelligence, or personality.

3. Be prepared for an emotional response. Adolescents take things personally.  We’ve all heard, “You just don’t like me”.  Should you be faced with this dilemma, give the student time to pull it back together, whether it’s anger or tears.  Restate your support for the individual and refocus on the work.  Point to the piece so everyone’s eyes are looking at the work (or ears listening to an audio selection) and not at one another.  That strategy helps to take personality out of the feedback conference.  One approach to short circuit an emotional response is to begin by asking what the student sees as the strengths of the piece and its challenges.  The student then feels more in control.

4. Close with clarity: Be very specific about the next steps the student needs to take in order to improve his or her work.  Add details is not specific enough. Add statistics or comparisons or examples of… are much better.

Giving this kind of feedback may require some of the team to change long standing behaviors which is not always easy.  Taking time during common planning to share ideas and review student work with feedback will be helpful to all of the teachers.  More importantly, students will receive the benefits of the concerted effort of their teachers to improve their feedback techniques,

II. Approach a type of assignment that cuts across the curriculum by being consistent with the type of feedback given.

  • Have a conversation as a team and identify some skill or genre of writing or type of response that all of you require of your students.
  • Create a rubric or assessment list that you all agree to use.  Make sure it includes a place for next steps.  See the example below based on the work of Anne Davies. Students will have multiple practices in different contexts.  They also will receive consistent descriptive feedback on how to improve their work.
    Sample Assessment List With “Next Steps” Built In
  • Look at student work across the curriculum in order to identify patterns of improvement and weaknesses.  Use this information to create mini-lessons designed to build student proficiency.

American Idol is extremely popular.  Make it a homework assignment and ask students to  jot down what the judges say to the contestants.  The next day have students get into groups of three or four and share their lists.  Ask them to identify what the comments have in common and then have the groups share.  This process should be a good introduction on feedback and its purpose. When students are peer conferencing, remind them of the what the class learned from American Idol. Also reiterate these lessons anytime you are giving descriptive feedback on student work.  By connecting the opportunity to use feedback to improve one’s performance with an authentic example from popular media, the team will be helping students see a relationship between school and the outside world.

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