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Curriculum Q & A Blog, Question 39

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    EL Education

Do you have questions about teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum? We've got answers!

Come back every week for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

Question: What’s the best way for my students to get individual feedback on their work? 

Teachers give students feedback all the time. The question is, how much of this feedback is actually used by students to improve their learning? Consider this continuum of how a student might hear and use feedback:

Where do your students cluster on this continuum? Often the students most readily able to meet the final two points are already the most capable, skilled, and successful. Moving all students along that continuum means thinking analytically and strategically about the nature of the feedback you provide to students and that students provide to each other through peer critique.

Descriptive feedback is distinguished by these features:

  • The focus is on supporting the growth of an individual student or small group, improving a particular piece of work, performance, skill, or disposition.
  • Feedback is focused on the work and is connected to clear criteria that students understand.
  • It is typically an exchange between teacher and student, or student and student, and (unlike a critique lesson) it is not a public learning experience for the class.
  • It is nested in a long-term relationship (e.g., teacher-student, student-student, coach-player, supervisor-worker). Maintaining a constructive relationship must be an implicit focus in all feedback conversations, whether spoken or written.
  • Individuals are sensitive when receiving personal feedback. It is much more likely that strategic, positive comments will result in improvements than will criticism.
  • Feedback ideally flows from strong knowledge of the student—knowing the student’s strengths and weaknesses, knowing where she is in her growth and what she needs to spark the next step of growth.

The Tone of Feedback

How words are used matters a great deal in giving effective feedback. Feedback should be understandable and user-friendly. Similar to learning targets, feedback should be framed in language students can readily understand.

Effective tone:

  • Be positive. In particular, research has indicated that the framing of feedback really matters to students from historically marginalized groups. Starting with a clear statement of your belief in the student’s ability to master the concept or skill increases the positive impact of feedback.
  • Be constructive when critical.
  • Make suggestions, not prescriptions or mandates.

Ineffective tone:

  • Finding fault
  • Describing what is wrong but offering no suggestions
  • Punishing or denigrating students for poor work

The Content of Feedback

Along with tone, the content of feedback is just as important.
The following criteria for effective feedback will support students to use it productively:

  • Focusing on the work. Feedback can be focused on the work or task, on the process of learning, or on the way a student self-regulates and uses his or her thought processes to accomplish a task. It should not be focused on the student personally, and personal comments should be avoided. For example, “You have really persevered with getting the shape of this leaf just right! I notice that on your most recent draft the stem is colored green and doesn’t look like the model. What can you try next?” will be more productive and actionable than “It looks like you got a little lazy on the stem.”
  • Comparing work to clear criteria. Effective feedback compares student work or performance with criteria and with past performance, benchmarks, and personal goals. Norm-referenced feedback, which compares a student’s performance with that of other students, is generally not useful. For example, you might tell a student, “You met the goal you set for yourself!” versus “This is the strongest work in the class!”
  • Helping students make progress. The function or purpose of feedback is to describe how the student has done in order to identify ways and provide information about how to improve. For example, providing specific feedback tied to established criteria will help a student revise a draft, as opposed to stating that the work is simply “good” or “bad” or grading work in a draft stage, which tends to shut down motivation to revise.

Peer Critique in the Curriculum

In the K–5 Module Lessons, peer critique is an integral part of scaffolding students’ high quality work, which is grounded in CCSS W.5: Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. Students learn the academic vocabulary associated with peer critique, such as what “feedback” means and what it means to “improve” one’s writing. They also learn the criteria for feedback: It must be kind, specific, and helpful.

Often, the teacher will model giving a student feedback and then students give each other feedback, usually based on a specific criterion from the writing rubric. Students then debrief how well they gave and received feedback, which is connected to the habits of character work to become effective learners and work to become ethical people (e.g., using compassion when giving feedback). 

Preparing Students to Be Effective at Giving Feedback through Peer Critique

Peer feedback can be effective when the conditions are right, when students are practiced in giving targeted feedback, and when they have clarity on the specific dimension of the work they are analyzing.

The snapshot of Austin’s butterfly is a good example of students having the skills focus, as well as the appropriate vocabulary, to provide their classmate with feedback that supported him to do exemplary work.

Once students have learned the process of giving specific feedback effectively in these formal protocols, there is a positive phenomenon that can develop in which students begin giving each other informal critique, appropriately and respectfully, throughout the day.

We’ll be taking next week off from the blog, but come back April 16 for the latest from the Curriculum Q & A Blog.

If you are interested in learning more about models, critique, and descriptive feedback, check out the PD Pack for Leaders of Their Own Learning, especially Chapter 4.

For more general information about our curriculum, check out our website or our book Your Curriculum Companion: The Essential Guide to Teaching the EL Education K–5 Language Arts Curriculum. If you have questions related to this blog, please email us at: