Feedback for Students, by Students

Developing student efficacy and engagement.

Four Ways to Help Students Take a More Active Role in the Feedback Process.

Much has been written about feedback in recent years that most educators are acutely aware of the powerful influence it can have on student learning. Educators likely know that there is wide variation in the effectiveness of feedback. Many middle level teachers spend hours providing feedback to students that is only sometimes put to good use. Feedback is meaningless if it does nothing to improve student learning. Teachers know this, but are often exhausted by the endless cycle of teacher-driven assessment and feedback. It can be difficult to step back and change what is a widely accepted system of summative grading and commenting.

When feedback on student learning is primarily the job of the teacher, we miss valuable opportunities to inspire active learning in our classrooms. It is not enough to lament the fact that students infrequently apply the carefully crafted feedback of their teachers. Educators must create opportunities for students to take a more active role in the feedback process. Here are some steps to take to make feedback more valuable to students.

1. Expect to Work Together

AMLE and Rachael Williams about Student Feedback in the Middle Grades

At the beginning of every school year, middle level students arrive in classrooms laden with prior knowledge of how schools and classrooms work. When it comes to feedback, this more than likely means that students expect teachers to offer feedback in the form of a grade and written comments on their work, both of which occur most often at the end of the learning process. Students may have little perception of how this feedback plays a more active role.

In the first few days of school, most middle level teachers spend time establishing classroom expectations and, in the more student-friendly classrooms, this is a collaborative task. Often the end result is two lists of expectations: one for students and one for teachers. Imagine if there was only one list that established both students and teachers as co-facilitators in the learning process. Students need to consider themselves pivotal to their own learning and understand that feedback is not just the responsibility of the teacher.

2. Make Sure Everyone Knows Where They are Headed

For students to be more than passive recipients in the feedback process, they must have a clear understanding of the learning path. This means that learning targets are communicated to students in clear, student-friendly language, and that all students understand what successfully meeting those targets looks like.

Understanding a learning target means more than writing it down or reading it aloud. Students must begin by acknowledging what they know or do not know. One way to offer students an opportunity to consider their starting point is to use “traffic lights” before students embark on the learning. After recording the learning target, students use red, yellow, and green stickers to indicate their current level of skill or understanding in relation to the learning target. In order to do this, students must carefully consider what they are being asked to do or know—a critical starting point. The teacher also benefits from this formative snapshot of students’ prior knowledge before the lesson begins. Giving students the opportunity to self-assess from the outset lets them know that their teacher expects them to engage in their learning toward the established goal.

Students also need a clear idea of what successfully meeting the learning target looks like. Once students explore and discuss what it means to successfully meet the learning goal, they should examine samples of student work and practice writing relevant feedback.

Within this process, there are opportunities for paired or group discussion of the feedback. As they wrestle with the success criteria and debate the strengths and limitations of the student samples, students vastly improve their own understanding of what success looks like. Student ownership of the learning begins with a shared understanding of the learning targets and success criteria.

3. Empower Students to Take Control

An effective middle level teacher plans strategically so students have frequent opportunities to self-assess throughout the learning process. Rather than receiving most feedback on their learning at the end
of the learning journey, students should view feedback as critical to their incremental progress toward the learning target. Once students have a comprehensive understanding of the success criteria, they can reliably be asked to evaluate their own learning or the learning of peers.

Peer evaluation can be an effective method of delivering feedback but is often undervalued by teachers and students. One possible reason for this is that many students need to develop skills essential to providing constructive criticism. In the world of a young adolescent, where status among peers is paramount, it can seem unwise to do much more than offer vague assertions of brilliance. At the other end of the scale, the overzealous peer might offer feedback that is of little relevance to the learning target. Most middle level students will have been the recipient of this kind of feedback in the past and may be sceptical about the value of peer feedback.

Education experts, such as John Hattie, advocate that students should be specifically taught what effective feedback looks like. He outlines different levels and types of feedback and suggests the use of prompts or sentence stems to guide students in giving feedback to their peers (See Figure 1).

Figure 1.
Student-Friendly Formats for Peer Feedback

1) What worked well (WWW)…
2) Even better if (EBI)…
3) I noticed…
4) I wondered…

One way to ensure that feedback is constructive and focused on the established learning goal is to ask students to look for specific features in the work of their peers. For example, in a writing lesson where the learning goal is to construct a balanced argument, students might highlight where a peer has offered her opinion and also where she has acknowledged the perspectives of others.

This kind of focus builds the skills of the student offering feedback and provides his peer with relevant evidence of his progress toward the learning target. When students have difficulty identifying the nominated features, this leads to focused and constructive dialogue about what constitutes a balanced argument and allows students to gain important information about where they are in their learning.

4. Give Less Feedback

This does not mean that students take full responsibility for the entire feedback process, but it does mean that we think more carefully about how to engage students in evaluating their progress toward the learning target.

We should provide feedback when students need prompting. If they can identify where they are in their learning on their own, why would we do that for them? It signals that we do not expect them to be responsible for their learning. It might also suggest that we do not think they are capable.

Many teachers and students see the value of one-on-one conferencing but the balance of responsibility for feedback is often heavily weighted toward the teacher. When the primary goal of conferencing is for the teacher to offer feedback to the student, the student has no real reason to participate actively in the process. By shifting to a more equitable distribution of responsibility, student self-efficacy increases.

A more balanced approach to the one-on-one conference is to ask students to self-assess before meeting with the teacher. The students analyze their work against the success criteria and use an established format to assess the evidence of learning progress. Students bring evidence of their learning and self-assessment to a discussion with the teacher, allowing them to view themselves as valued and effective agents in their learning.

This approach also offers teachers a chance to give students feedback on their feedback. Questions such as “Does this feedback help you to understand what you have mastered?” and “Does this feedback show you what you need to do next?” can indicate to students whether or not they are focused on the success criteria and offer teachers formative evidence of a student’s progress. If a student’s self-assessment is vague, he more than likely needs more help to understand the success criteria and how to move toward it.

Instead of feeling like the teacher is the omniscient critic whose job it is to point out mistakes, students critically examine their work for evidence of learning progress. For students, the identification of their errors and missteps becomes a sign of successful learning progression and their efficacy as active learners.