5 Things to Avoid When Providing Feedback for Learning

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photo credit: pcgn7 via photopin cc
photo credit: pcgn7 via photopin cc

One of my favorite education blogs, TeachThought, posted an excellent article that sparked some inspiring conversation on providing feedback for learning at the Facebook group, Teachers Throwing Out Grades.

While the TeachThought post included mostly great ideas for making feedback useful, there were a few tips that provoked reflection about the kinds of feedback that are counterproductive to learning. The more I thought about this, I decided to share some feedback practices that teachers should avoid.

5 things to avoid when providing feedback for learning

1 – Comparing students: Many years ago, I was returning projects to students. This was back in my grading days, and I had placed number and letter grades on them. After returning all of them, I showed two posters to the class and said, “Here is quality work and here is poor work.” Word got out to the “poor” project students, who were in a different class period, about what I’d done. They were embarrassed and hurt. Not only is embarrassing students an awful thing to do, judging students’ work by comparing it to other work is a faulty strategy. It’s more productive to converse with students about what they did or did not accomplish, and ask them to return to prior learning and to adjust the work to indicate mastery.

2 – Adding comments to grades: When any kind of measurement–letter, number or percentage–is placed on an activity or project, adding comments is a waste of time. Researcher Dylan Wiliam says that students gravitate to the mark and ignore written feedback. If you doubt this, the next time you add comments to grades, place some obscure mark along with the comments. Write your favorite radio station’s call letters, for example. See how many students ask about the strange addition to your feedback. You may be shocked to see that less than 10 percent of your students have read your unique comment, along with your other more meaningful feedback.

3 – Subjectivity: The first year I began giving students SE2R feedback, it took me a long time to hone the practice to where I understood what was quality, objective feedback. Teachers tend to inadvertently praise or demean student work. We readily say or write write comments like, “Good job, wonderful, poor, nonsensical.” These are all subjective. woman teacher with studentsQuality feedback shouldn’t judge. Always attempt to be descriptive. Summarize what students do and explain what is right or what is wrong, based on instruction and guidelines. If students completed all tasks and demonstrated mastery learning, at the end of your feedback, say something like, “Nice work on this activity/project.” This provides a pat on the back, which all kids love, without praising the wrong thing.

4 – Ignoring your feedback: When I converted my class to a non-grades, all narrative feedback learning environment, it took me almost an entire school year to become highly skilled at providing feedback for learning. What helped was spending a lot of time reading the feedback I provided and evaluating it against the SE2R model. When I noticed deviation from the formula and any subjectivity, I asked myself what I should have done differently. Being good at feedback for learning is a skill that takes plenty of practice and self-assessment.

5 – Leaving students out of the conversation: The most rewarding part of eliminating grades and providing narrative feedback is asking students to be part of the process. Most are shocked when a teacher asks, “What do you think of your work?” because it may have never happened in previous grades or in other classes. When I went to self-grading for report cards, I was astonished by how critical my 7th graders were on themselves. Some even graded their work over nine weeks as an F. When students assess their own learning, their efforts increase rapidly. It’s one thing to receive a poor mark from a teacher, but when a student fails himself, it means a lot more. So, remember to involve students in the conversation. It’s extremely important and rewarding to all parties.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books and other series that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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