Empty words that sound nice when not attached to something substantial.
We are a culture full of pretty words and phrases designed to distract from the truth of situations: that we aren't really paying attention.
When a person says "excellent" or "way to go", they mean well, but they aren't achieving anything beyond a momentary ego-stroking that ends up later as a lower low.
Feedback must be specific, timely, and provided in a way that is meaningful to the person you're looking to help. As educators, we are in the unique position of helping those grow in a variety of ways. To truly impact the greatest progress, there are several things that should be taken into consideration.
The "work" of learning we are offering to students must be worthy of feedback. What are we feeding the hungry minds of the children we serve and what is its purpose? Can these questions easily be answered by you and more importantly by the students? Transparency is key to the learning process.
Given the objective of the task, what are students hoping to achieve? Make sure that learning targets and objectives are clearly spelled out and communicated prior to starting, this way when feedback is provided throughout the formative working process, it can align specifically with intended outcomes or standards.
Align the objectives with the standards and big picture of the class. Be sure that students understand the language and can internalize the learning.
Focus on one to two things at a time rather than trying to address everything at once. I'm sure there's research out there that supports that giving too much critical feedback can actually derail learning. Keep the feedback tight and around very specific learning goals.
Allow the students to outline their own learning goals. Ask them to write about them in a reflection once they finish their work. Review the reflection first (or conference with them first) and then provide feedback specifically on the areas students were working on. If students are working on a specific area like building context in an introductory paragraph, then highlight areas of their text they are successful, and rather than say "good job," consider "you've improved on your ability to add context to engage the reader."
Allow and encourage students to track their own progress and then meet with them regularly whether over Voxer, in person, or as a Google comment on a document, so you can align your expectations with theirs.
With critical feedback, also provide strategies or possible solutions for improving the challenge. It's easy enough to say that a transition needs to be smoothed out, but why not offer a little more. "Smooth the transitions between these paragraphs by adding an additional 'foreshowing' sentence in the paragraph before in order to prepare the reader for the shift that is about to happen." Or "move beyond simple transitional phrases in order to ease your reader into the new idea."
Be sure to only give feedback on the material that is covered. No surprises to students in this way, they won't be helpful or productive.
Try to make the feedback happen as close to immediately as possible. If you observe a student doing something well, tell them specifically what you see. "I loved the way you interpreted Orwell's purpose through your characterization of Napoleon." Or offer a suggestion immediately, "when you said you the poem was about death, did you consider any other alternatives? What diction in particular drew you to that analysis or conclusion? Consider reviewing the context of the full stanza and see if you need to adjust your analysis."
Remember that the teaching is in the feedback. This is an educator's opportunity to share critical information in a private way to help ensure growth. Whether we do it face to face in a conference, over a Google Hangout or on a Voxer or in writing, each time we share ideas about what we see based on a specific criterion or standard, we are offering the learner another opportunity to hear, adjust and practice and move forward.
Giving good feedback is an art form that does require practice, so the more we do it, the better it gets. As we make feedback an integral part of the learning experience, it becomes easier to make smaller adjustments more often for optimal growth. These moments are excellent opportunities for developing deeper relationships with our students and as more trust is established, but learning can happen.
How do you determine the best way to provide feedback to your students? Please share
This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in October 2015