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6 ways to give feedback that helps students improve and succeed

By Rhoda Hahn
January 10, 2017
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Providing students with feedback that helps them grow can be difficult when you see over a hundred students every day. A score on a quiz or a test can provide some feedback. For example, a 90% may communicate that a student knows the material you are teaching them while a 50% communicates that they don’t know the material. But that’s not very specific. How, then, can we help students move forward and improve their understanding?

If you’ve ever been a coach, you know that it is not effective to tell your athletes to simply “run faster.” You should tell them specifically what improvements they need to make, and then have them practice that skill. You would offer drills and pay close attention to their form. A continuous conversation between coach and athlete leads to improvement.

It’s no different in the classroom.

Effective feedback is a concept that I have been studying over the last few years as my school has begun to focus on Visible Learning by John Hattie, a model of teaching principles that looks at teacher and student impact on achievement. Hattie ranks feedback as a highly impactful way to help students achieve their goals. He considers feedback to be “information to reduce the gap between what is now and what should or could be” and further identifies feedback’s strong ability to “reduce discrepancies between a student’s current academic understandings and achieving an academic goal.”

Ultimately we want to see our students grow. Students need specific, consistent and timely feedback that is constructively conveyed to provide tangible ways they can move forward as their understanding is developing. Your students need to know where they are going, how they are doing and where to go next.

Providing percentages on student work does not help students grow and achieve. A score of 50% on a project tells a student that they failed, but comments regarding what was done well and what could use improvement inspires students to set tangible goals next time.

Providing effective feedback can be time-consuming, but using technology can make it easy! Try one (or more) of these tech tools (most are free) to get feedback quickly into the hands of your students.

Google Docs
You can provide task-specific feedback using the commenting feature in Google Docs. Highlight a section or phrase of student work and type how they can improve specifically. For example, on lab reports, I highlight areas that need improvement and comment specifically on what they are missing or how they can clarify what they are trying to convey.

Students receive these comments in an email and they can even reply back to you with questions for clarification. The feedback remains on the document.

This platform has been around for a while, but it has some great features for giving students immediate feedback. When creating a quiz, you can provide an explanation that can pop up after a student chooses a wrong answer. In this way, students will get immediate feedback not just that they chose the wrong answer, but what the right answer is. Be sure to enable this feature before you run a quiz!

Google Forms
I recently created a Google Form to gather student reflections on a task. After students received feedback on their lab reports, both in a Google Doc and during a class discussion, I asked them to fill out a self-reflection form. They outlined specific ways they could improve their experiment the next time.

Google Forms allows me to quickly view student responses and get a sense of ways I can change my teaching practices based on their concerns. I give each student their reflection to read before the next lab so they know specifically what they need to pay attention to for improvement and growth. The same can be done in response to math calculations and formulas, essay prompts, presentations or task-based activities.

Peer feedback is an easy way to let students provide constructive comments. Using a Padlet wall, you can have students answer prompts or brainstorm ideas anonymously. Provide students with specific instructions on how to comment back, and watch your Padlet wall fill with feedback that is specific and tangible. It also provides a great opportunity to have discussions with the class as feedback comes in live on the wall. Check out a reflection wall my students have responded to here.

Backchannels rock! They are a quiet way to have a “side conversation” in class. Create a backchannel where students can ask questions during a lesson or activity. Students can respond to these questions or you can jump on the back channel and answer them.

Another approach is to set up a backchannel that you respond to as you observe students during an activity. Share this page with the students or read the comments to them before you leave class so they can hear your specific feedback. Go over some backchannel ground rules first. Remind students why types of responses are appropriate and to use their first names as a username, so you know who to touch base with if they need help.

Use a plugin like Screencast-o-matic or Kaizena (which is a Google Doc add-on) that will record your voice and screen. As you preview each student’s digital work, record yourself walking through each part, providing specific feedback vocally. As a science teacher, you can explain what parts of the lab report need improvement or why an explanation is not accurate. Audio and visual feedback allows students to feel an academic connection with their teacher, which can often be superior to written feedback. It’s like the difference between an email and direct conversation and can convey encouragement and constructive feedback when needed. Screencasting can be especially helpful at the secondary level, when individual conferences are difficult to schedule.

Set feedback goals for yourself
As you transition to more thoughtful feedback, set goals for yourself. For example, you might aim to give one positive and three constructive comments that are goal oriented, tangible for the student and specific. As you get more comfortable offering this type of support to your students, you’ll notice you are helping your students work toward mastery.

Indirectly, the feedback your students receive from you should be a good indicator of how well you are doing as a teacher, or what changes you need to make in your teaching practices to better serve your students as they work toward achievement in the classroom. When you think you don’t have time to do it, consider how effectively feedback pushes students toward mastery, so when they are receiving feedback and altering their behavior to achieve their goals, they really are ultimately learning.

Rhoda Hahn is an Apple Distinguished Educator and teaches 9th and 11th grade biology in a 1:1 iPad learning environment at Westlake Academy, an IBO World School. Rhoda graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in biological science and is studying for her Master’s in Education in Digital Leading and Learning at Lamar University. She frequently looks for ways to create authentic experiences in an active learning environment with her students. Read her blog Mrs. Hahn Daydreams and follow her on Twitter@mrshahn or search for MrsHahnScience on Instagram.

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