Teacher to teacher

Feedback in classroom learning

A perennial challenge for teachers is how to get students to engage in meaningful discourse around expectations, classroom culture and academics. My experience as a middle school humanities teacher has taught me that I can mediate and develop authentic interactions among my students that engender a sense of their own growth as well as the growth of their peers. I, too, learn and grow through this process.

While there is no formal name for this process, it borrows heavily from the concept of 360-degree assessments common in corporate environments. I’ll call this classroom process holistic feedback, as it includes all members of a classroom community.

Creating a classroom culture where feedback is valued and expected requires deliberate and explicit mechanisms that increase in complexity as the year progresses and as students become more expert in their use. It also helps students to reflect on their own writing as they support others.

The principles of backward design work well in this instance. I consider what I want my students to be able to do by the end of the year and develop a learning plan that increases in complexity over the course of the year.

I begin the year by creating opportunities for students to get to know each other and build a community of trust that acknowledges their academic abilities. The expectation is that, through deliberate practice and openness to academic risk-taking, students will see results.

I start with frequent, low-stakes team-building activities that include debriefs and reflections on the contributions of members to the overall team’s success. It is essential to configure different groups, such as pairs, triads and the whole class. This group work underscores the expectation that students will work with students from varied backgrounds and academic levels.

Defining terms and giving students ample practice with the concepts behind those terms is also important. For instance, I define the concept of a claim, give students examples of claims in real-world texts, have them practice writing claims about characters after reading simple texts such as picture books and have students develop their own claims. Only then will I ask them to critique their peers’ claims.

Discussions allow students to reflect and give rationales to justify their thinking, and for me to help correct or contextualize new and revisited concepts. As a matter of practice, I transcribe all our conversations into a classroom discussion document to allow students access to those discussions later on, before assessments, when they’re absent or when they need to review previous learning.

Once the basic elements of writing in a particular genre are practiced and understood, and students are given a way to give and receive feedback from me and their peers, we look at the elements of the writing rubric. My students annotate and break down those elements, creating a checklist in student-friendly language that all students have in their notebooks and on all rubrics. They are also expected to use this checklist whenever they write formally and to base their future feedback to each other on it as well.

Students always have an intimate understanding of our expectations because they have helped develop them. On top of that, we talk about ways in which language can be helpful and hurtful. Students help develop feedback vocabulary that is conscious of their partners’ feelings. We use sentence starters such as:

“I like that you … next time …”

“While you … you might try/consider … “

“I noticed that you … and wonder if … would be … “

Ultimately, feedback should feel natural and be a part of students’ ongoing conversations with peers, particularly when they write.

At several points throughout the year, students also give me feedback, and they relish this part most. Students take a survey that I’ve used since 2011 with minor revisions. Maintaining a longitudinal record of this feedback — both quantitative and qualitative — has helped me go through the same reflection and improvement process I expect from my students.

Holistic feedback encompasses feedback that transcends roles in the class. Everyone is presumed to have some level of expertise and, therefore, the capacity to give meaningful feedback. Not only am I responsible for giving feedback, but students are also expected to give feedback to each other and to me.

In this way, we develop a culture of trust and academic risk-taking, and then we work to develop the language and expectations to which students will be held.

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