Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process [Activity]

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading a ton about the characteristics of effective feedback.  The topic resonates with me because I’m frustrated by the fact that students in my classroom often seem to believe that the only people that can evaluate their strengths and weaknesses are the adults in their lives.  My goal is to figure out ways to create empowered learners who realize that they can reliably assess their OWN progress and abilities as long as they know what to look for.

The title that has really captured my attention is Dylan William’s Embedded Formative Assessment.

What I love about William’s text is that it is full of really practical suggestions and instructional techniques that can be easily adapted for use in any classroom.  While feedback isn’t the only topic tackled in Embedded Formative Assessment, there is an entire chapter that describes the characteristics of high-quality feedback.  My favorite quote:

If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this:  feedback should cause thinking.  All the practical techniques discussed here work because, in one way or another, they get students to think, rather than react emotionally the feedback they are given. (Kindle Location 2592)

After working through the chapter, I adapted several of William’s techniques and developed the following task for my sixth grade science students — who have been learning to write good conclusions after studying the absorbancy of paper towels in a recent lab:

Handout – Evaluating Paper Towel Lab Conclusions

We started the lesson by reviewing the characteristics of a good conclusion.  Then working alone, students rated the two sample conclusions included on the handout on a scale from one to five against the criteria of a good conclusion.

After everyone had initial ratings for each sample conclusion, they compared their ratings with the ratings made by other members of their lab group.  If members disagreed over the scores that each conclusion deserved, students had to come to consensus by providing evidence to support their ratings.  Finally, I shared my ratings for both conclusions, allowed students to ask questions about the reasoning behind my decisions, and then turned the kids loose to revise and edit their own conclusions.

This handout and lesson are good examples of how feedback should be given to students for three reasons:

I provided clear criteria for a quality conclusion:  William argues that students can’t accept feedback until they have an accurate sense for what it is that they are trying to accomplish.  By breaking down the characteristics of a quality conclusion into four easy-to-identify components — and then by listing those components at the top of the handout in approachable language — my students are better prepared to spot strengths and weaknesses in scientific conclusions without my support.

I provided an intellectual challenge:  At the beginning of the task, I told students that the first sample conclusion is better than the second sample conclusion.  Their job was to figure out why.  This simple strategy — which William also recommends — forced my kids to make comparisons between the two samples.  That’s a tangible example of William’s argument that “feedback should cause thinking.”

I required students to work through disagreements with one another:  My favorite part of the lesson was that members of the same lab group rarely had the exact same ratings for each of the four criteria of a good conclusion.  That led to GREAT conversations.  Every conflict provided moments for students to articulate their reasoning for their ratings and forced them to return to the text to find evidence to prove (or disprove) their positions.

The entire lesson took thirty minutes — and it was probably the best thirty minutes that I’ve spent in the classroom this year.

Not only did my students have the chance to wrestle with the characteristics of quality conclusions and to make sense of the task together, they had the chance to spot mistakes in the sample conclusions — a practice that is likely to help them to avoid making similar mistakes in their own work (William, 2011).

More importantly, I made my students WORK FOR their feedback and then gave them time to WORK ON their own conclusions after receiving feedback — two fundamental characteristics of effective practice.  Quality feedback should always lead to action on the part of the learner.  Providing feedback without providing time to act is essentially wasting time and intellectual energy (William, 2011).

So whaddya’ think?  Is this a task that you could adapt for your classroom?


Related Radical Reads:

When was the Last Time You Asked Your Students for Feedback?

@shareski is Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

Another Student-Involved Assessment Experiment


  1. cljenkins

    If you liked Wiliam, you might also enjoy reading some of Jim Popham’s books – Classroom Assessment: What Teachers Need to Know; Transformative Assessment and Transformative Assessment in Action. Margaret Heritage also has a good book – Formative Assessment: Making it Happen in the Classroom. There are so many more reliable ways to collecting informative data than just taking a standardized test.

  2. wmchamberlain

    I think my biggest problem is in the frame. I either over frame or I don’t have enough of one. It also may be that either way some do just fine, I just tend to notice success less. 🙁

    I am going to have to do some thinking to see how I can adapt this to my social studies classroom. Thanks for the share.