Peer Feedback Should Start with Observations, Not Evaluations.

Over the past few months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the steps that we can take to move from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback in schools.  A lot of that thinking starts from the sense of paralysis that I see in my students, who — after years of being judged by everyone and everything from teachers to end of grade test scores — don’t always realize that the best learners are constantly assessing themselves.

So how do we develop that sense of intellectual agency in our students?  How do we get to the point where the kids in our classrooms are ready and willing to accept personal responsibility for identifying just what it is that they know and can do?

My guess is that some part of the answer to that question starts by giving students tons of opportunities to give feedback to — and receive feedback from — their peers.

Outside of simply increasing the amount of information available to learners, giving and receiving peer feedback reinforces the notion that students can be the primary authorities on the progress being made during any learning experience.  Ownership over “evaluation” and “assessment” are passed from the teacher to the learner – encouraging students to actively monitor their own growth rather than passively waiting to be rated by the adults in their lives.

But here’s the hitch:  Because evaluation has always been the primary form of feedback given in our classrooms, students shy away from peer feedback because “evaluation” means “making judgments” — and making judgments can be socially intimidating.  The result is often students who give simple praise instead of targeted feedback in order to avoid hurting feelings OR partners who refuse to act on suggestions from partners because their feelings have been hurt.

The solution — which I’ve been polishing with my good friend Paul Cancellieri — is to encourage students to make OBSERVATIONS instead of EVALUATIONS when giving feedback to one another.

The difference — which you will have to introduce to students — is that observations are unbiased, concentrating on communicating tangible behaviors or characteristics that can be seen in the same way by others while evaluations include subjective interpretations that are often based on opinions.  Observations are also quick to deliver and quick to receive because they don’t require a lengthy justification for the rating given in an evaluation.   Finally, observations eliminate the asymmetrical power dynamic that some students encounter during peer feedback (Price et al., 2010).  Because the student providing feedback is not judging or advising future action but rather sharing information as objectively as possible in an observation, the student receiving feedback doesn’t feel inferior – increasing the likelihood that feedback will result in action.

Need an example of what making observations instead of evaluations looks like in action?

Then check out this great video from EL Education, which highlights a lesson where students give descriptive feedback without making judgments to a peer:

Austin’s Butterfly: Building Excellence in Student Work from EL Education on Vimeo.


Good stuff, right?

What makes this lesson so powerful is that student learners knew that they weren’t expected to judge their partners.  Instead, their only goal was to spot differences between the exemplar and Austin’s work product — a tangible task based on making observations instead of evaluations.  Stripping away judgments made the entire experience nonthreatening, building confidence in both the givers and receivers of feedback.

That matters, y’all.  Our goal should be to create classrooms where peers know that they can safely learn alongside one another.

As John Hattie explains, “Students learn most easily in an environment in which they can get and use feedback about what they don’t know without fearing negative reactions from their peers or their teacher” (Hattie, 2012, p. 23).  Doing so begins by focusing students on observations instead of evaluations when offering a helping hand to their peers.


Works cited:

Hattie, J. (2012). Know thy impact. Educational Leadership70(1), 18-23.

Price, M., Handley, K., Millar, J. & O’Donovan, B. (2010). Feedback : All that effort, but what is the effect?, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35:3, 277-289


Related Radical Reads:

Feedback Should be More Work for the Recipient

Giving Effective Feedback is a Work For/Work On Process

@shareski’s Right:  My Students CAN Assess Themselves

11 thoughts on “Peer Feedback Should Start with Observations, Not Evaluations.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey “Austin and Ally,”

      Thanks for stopping by. Now I have a question for you: How often do you get the kind of feedback that you saw in the video when you are in school? Is that the kind of feedback that you get regularly? If not, what kind of feedback DO you get in school?

      As a teacher, I’m curious!
      Mr. F

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Russ!

      Thanks a ton for pointing me to Grant’s bit! I’m doing a ton of thinking about feedback right now, and I’m eating stuff like that up!

      Hope you are well, by the way. I miss connecting with you — but love watching your growing family through Instagram. Such a world of complete joy.

      Rock on,

  1. Matt Townsley

    I agree, Bill. Students providing each other with feedback not only makes sense, but could also help them reflect on their own work! Another Bill, William Glasser, wrote a few books — one of them Quality Schools — advocating students self evaluate early and often. Now, if we agree this premise is true, how what does this look like with adults in our schools? Should administrators being giving fellow administrators more feedback? Would it make sense for teachers to visit their colleagues’ classrooms more often for peer feedback, or perhaps vide record their own teaching to review later with an instructional coach?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      You got that right, Matt!

      When the adults in our schools have very few positive examples of feedback — instead of grading/assessment — in their own professional lives, we shouldn’t be surprised when they struggle to give it in classrooms. Like everything, we need to give teachers chances to experience best practices before they will implement them! Seems like a no brainer, but honestly, it never happens.

      That’s why your position is so powerful: You can create those opportunities for teachers!



  2. Philip Cummings

    I like this, Bill. I guess where I struggle a little is what to do when you don’t have a quality exemplar. I faced this a few times when my class did project based learning. The students’ work didn’t meet the standard, but I didn’t have anything I could show them to help them see why their work wasn’t up to snuff. In my class, we used the Ladder of Feedback protocol (see here: to give and receive feedback, but it was still very evaluative. I very much like the idea of making things more observational. How would you do that if there wasn’t a model to compare it to?

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Pal,

      Looking forward to learning about Feedback Friends! Thanks for sharing the link. Can’t look today, but going to pick it up tomorrow, I hope.

      And I think the short answer to your question is that I’d create an exemplar. Almost at any cost. If we are going to change the cultures of our classrooms from a culture of grading to a culture of feedback, that becomes our primary task. We spend less time looking at student work and more time looking for examples of student work.

      Does this make any sense?

  3. Chris Jakicic

    Hi Bill, I’ve been very interested to read your thinking about feedback. Knowing that you’re trying this all out with students makes it so authentic — thanks so much for sharing your insights.

    1. Bill Ferriter Post author

      Hey Chris,

      Thanks for the support! I’m certainly trying, that’s for sure. The struggle is that I’m still expected to give grades and get through a massive curriculum — so there’s tension (again) between what I know matters and what I feel pressure to be doing.


      Anyway…can’t wait to cross paths again!

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