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How to Improve Feedback for All: New Perspectives, Practices, and Possibilities

Over the years in preservice and in-service settings, we’ve asked, “What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you see or hear the word feedback?” And here’s what some of the sticky notes written by teachers reveal about many peoples’ initial thinking.

  • Timely
  • Noisy
  • Useful
  • Distorted
  • Formative
  • Written
  • Ignored
  • Time-consuming

These ideas, impressions, and “first draft” thoughts are typical–and also revealing. Each is “correct.” Yet when we probe, for example, “ignored” or “time-consuming,” our questions yield more ideas and more nuanced and complex impressions.

Questions around the efficacy, effectiveness, and equity of traditional feedback practices abound. Many wonder if feedback practices can provide soft data for immediate use in a way that hard data (numbers, points, grades) cannot.

As educators who have taught in K-12 settings, our focus is how to energize fellow teachers, students, and staff about why feedback matters to a good education (Darling-Hammond, 1996). Over the years, we’ve found that teachers know about feedback, yet they have many unanswered questions about feedback’s most effective uses. Questions around the efficacy, effectiveness, and equity of traditional feedback practices abound. Many wonder if these traditional practices can provide soft data for immediate use in a way that hard data (numbers, points, grades) cannot.

Whenever we warm up the topic of feedback with a brainstorm, we then pause. This is important. Yes, we have over 30 years of evidence that feedback makes a difference in multiple outcomes (Hattie, 2012). And that matters. But we must also pause, listen to one another, and dive a little deeper on the topic of feedback. Many educators and students (!) still want to know:
◗  Who is feedback really for?
◗ Who provides feedback and to whom?
◗ Who benefits from feedback most?
◗How can feedback make a difference now?

Based on our own teaching experiences in New York and California public schools, and now our work with both seasoned and beginning teachers in English Language Arts, history, music, math, science, art, world languages, and physical education, we know–very practically–feedback matters. It’s a daily part of everyone’s teaching and assessing-for-learning routines. Spoken feedback moves are almost as ubiquitous as exit slips and turn-and-talk routines when checking for understanding (Duckor & Holmberg, 2017).

Yet there is so much more. Learning how to spot feedback moves with a trained eye requires a new pair of glasses, that is, new perspectives for seeing more possibilities for feedback-rich practices.

We wrote Feedback for Continuous Improvement in the Classroom (Corwin, 2023) to help everyone share in the conversation and invite adults and young people on the journey to understanding why and how feedback makes a difference. Let’s take a look at two big ideas that illustrate some new perspectives, practices, and possibilities when it comes to feedback in the classroom.

One Coherent Framework and a Shared Way to See Feedback at Work

Everyone knows that getting started with a new assessment practice is hard. Sometimes we need a proverbial “guide on the side” to show us new possibilities. It also helps to have the big picture in mind as we make choices about what to try during this lesson and for a particular unit plan.

Our formative feedback (FF) framework provides teachers, paraprofessionals, instructional coaches, and staff with three main focal points–directionality, configuration, and modality–for seeing what matters in feedback practices across various subject matters. Think of the FF framework as a pair of glasses that assist in seeing what is shared among many, in and across the school’s ecosystem. It’s a vision for initial sense-making and conversation starters about “what we all want to work on” together, whether informally or formally, individually or in groups.

Figure 1: Formative Feedback Framework

Source: Feedback for Continuous Improvement (Duckor & Holmberg, 2023)

We’ve intentionally designed the FF framework with corresponding lenses for each focal point, which we define with examples in our book. To make feedback practices visible to all, it helps to anchor the “work” with non-technical and more user-friendly, intuitive language. Anyone who has taught, observed, or coached a lesson knows that teachers will initiate feedback, often verbally (i.e., by speaking and inviting dialogue/conversation), in small groups or individually. Our music, art, and physical education teachers are highly adept at spoken and non-verbal cues as they provide just-in-time feedback on students’ projects, games, and compositions during class-time. Our ELA, history/social science, and science teachers are equally adept at orchestrating peer to peer and self-assessment routines that help students learn how to learn from others in the classroom, whether they are working on posters, labs, or persuasive essay drafts.

By holding space for multiple focal points and lenses on our practices, the FF framework ensures that we make connections to how we enact practices while also making decisions on which practices (for example, modalities in online, blended, and face-to-face settings) to dive deeper into. There can be no doubt that feedback has its disciplinary elements and that each content area requires us to figure how students’ learning progresses in a unit of instruction (Heritage, 2008). Good classroom assessment is embedded in the quest to weave kids’ needs, contexts for learning, educational goals, and content standards. Yet continuous improvement of instruction and assessment practice in the classroom, in the lab, at the theater, or on the field asks: Got feedback? When? How? Why? And where?

The more we can help students visualize the process and model the purposes of feedback-for-all, the better.

Part of the answer to these questions is: It depends. Collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills will help us find our own answers to which of the focal points (i.e., directionalities, configurations, or modalities of feedback) can help our students most at a certain point in time. We believe in modeling for students and giving them opportunities to engage and re-engage one another with guided feedback. The more we can help students visualize the process and model the purposes of feedback-for-all, the better.

Intersecting Feedback Loops With a Shared Project

Long-and short-cycle feedback loops intersect over the life of our work with students. These loops represent a process. At the center of the commitment to feedback-for-all is the notion of a shared project, one that we plan for together with our students. Students and teachers must join together in these shared projects, tasks, and assignments so that both can feel the power of authentic learning as a team. Feedback loops are key to the success of these efforts. Based on experience, we think it makes sense to place reminders everywhere–on the walls, in the assignments, with the progress guides–to support all students. That way, you can always point to “where we are” and “where we are going” in a feedback exchange.

Figure 2: Formative Feedback Process Model

Source: Feedback for Continuous Improvement (Duckor & Holmberg, 2023).

One way to envision an effective, robust feedback loop is to consider how it evolves as a process that gains momentum over time. We want to get traction on the shared project. Thinking through the work process and project cycle with our students as partners is key. Figure 2 shows the five major phases in the assessment cycle that students should be aware of before embarking on a performance task, project, or assignment. Each phase can serve as a checkpoint and, if necessary, as a stopping point to discuss norms, adjust as needed, and evaluate what’s next for the class.

We use the example of “evaluating a project” to delineate the markers and goals for the cycle of a feedback loop, but there will likely be many iterations and sub-routines within and between phases. Key to all these feedback exchanges is communication: That is why we say well-designed classroom assessment practices that include formative feedback are an art as much as a science (National Research Council, 2001).

The Formative Feedback Process Model helps students, teachers, parents/guardians, and paraprofessionals alike to see the big picture. It gives everyone a chance to address three essential questions in our learning communities:

  1. What are we working on?
  2. How does feedback help us improve? and
  3. Why is it so important to teach and learn these skills in the 21st Century?

In a second blog, Part Two, we will begin formulating answers to these questions by sharing practical, adaptable tools for making feedback make a difference. Innovations such as Progress Guides can help bring peer-to-peer and self-assessment to life in your classrooms. Stay tuned!

Brent Duckor and Carrie Holmberg are authors of Feedback for Continuous Improvement in the Classroom: New Perspectives, Practices, and Possibilities.

References

Darling-Hammond, L. (1996). The right to learn and the advancement of teaching: Research, policy, and practice for democratic education. Educational Researcher, 25(6), 5–17.

Duckor, B. & Holmberg, C. (2017). Mastering formative assessment moves: 7 high-leverage practices to advance student learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Duckor, B. & Holmberg, C. (2023). Feedback for continuous improvement in the classroom: New perspectives, practices, and possibilities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.

Heritage, M. (2008). Learning progressions: Supporting instruction and formative assessment. Washington, DC: The Council of Chief State School Officers. Retrieved from http://www.ccsso.org/Documents/2008/Learning_Progressions_Supporting_2008.pdf

National Research Council [NRC], (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Committee on the Foundations of Assessment, J. Pellegrino, N. Chudowsky, & R. Glaser (Eds.). Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

 

Written by

Brent Duckor, Ph.D., is professor in the Department of Teacher Education at San José State University. Dr. Duckor also serves as a core faculty member in the Ed.D. Educational Leadership program at the Lurie College of Education. He taught government, economics, and history at Central Park East Secondary School in New York City in the 1990s. With the passage of No Child Left Behind, Brent returned to earn a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley  and study educational measurement, testing, and assessment in the Quantitative Methods and Evaluation program at the Graduate School of Education.

Carrie Holmberg, Ed. D., is a lecturer in the Department of Teacher Education and preservice teacher educator at San José State University. She taught at a Title I comprehensive high school in Silicon Valley for nearly a decade and has extensive experience mentoring new teachers. Carrie has twice earned her National Board Certification. She also worked with the Stanford Partner School Induction Program and the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Program for many years.

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