Focusing on Feedback in Distance Learning
Particularly in this difficult year, providing clear feedback is key to helping elementary students achieve learning goals.
By Joe Mullikin, Elementary School Principal
© FatCamera / iStock
As educators deal with managing the complexities of instruction of remote and socially distanced learning, often the conversation turns immediately to technology and adapting pedagogy. It makes sense that we are all scrambling to get our arms around engagement strategies that leverage online tools—they’re crucial to day-to-day instruction—but conversations about the importance of feedback often get lost in the shuffle.
Particularly when many of us are physically isolated from our students, we need to incorporate steady, consistent, and meaningful feedback into our teaching. No matter what the setting, consistent communication with our students about what they are to learn, where they are in terms of mastery, and how to continue to make progress is key to their success, but right now we need to make an extra effort to ensure that those conversations are not falling by the wayside.
What Good Feedback Looks Like
Feedback can take a multitude of forms (comments, redirection, encouragement, critical information), but it’s only good if we know it’s being received—if it’s making an impact in helping our students meet goals, both ours and theirs. Good feedback is rooted in talking with our students, not at them.
Good feedback is also clear and concise; in order to be effective, it should never leave children guessing where they are at, where they are going, and how they will get to the learning outcome. This requires that we, as educators, have a clear understanding of the target we want students to get to and how they will get there.
For example, as elementary students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade are learning how to write, the expectations and feedback shift. The feedback we give to a kindergartener is different from the feedback we give to a first grader because we have a clear understanding of the target that we want students to meet.
Especially at the elementary level, good feedback is user-friendly—it needs to be provided in a way that students understand. Use vocabulary that students understand, and provide the feedback in a format they can consume it in easily. If, for example, a student is struggling to read, it’s important that while we continue to provide written feedback for them to read, we take the extra step to ensure that they can read it and can understand it.
Integrating Feedback Into the Learning Process
If we believe that feedback can be a key lever in the learning process, we must understand deeply where students are and need to go in the learning process. Before we can get students to where we want them to be, we must clearly determine where that is and understand where each student is, beyond the daily target. Understanding this allows us to build a systematic approach to ensuring that we know what we want students to know and be able to do—and a systematic approach to infusing instruction with feedback at multiple junctures.
In the learning process, a systematic approach should yield feedback that is timely, authentic, and consistent. Students shouldn’t have to wait for confirmation that they are struggling with a concept until they get a bad grade; they should get it as soon as we see evidence of it so that we can correct, support, and redirect students down the path of learning.
If we use feedback in a timely and consistent manner, we shouldn’t be surprised by how our students perform on an assessment—and neither should they. Constant, supportive feedback is critical to making sure that students know where they are, what they need, and where they are going in the learning process, not just for transparency but also so they can develop ownership in the learning process themselves.
Feedback plays a major role in the learning process, following both formative and summative assessments. Often, I hear discussions around how many points something should be worth, rather than what feedback we will give when questions are missed. Our focus and goal is that students continue to progress in the learning process, and feedback provides that lever. The learning doesn’t come from the assessment, but rather from the feedback provided.
The value of an assignment is only as meaningful as the feedback that is provided. We try so hard to get “enough” work assigned and creating engaging activities for our students, but we forget about providing feedback on the work assigned. We cannot lose sight of the importance of providing timely and specific feedback, especially when we may not have our kids in front of us.
Leveraging Feedback to Make Grades More Meaningful
I have to be honest here: I’m a little skeptical about the efficacy of grades throughout the educational system. That said, I think that grades serve a purpose and can be constructive if we are intentional about them, and if they are complemented by more nuanced feedback.
The grade a student receives should communicate the level of mastery toward a particular concept, and it should communicate the same thing to everyone (students, parents, and teachers). But if we want grades to truly reflect what students know and are able to do, we should be leveraging feedback from the start; clear, concise, and timely feedback should be guiding them toward that grade all along, alerting them to what they need to adjust to move toward the level of mastery that the grade reflects. If we use feedback that way, then the grade becomes summative and collective, holistic even. Without feedback integrated along the way, grades aren’t genuinely meaningful to anyone.
In the end, when we leverage feedback as the driving force to move students forward in learning, our conversations with them are transformed from rearview mirror assessments to proactive plans for next steps. We shift our attention, and that of our students, from how many points something is worth to how to durably correct mistakes and forge a path forward. When we leverage feedback, our conversations change from “What’s the coolest way to do this online?” to “What assignment or work allows me to best provide this feedback?”
Author: Joe Mullikin, Elementary School Principal