Like many educators, I consider myself a lifelong learner. Typically, my learning centers around the field of education, so when an opportunity presents itself to learn something new and challenging outside of my profession, I usually embrace it. My mastery levels with these endeavors have varied. For example, learning how to make soup dumplings in a hutong kitchen in Beijing…not even close to mastering this skill. Re-learning how to ride a bicycle after over 20 years of not riding…partially proficient. Doing a headstand on a paddle board…now that, I have mastered!
If it was not about earning a “grade” or taking formal assessments on the aforementioned activities, then what factors contributed to my ability to succeed?
At some point during those glorious three seconds that I was precariously balanced upside down on my head, it came to me. The secret to my success had everything to do with the feedback that I received throughout the learning process.
Back in 2007, educational researchers, John Hattie and Helen Timperley said that, “Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative” (See link below for their article, The Power of Feedback). The research is still consistent with their 2007 findings: the type of feedback (and the way in which it is given) has a direct impact on learning. So, how can we provide useful feedback to our students?
Grant Wiggins wrote about 7 key characteristics of better feedback. In his article, he says, “Feedback is not about praise or blame, approval or disapproval. That’s what evaluation is–placing value. Feedback is value-neutral. It describes what you did and did not do.” (See link below for full article by Wiggins).
7 Characteristics of Better Feedback: (Grant Wiggins)
Let’s examine these characteristics through my reflections from Paddle Board Yoga:
Goal-Referenced: Paddle Board Yoga started with the instructor defining the desired goal of the class. She said that by the end of the session, I would be able to stand on my head while balancing on the paddle board. She provided clarity of the learning goal as well as clarity of the mastery objectives. She demonstrated the desired goal several times for me to observe. She then explained that in order to achieve the desired goal of standing on my head on a paddle board, I would first have to master some basic skills. Throughout the lesson she would reference the goal and explain the connection between what we were doing and the ultimate goal. For example, I practiced balancing on my knees because it would help me learn the importance of weight distribution on the board. I practiced different hand placements so that I would eventually be able to use my hands to create the foundation of the headstand. Everything that I was practicing had a purpose that would lead to the overall goal, and the feedback I was receiving was always goal-referenced.
Transparent: Once I was clear on the goal, I needed transparent and tangible results related to that goal. Throughout the lesson, it was the feedback from the instructor that told me to either continue with what I was doing, or change my strategy. Each time the board would flip over, the instructor would point out the reason. She would say things like, “You put too much weight on the right knee, so the board flipped to the right.” I used that feedback to adjust my weight accordingly the next time that I got up on the board. I quickly began to learn that every action I took had a tangible effect on my ability to master the goal and I was soon self-regulating and adjusting.
Actionable: The information I was receiving about what I was doing “right” was just as important as the information about what was “going wrong.” As I began to lift off into a headstand the instructor would say, “notice how you are pulling your elbows tightly in toward your head? That will help you to stay steady once you lift your legs.” Her coaching was so concrete and specific that I was able to act on it. It made me wonder about all those times I would say to a student, “Great job!” when he/she answered a question correctly in class. How did my students know what was so great about their response so that they could continue to be successful? Or when I would say, “No, sorry, try again,” I was not providing any useful feedback so that my students could learn from their incorrect responses. Actionable information provides a roadmap for learners.
User-friendly: I have been in yoga classes where the instructor has used highly technical terms that were difficult to decipher as a novice yogi. Feedback such as, “When you are in Vrksasana pose, the most important thing is drishti.” This was completely useless to me. The feedback would have been more useful to me if the teacher had said, “when we move into tree pose, find a point of focus to rest your gaze. It will improve your concentration and balance.” I attribute my success on the paddle board to the fact that the feedback provided by my instructor was user-friendly.
Timely: How useful would it have been if the instructor saved all of the feedback for the end of class? At that point, I would have lost the context for the feedback. I also would not have had time to adjust my techniques and try again. Feedback is best when provided immediately or soon after the student has demonstrated their level of progress toward the goal. How can we help students close the gap between the goal and the current level of mastery? In an article called, Feedback for Learning: Make time to save time, Dylan Wiliam says that, “If you’re going to use your precious time to give feedback, plan classroom activities so students can respond and act on it.” (See link below for full article.)
Ongoing: With ongoing practice and the ongoing feedback that goes with it, my overall performance on the paddle board and the quality of my headstand would improve. Wiggins makes the following important point about this:
“All adjustment en route depends upon feedback and multiple opportunities to use it. This is really what makes any assessment truly “formative” in education. The feedback is “formative” not merely because it precedes “summative” assessments but because the performer has many opportunities – if results are less than optimal – to adjust the performance to better achieve the goal.”
7. Consistent: This last characteristic of effective feedback highlights the importance of teachers working together to define levels of proficiency and moderate student work against common criteria. This collaborative effort brings about consistency in expectations, the collection of exemplars to share with students, and the creation of quality rubrics to describe levels of performance. It also benefits our students if we come together to plan interventions for learners who are not yet meeting the goals/standards and to create ways for students to extend their learning when they are meeting them.
I ultimately met the intended goal of performing a headstand on a paddle board, not because I was a “natural”, or because I was motivated by a grade. I learned because I had an excellent coach who knew that the key to my success was dependent upon the type of feedback she gave me throughout the learning process.
Click here for the full article by Wiggins
Click here to read The Power of Feedback by Hattie and Timperley
Click here to read Dylan Wiliam’s article