Why Teachers should Provide Descriptive Feedback
Students’ progression from one learning target to another works best when they receive descriptive feedback to help them improve. This means teachers should provide descriptive feedback. As a teacher, think about how you generally perform these two teaching actions related to feedback: “…my students receive continuous and specific feedback…” and “I consistently recognize my students’ strengths” (see Who’s Engaged, p. 11, for a full range of these items). Six rules of thumb explain why teachers should provide descriptive feedback and coach students to learn (see Who’s Engaged, pp. 43-46):
Provide descriptive feedback to recognize good performance. Sometimes we express what students do incorrectly, but seldom reward and recognize good performance. Using research findings from Gallup’s work on employee engagement (Rath, T., 2004), Studer speaks to the 3 to 1 compliment principle; that is, three compliments to one criticism equals positive behavior, two compliments to one criticism equals neutral behavior, and one compliment to one criticism equals negative behavior.
Very specifically describe how students can improve their performance. Rich description (e.g., “Work on making better transitions from one paragraph to another. Think about how each paragraph connects and use language to show that connection”) provides much more information for students to use than do statements like “good work” or “needs improvement.”
Focus on how well rather than how rapidly students accomplished the learning target. Learning is not about how fast students complete a task. We are interested in how close students are to hitting the learning targets.
Focus on quality rather than quantity of student work accomplished. If we give students a large quantity of work to keep them busy, we are not focused on how well they are learning the target at hand. Students easily recognize when we assign them work to keep them busy. Students working fewer problems well and with an understood purpose produce better student learning results than students completing loads of work with a goal of “getting it done.”
Focus feedback on the learning task, not personalizing it to the student. Share information that speaks to the specifics about a performance rather than making a judgment about the value of any student. This means providing feedback such as, “Jon, I noticed that all capitals of the southern states were correctly identified. Let’s work on another section of the country and get those correct. Check out this set of northern states. See if you can get those correct as well.”
Provide opportunities for students to express that they understand the feedback and what they need to do to improve. A quality feedback process is as much about students reflecting on the information as it is about them receiving it. As students receive descriptive feedback on clearly defined learning expectations, they begin to take ownership of their learning. They become self-regulated learners. Each step of the way they gain confidence to become better and better learners.
As teachers we must constantly create ways to collect and analyze information to share with students. Feedback can be applied by the teacher, by student peers, or through self-assessments. The underlying importance, however, is that we simply and specifically create ways for students to receive descriptive feedback about their performance.
Pilcher, Janet K. (2010). Who’s Engaged?Climb the Learning Ladder to See. In this text Dr. Pilcher shares what it takes for students to achieve learning results and how teachers create learning targets aligned with learning tasks and formative and summative assessment measures. The text is used in the TeacherReady online alternative teacher certification program; TeacherReady is a state approved professional program accredited by NCATE.
Rath, T. (2004). The best ways to recognize employees. Gallup Management Journal.
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