Empowering Students to Provide Peer Feedback | Starr Sackstein | 3 Min Read

How many times have you been burdened by a pile of papers in desperate need of your feedback or grading?

Of those times, how many have you found ways to cut corners on because there are just too many?

It’s okay to be honest with yourself about this, no one else is listening or judging.

You are only one person, how can you possibly give every child exactly what he/she needs at that moment, when they all need something different at the same time?

Unless we consider something else; another possible solution that can benefit everyone on multiple levels.

After all, why should teachers be the only valuable voices of feedback in a learning space?

Time for another unteaching moment

Until now, most students have been trained to do as they’re told, ask questions of the teacher as needed and make changes only when a teacher suggests they be made. 

Because, a teacher’s feedback is clearly the ONLY right feedback.

Wrong.

What if we can teach students to become adept at looking for the things we notice in their writing and then allow them to work together and by themselves to revise and workshop their own writing?

What if we give them the tools and the vocabulary to give feedback to each other, freeing us up to work with kids one on one in a different capacity?

By giving students these skills, we empower them to learn skills that works for them in their writing process making them more independent learners now and in the future.

Here’s a few beginning tips for teaching these skills:

  • Always model the behaviors you want students to learn, so in early assignments make sure to highlight text and provide specific feedback on common mistakes. For example, highlighting the first lines of an introductory paragraph that jumps right to an answer and write “introductory paragraph lacks context building sentences.” If enough students exhibit issues in this area, provide a full class lesson. If only a few, provide small group instruction. Then ask students to practice looking for this element in their peer’s writing, indicating the same way.
  • As a class, walk through an essay together going over key elements of what should be included in the essay. Show them multiple examples, so they don’t feel there is only one right way.
  • Provide them questions to ask themselves that are focused and aligned with the standards.
  • Consider a checklist of items they can be looking for. For example, a clear and cohesive thesis section, evidence from the text, analysis of the evidence, transition words, concluding paragraph.
  • Break the kids up into groups focused on one particular area of the essay: an introduction group, an organization group, an evidence and analysis group, a cohesion and transition group, a language and sophistication group and a conclusion group. Work with each group as to what they should be focusing on and then have the class share their writing with each group. When the groups review the writing, they only focus on their one area leaving comments for what their specialty is. You might even provide them some “stock” comments to start out, ones they can cut and paste until they get the hang of it.
  • Encourage students to ask questions about what they are reading to encourage clarity.
  • Encourage students to be specific in their questions about their own writing. “Is this good?” is not an acceptable question. Try instead, “I’ve been revising for analysis rather than just summarizing in the second paragraph and I’m uncertain if I’m still summarizing too much; Can you look at that paragraph?” Teaching kids to identify perceived challenges and then ask appropriate questions will be extremely helpful in their learning.
  • Don’t fix anything for a student. Request a conference with students rather than just changing anything. When we correct it for them, we take away the opportunity for them to learn it on their own.

The more skills we offer students to learn and master on their own, the more capable people they will become. Too often, we enable children in a crippling manner forcing them into learning submission. This is dangerous for their futures, as they will lack the skills to complete tasks and adequately grow as people.

In what ways can you further empower your students within the learning process, making your life easier and theirs more efficient?

This post ran on Starr Sackstein’s Education Week Teacher blog Work in Progress in October 2014

Starr Sackstein

Starr Sackstein started her teaching career at Far Rockaway High School in the early 2000s, eager to make a difference. Quickly learning to connect with students, she was able to recognize the most important part of teaching: building relationships. Fostering relationships with students and peers to encourage community growth and a deeper understanding of personal contribution through reflection, she has continued to elevate her students by putting them at the center of the learning. A National Board Certified teacher, Ms. Sackstein has written many books and articles, including: Teaching Students to Self-Assess: How Do I Help Students Grow as Learners?; Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School; Peer Feedback in the Classroom: Empower Students to be the Experts with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD); and Assessing with Respect: Everyday Practices that Meet Students’ Social and Emotional Needs (ASCD March 2021). Sackstein contributed to compilation works such as Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (Teaching and Learning in Higher Education). Ms. Sackstein blogged on Education Week Teacher at “Work in Progress,” where she discussed all aspects of being a teacher and education reform for five years ending in 2019. Most recently, Sackstein has been consulting full-time with the Core Collaborative, working with teams on assessment reform, and bringing student voice to the front of all classroom learning. Balancing a busy career of writing and educating with being Mom of high schooler Logan is a challenging adventure. Seeing the world through his eyes reminds her why education needs to change for every child. Rounding out her family is her husband Charlie who is a mindfulness and meditation coach, as well as a personal trainer which comes in handy for being conscious of self-care. Together they adventure around the world bringing harmony to each other’s lives. Starr can be reached at [email protected] or via Twitter at @MsSackstein. She can also be found at MsSackstein.com.

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