January 18, 2022
In the field of education, we think too narrowly about feedback. We think it is the comments we leave on student work. We ensure that the comments aren’t only negative but also positive. We try to be as specific as possible.
Because we are focused on the individual trees, we miss the view from 33,000 feet. We need to ask ourselves: what are the larger learning objectives? What are the scaffoldings (structures/systems) that will foster the desired results? As a teacher, I want my students to be curious, joyful, creative, and collaborative learners. To pivot students away from a focus on grades and towards becoming this type of learner, I suggest we expand our thinking on feedback so both students and teachers are able to move seamlessly among the learning objectives for the class, the specific goals of the assignment, and how the student is developing as a learner.
To help foster this shift, I propose we turn to the OED’s (Oxford English Dictionary) two definitions for feedback, noun: 1) “The return of a fraction of the output signal from one stage of a circuit, amplifier, etc., to the input of the same or a preceding stage; positive feedback, negative feedback, tending to increase, decrease, the amplification, etc.; also, a signal so returned.” And 2) “The modification, adjustment, or control of a process or system (as a social situation or a biological mechanism) by a result or effect of the process, esp. by a difference between a desired and an actual result; information about the result of a process, experiment, etc.; a response.”
In the first definition, feedback is a returned signal within a circuit. In the second definition, feedback is the result of modifications to a system — a response. For both, the system is dynamic and feedback feeds this dynamism.
If we think about feedback in those terms, as a returned signal and a response within a dynamic system, it shifts our attention from student work to the learning objectives of the course. Student work is a returned signal to the assignment and the assignment is a returned signal to the learning objectives. The learning objectives are a returned signal to the department’s curriculum and the department’s curriculum is a returned signal to the school mission and values. I hope you see where this argument is going: The entire institution is a closed circuit or system within which feedback as a signal and a response occurs with the intent of narrowing the differences between the desired and actual result. This model would be the ideal. In practice, most schools function more as open or broken circuits within which the feedback signal either isn’t produced or doesn’t achieve the desired result.
For the purpose of this article, let’s focus on how to ensure classroom feedback does accomplish the desired result. Within a dynamic feedback-systems model, the classroom teacher’s comments aren’t the first returned signal. The first output signals are the learning objectives of the course. A few years ago, my department developed skills and standards for every type of course we teach at each grade level. All of our classes have learning objectives. At the beginning of this academic year, we, as a team, decided that the learning objectives should be shared with students and need to be displayed on the course pages in our LMS. On the first day of class, as part of the general introduction to the class, students encounter these learning objectives. Each learning objective includes the assignments that are designed to achieve that particular objective, so students see the relationship between the assignment and the goals of the course. The first returned signal, then, is the assignment guidelines and grading rubric — it is a returned signal to the course learning objectives. Making these connections apparent also shifts students from trying to guess which assignments matter and which don’t because all assignments have learning value. Students are better able to appreciate the intent of the assignment and use the assignment guidelines and grading rubric to realize the desired results. Teacher comments are a returned signal to the student on where the student is in mastering the particular learning objectives as determined by an assignment. Student revisions are a returned signal to teacher comments. This entire feedback loop is dynamic because learning is a process.
I sometimes suspect that we educators tend to converge on the appropriate combination and specificity of positive and negative feedback because we aren’t always clear and/or transparent with students on the learning objectives. Instead, departments should focus on creating explicit learning objectives that are achieved by specific assignments whose guidelines are also clear. The assignment guidelines should be accompanied by a precise grading rubric for students to understand how they can attain mastery. Because learning ultimately is driven by the learner, metacognitive writing should be included; it pivots students to critically assess what they understand about themselves as learners. As a teacher, the metacognitive responses are the most revealing, and I always read them before I read student work, and I share this order with students. Their responses guide my feedback. When students either feel safe or are emotionally mature enough to be honest, they usually accurately identify what still needs work. My feedback, therefore, incorporates their metacognitive responses. In revising work, students’ metacognition includes questions on the choices they made, why, and to what effect.
Feedback is now a conversation not only between the educator and student but also one the student has with oneself on their learning and how the educator can best support that student in achieving and even mastering the course learning objectives. Educators and students, as a result, have to point to what works and what doesn’t work and why we are using the assignment guidelines and grading rubric.
A few years ago, my department also developed a universal grading rubric for all assignments. The elements — purpose, audience, voice, structure, support, grammar, and format — are the same but they are defined based on the assignment. Every teacher agrees that this has transformed grading. Clear rubrics make it easier to address what is working and what still needs more work. Students no longer have to contend with many different marginal comments on essays, for example, with a final comment at the end. They understand now ‘my purpose wasn’t clear but I used support well,’ for instance because the grading rubric also directed the teacher’s feedback. They are better able to perceive what they did well and what still needs work to achieve the desired result. Students are capable of driving their learning, which is the ultimate goal.
As teachers, we tend to think of feedback as something that occurs after the assignment is submitted. Or if we have flipped our classrooms, feedback is something that occurs when we meet with students. We should expand our understanding of feedback to begin with clearly articulated course learning objectives followed up with clearly articulated assignment guidelines and grading rubrics.
Furthermore, whenever I design a new assignment, I use student work to modify and make the assignment guidelines and grading rubric more precise. Based on what they produce, then I make changes for the next iteration of the course to better achieve the desired outcome. I even ask for student input on what changes should be made and incorporate that feedback. To be perfectly honest, sometimes, I don’t know fully what I want the student work to look like until it comes in. At all times, the assignment is driven by a gap I perceive in getting students to achieve the course learning objectives.
This level of clarity allows students to understand what they are learning and why. It removes the anxiety of confusion. It creates the space for students to be curious and creative about their learning and therefore joyful and collaborative because anyone and everyone can attain mastery in achieving the course learning objectives.