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The Flip Side of Feedback: Embedded Professional Learning

Today's guest blog is co-written by Mary Jane O'Connell and Kara Vandas, authors of the forthcoming book Partnering with Students to Build Ownership of Learning (spring 2015).

Is effective feedback just for students?

When we break apart the word feedback down to its parts, we find the word feed, meaning to nourish, and back, meaning in return or in exchange.  Therefore, feedback is meant to nourish learning through an exchange of information.  Most teachers recognize that providing feedback to students on their work products and assessments are ways to move student learning forward.  

On the flip side, how often do teachers ask students for feedback on what transpired in the classroom as a way to advance their own teaching and ultimately student learning? 

Asking students for feedback on what was learned as well as how it was learned opens the door for a healthy discussion that can lead to unprecedented learning and growth for the students and teacher. When teachers flip their perspective and actively seek feedback from their students, a natural professional learning opportunity is presented that virtually costs nothing and is a win/win situation for everyone.  According to John Hattie, this reflective practice encapsulates many elements he describes as formative evaluation of teaching, which has the power to more than double the rate of learning.

How can students be part of the feedback exchange to improve teacher growth?

The first step is a subtle, but significant shift in thinking.  When feedback falls upon deaf ears and fails to be accepted or acted upon, there is no exchange and the feedback is deemed irrelevant, discarded and produces no improvement.  However, if teachers begin to request and act upon feedback from students, a unique partnership is formed that naturally embeds professional learning for the teacher and increases achievement and motivation for students.  The following examples provide a glimpse into how teachers can solicit and model how to embrace feedback to improve instruction and classroom interactions.

Class Feedback Exchange:  3-5 Minutes Time Required

A Plus/Delta invites feedback from the class regarding what was learned (Pluses) and what is needed to improve learning (Deltas: The Greek symbol that connotes changes).  Using a simple T-chart, the teacher can record responses and engage students in a conversation to identify what is working or being learned and how to address issues. 

To surface the Pluses, the teacher might ask,  "What helped you learn today?"  To solicit the Deltas, the teacher might propose, "What was confusing or hindered your learning?"  For example, the students might indicate as a "Plus" that the modeling of several problem-solving approaches was helpful.  As a "Delta" they might agree that more practice opportunities with teacher or a partner prior to independent work were needed. 

The exchange of information affirms the students' perspectives and the teacher's use of modeling. The students' request for more practice is validated when the teacher admits to the class that she also wondered if this is why the work from yesterday had so many errors.  She will plan to incorporate time for more practice and a choice to work with her or partners tomorrow. 

One-to-One Feedback Exchange: 1 Minute or Less Time Required 

Teacher: "Sean, here's your quiz. You nailed items 1-3.  Tell me what you did to learn this information."  

Sean:  "The other day, you drew a learning map for this unit and asked us to do one in our notebook and add to it as we read the chapter.  This helped me organize the information and make connections. You can see how I also color-coded things that I felt I understood and some I needed to think about or reread."

Teacher:  "I know the learning map helped me organize what and how I needed to teach the unit. It sounds like it helped you organize your learning. I'm thinking about how color-coding might help the entire class and myself as well. Would you be comfortable sharing your idea?"

In this short conversation, there has been an exchange of information that produces benefits for the teacher and Sean. Both are able to articulate how an instructional strategy such as a learning map helped them better achieve the learning goals. Through this feedback exchange, the student has learned a new strategy to add to his toolbox while also providing some "food for thought" for the teacher to enhance her repertoire of instructional strategies.  Perhaps more importantly, they have begun to unveil the power of their partnership as means to improve both teaching and learning. 

Are there any drawbacks with the feedback exchange?

An obvious concern is time.  How does a teacher squeeze in time for the feedback exchange with the class or individual students?  In most cases the time is short, quick and highly focused and takes anywhere from 15 seconds to 5 minutes.  It can occur daily, weekly or in any combination.  Since an effective feedback exchange can double the rate of learning, it will actually save time.

Perhaps a more hidden concern is fear. It takes courage and a willingness to ask and accept feedback that can be less than glowing.  After all, teaching is a very complex, difficult process and teachers are human and to "err is to be human."   It takes lots of stumbles and lots of practice to perfect the skills needed to master the artistry of teaching. Students are an untapped resource in our classrooms that can help perfect the artistry and skills of any teacher willing to ask, accept and act upon feedback from a powerful and often untapped resource, the students.

Mary Jane O'Connell is a former elementary principal in Douglas County Colorado, and Kara Vandas is the former Director of Teacher Effectiveness at the Colorado League of Charter Schools. 



Hattie, J. A., Timperley (2007). The power of feedback. American Educational Research Association. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications            http://rer.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/77/1/81

O'Connell, M. J. & Vandas, K. (2015). Partnering with students:  building ownership of

            learning.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Corwin Press.

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