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Feedback That Supports Learning for Everyone

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We welcome Giselle Martin-Kniep as a guest author. Having worked in the areas of curriculum, instruction, assessment and leadership for over 23 years, she has deep insights about the changes that are both needed and possible in order to enable schools to be the best they can be.

Feedback.pngThere is much more to feedback than the giving of it. When feedback stems from the outside, our willingness and ability to use it depends on our readiness for the feedback, our relationship to the feedback giver, and the conditions in which the feedback is provided. Feedback that is descriptive, anchored, timely, meaningful and respectful can increase the likelihood that the receiver can and will use it to improve upon the work.

Feedback affects us and helps us learn. While some of the feedback we receive stems from within us through our engagement with a task or with information, much of the feedback we receive and give stems from our interactions with others. Since most feedback is relational, we should attend to the conditions that support individual and social construction of meaning.  Feedback influences both giver and receiver in some way because the feedback exchange is bound by the assumptions, expectations, and readiness of the giver and receiver. Even a non-response from someone from whom we are expecting communication is feedback since it tells us that we were not heard or acknowledged. Altogether, the feedback we exchange can either inhibit new learning or propel us forward.

Feedback that is descriptive, anchored, timely, meaningful, and respectful can increase the likelihood that it will produce new learning for those receiving feedback, whether they are adults or children. Let's look at each of these attributes.

Learners benefit most from feedback that is descriptive and specific rather than evaluative, vague, or general. Such specificity manifests itself through the linking of feedback to the work itself, and through an explanation or description of how the work impacted the understandings, feelings, attitudes, etc., of the viewer, reader, or listener. For example, consider the difference between responding to a presentation by stating that the purpose was vague, and instead stating the following:

I was a bit confused at the beginning of your presentation since I was not sure you were telling a story or sharing what you have learned from your research. It was your use of the present tense that made me realize that you had started the presentation with a story. When you finished your story, I was looking for specific information about what the purpose of your research was and how you went about gathering and organizing your information. 

Let's say that a learner is working on how to write a persuasive essay and is about to complete her first draft. To be successful, she needs to understand what "persuasion" means and the quality attributes of a persuasive message and essay. She also needs to understand the nature and use of persuasive information, the way the essay should be organized, its presentation, and the conventions that support it. Having access to exemplary persuasive pieces or even to flawed and less developed persuasive samples which she can compare to the exemplary ones can help her understand what is meant by quality. Similarly, being able to ground the feedback on checklists and/or rubrics for persuasive writing can inform her choices and what she attends to. Such tools would be even more useful if she actually participated in their development and if she were to use them as she is writing her draft and not just after she completes it. Finally, having access to feedback from her peers and or her teacher/coach which is grounded in these different tools and resources would provide her with additional input on how her work perceived by others.

Feedback is most useful if we receive it in time to act on it. This is why periodic opportunities for teachers to engage in the ongoing use of formative assessments that provide opportunities to review and respond to students' work in progress both formally and informally, can be so effective in helping students improve upon their work. Feedback that comes so early that we may not be ready to hear, receive, or attend to it can make us feel intruded upon or distracted. It can also make the giver feel dissatisfied, disregarded, or unheard. Feedback that comes so late that it would require that we redo the work we think we have already completed, can make us feel cheated or guilty and can leave the giver feeling that providing such feedback was a waste of time. Feedback that improves quality and our learning arrives just in time for the giver and receiver to benefit from it.

Feedback that addresses the most important aspects of the work is most likely to be valued and to promote learning. Determining what is most important in specific work is a function of factors such as: what is at the heart the work (e.g., solve a problem, make a decision, inform, etc.), and what revisions would make the most significant difference in improving the quality or effectiveness of the work. Another way to ascertain what feedback would be most meaningful is to ask the author of the work to identify the questions he or she would like the feedback to attend to. Meaningful feedback is relevant, prioritized, and focused. It is also not so overwhelming that it immobilizes. For example, if the work is about raising awareness, the producer is likely to care more about whether the work had such an effect and not about whether one of the examples used was too old, or whether she wrote sentences that were too long. Feedback should be prioritized and focused on the most significant aspects of the work.

Feedback, at its best, leaves the producer of the work in control of that work. Sometimes the line that defines who has control is easy to determine. This is the case when our feedback is in the form of:

  • questions that inspire the producer of the work to think about, revisit, or consider the meaning, assumptions, or implications of the work;
  • wonderings that enable him or her to see new possibilities;
  • examples that convey different approaches to the same destination; 
  • statements that convey how the work makes us feel or think; and,
  • suggestions that enable the person receiving the feedback in control of embracing or dismissing them.

Because feedback is deeply embedded in the relationship between the giver and the receiver, the line that determines ownership is murkier. Suggestions and questions can be interpreted as prescriptions depending on how we frame them, how much of our feedback sounds or reads as if we were actually prescribing, and the degree to which our relationship with the learners or producers is one in which we have more power or greater status than they do.

Even the most carefully crafted and thoughtful feedback will be rejected and fail to produce learning if the receiver is not ready for it. All feedback requires some kind of interaction between the self, the work, and what informs its development or use. Feedback that is respectfully framed, descriptive, anchored, timely, and meaningful can help the receiver care more about the work and pay more attention to the steps needed to improve it. Such feedback will produce greater learning when the feedback giver is sensitive to the readiness and needs of the receiver and when the producer of the work can make sense of the feedback and use his or her judgment to improve the work.

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