When giving feedback, relationships matter, but so does what you say and how you say it

“However, the thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. When teachers know their students well, they know when to push and when to back off. Moreover, if students don’t believe their teachers know what they’re talking about or don’t have the students’ best interests at heart, they won’t invest the time to process and put to work the feedback teachers give them. Ultimately, when you know your students and your students trust you, you can ignore all the “rules” of feedback. Without that relationship, all the research in the world won’t matter.”
~from “Is the Feedback You’re Giving Students Helping or Hindering?” by Dylan Wiliam

This quote from Dylan Wiliam is resonating strongly with me today. As a team we spent today mostly looking at student self-assessment. We visited Jonathan So’s grade 6 classroom in the morning, then worked together in the afternoon summarizing the data from student assessment literacy surveys and creating self-assessment task requirements and success criteria. Throughout the day, though, I kept thinking about the recent feedback I had given students and how it was received.

In Jonathan So’s feedback-focussed classroom, his students were using a tracking form for math expectations. They needed to indicate if they had met or not met the learning goals, then plan next steps for the ones they had not yet met. This was in preparation for a student-written update of their progress for their parents. I asked one student how she knew if she met the learning goals. She said that she looked at Mr. So’s feedback and determined if she was able to do what was expected without further instructions. Not only were the students able to self-reflect, they were able to articulate the process succinctly. I know that Jonathan has purposely cultivated a climate of trust in his classroom which celebrates each student and that he lets them know that they matter. I could tell that they trust him and know that he has their best interests at heart. This resulted in a calm, reflective attitude in the students where they received his feedback with a growth mindset.

Jonathan So’s You Matter board 

In contrast, the feedback I recently gave students on a large project was received with many different attitudes. Most students were academically thoughtful and satisfied with the feedback, but several were visibly affected by the feedback and this eventually resulted in tears on both sides, mine and theirs. This huge emotional response to descriptive feedback (there were other factors, but the most emotion was around the written comments) has prompted a lot of self-reflection since I know that I have the students’ best interests at heart and that I worked very hard to make sure I gave good feedback to help the students move forward in the next inquiry. 

The learning goals and task requirements were in typed text on the feedback document and I highlighted everything that was met. What was not highlighted was accompanied by a handwritten comment. I’m starting to think that this is the problem. All those highlighted, typed sentences were not considered important to the students and parents who were upset. They seemed to focus on the small details that were handwritten. Somehow, I did not convey the positive aspects. My tone or word choice or maybe even the size of writing (compared to the typed text) created a message that I had not intended.

Is this a reflection of my failure to cultivate a classroom climate where the students feel they matter and that I care about their success? I don’t think so, since this is something very important to me, but it is something to think more about.

Is it the personal nature of written comments versus the “coldness” of typed and highlighted text? Today, when we looked at the data from our assessment literacy surveys for all of our classes, “written descriptive feedback” was considered very effective by 63% of the students, compared with only 41% for “typed descriptive feedback.” Surely we are not giving better feedback when handwriting than when typing–but the students think it is more effective.

When giving feedback, relationships matter, but so does what you say and how you say it. So, I have taken out my books. I will refresh my skills on descriptive feedback by seeing what the experts say. Even in just a quick perusal of the headings in Dylan Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy’s “Embedding Formative Assessment,” I can see interesting areas to explore. For example:

  • Feedback should focus on what’s next, not what’s past
  • Don’t give feedback unless you allocate class time for students to respond (something we discussed with Jonathan So today)
  • Provide an appropriate balance of critical and supportive feedback
  • Make feedback into detective work (hmm.. I wonder what that’s about!)

I am also working on providing feedback through screencasting. I hope that this will be an effective tool to give feedback while also conveying the positive “growth mindset” spirit that I feel about each student. I hope to rebuild trust with these students.

Edited to add:

The example of feedback gone awry that was described above was actually from a class where I give grades for summative assignments. I was thinking this morning about the difference between that course and the one where the grades are determined by a portfolio and negotiated with the student. In the latter case, the student learning starts with a blank slate and the artifacts in the portfolio build evidence of learning and skills. In the former case, essentially students start with 100% and I feel like I have to justify why they do not get 100. What are they missing? What was done well, but also what was misunderstood or incorrectly completed? Of course it results in comments that are critical as I justify the grade. Another thing to consider as I move forward.

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