Walking a Mile in The Shoes of Our Students

You know that descriptive feedback, and not a mark, is one of the most influential tools to help students move forward in their learning. After completing your assessment of student learning you are quite happy with the feedback that you have provided for them. In your eyes it is suggestive enough to enable them to go back and re-consider the sections that need more attention, but not so directive that they simply change what you told them to. You are eager to see how they use the feedback and progress in their learning.

The next day in class you give the feedback to your students and notice that they have a blank look on their face. One student asks, “Where is my mark?” while others ask, “What do you want me to do?” Feeling a bit dejected you try and simplify it for your students so that they can understand what your intentions are. After all, you know that if the students do not understand what the feedback is trying to say to them they will not use it and your effort and time could be wasted. What do you do? Do you give up on providing feedback and go back to the marking system that students are familiar with and know how to navigate? Or would you consider sticking with it in hopes that they will eventually ‘get the hang of it’?

Over the course of my career I have experienced this type of scenario over and over again, regardless of the grade level, subject area, or geographical location. As I am sure most teachers can attest to, students (and parents) have learned how to play the game of school and anytime something deviates from their game plan they get confused and bothered and want to go back to what they know. This coincides with the natural human tendency to seek and stay within our comfort zones, and it is especially present within our schools as we have all come to a general understanding (mainly through experience) of how marks and grades are used in the learning process. When we venture away from this common understanding, and in particular decide to use descriptive feedback instead of marks to help students in their learning, we are not only challenging the status quo, we are also forcing our students to think and process information in ways they are not used to doing. This is not as easy as it sounds for the students, parents, or us as teachers.

One of the realizations I have come to around the use of descriptive feedback for students is that many of them are not prepared to take it in or know what to do with it. Many of their assessment experiences revolve around the use of numbers, symbols, and/or positions within a scale on a rubric. While there could be helpful information gathered from these areas, many students simply look at it, make it mean something, and then move on to the next task at hand. In other words, it means very little to them and more often than not does not help them progress in their learning.

I am a strong advocate for the use of descriptive feedback (and only feedback during the learning process) and have come to realize that we need to do a better job in helping our students learn how to receive, use, and provide feedback. Too often the feedback gets internalized as a personal judgement, rather than a professional one, and in turn many students tune it out.

With this in mind, I am beginning a new journey into the world of student feedback by providing them the opportunity to give it to me while using established criteria as a reference. It will be done anonymously so that they have a sense of relative freedom to say what they want to say about my performances in the identified areas and criteria. It is my hope that they will learn how to focus on a topic (i.e. the area they are assessing me on) and provide their thoughts on how it went, and how I might improve, while sticking to the criteria vs. offering their personal opinions (e.g. “I don’t like the activity so do something else”). Through these efforts I am very hopeful that they will begin to understand how to give effective feedback, and through this will then come to know how to receive and then use it. Indeed, we are all about to walk a mile in each other’s shoes.