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Encouraging Student to student feedback

For the past several months, Sara and I have been talking a lot about feedback; the more we dive in, the deeper and richer the topic gets. One of the most important things about feedback is that at its best, it’s neither one-directional nor an evaluation from on high. Rather, it’s a conversation: a back-and-forth that leaves the receiver with actionable steps to improve their work and the giver with a deeper understanding of the receiver as a person and as a learner.

I know. It’s shocking. Even feedback is about relationships.

Though I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about how to improve my feedback processes with students, an area where I haven’t yet spent enough time is developing ways for students to give effective and actionable feedback to each other. A few weeks ago, I had a chance to observe a classroom where it was happening.

A colleague had recently given an end-of-unit test in her physics class and wanted to try out a new way of having students make test corrections, one that would get them talking to each other and collaborating. (I should note that the test was comprised of word problems. Many of them had multiple parts and multiple calculations to make. I’m curious how this activity would work with other test formats.) Her first step was to grade the tests without writing anything on them. Making all her notations in a spreadsheet was probably the most challenging part of the process, she told me. She explained what she was hoping to do next, and I asked if I could come and watch.

When students came into the classroom, they received their tests with only an indication of how many points they had lost. Then she gave them the rules of the exercise. Without using any notes or resources other than each other, they could correct anything on their tests they wished to correct. Since they didn’t know which of their problems were correct, partially correct, or incorrect, they would need to collaborate. “Find the person with the highest score!” one student immediately called out. The instructions continued: if they successfully corrected a problem, they could earn half the missed points back; if they changed an answer that was already correct, they would lose half the points (quite a few groans: “Oh, no! It’s like gambling!”); if they wanted to keep their current score and do no corrections, they could. And a final reassurance: No one would end up with a lower score than they started with.

I had my doubts about how this was all going to work. Were they just going to find the classmates with the highest scores and copy everything? Were the students who had scores in the 90’s going to sit and do nothing? At this point, two students indeed said they were sitting it out. “Too stressful.”

Then, a fascinating thing happened. Students did start grouping up, seeking classmates with the higher scores. But because no one’s test was perfect, everyone’s answers were suspect. For the next forty minutes, I witnessed an engaged and in-depth set of conversations.

“I used the right equation but interpreted my answer wrong.”

“I think we both made the same mistake.”

“Oh. Right…A negative direction wouldn’t make sense here.”

“Wait. Say that again. Why did you do that?”

Throughout this whole process, my colleague sat back, watched, and listened. She responded to questions sent her way with a cheerful but unhelpful shrug.

In our conference presentation on feedback, Sara and I talk a lot about John Hattie’s (et al) conception of the feedback process. Task feedback helps students with content acquisition and knowing whether something is correct or incorrect. Process feedback helps students think about their strategies, what connections they can make, what resources to draw on, what to do when they hit a wall. Process feedback has been connected to deeper learning and students’ ultimate ability to manage their own learning, find their own errors, and know when they need to seek help.

Process feedback was happening all over the room as students discussed and corrected their physics tests.

About ten minutes into the period, one of the two students who had opted to sit it out decided to participate after all. He’d been listening in on one of the nearby conversations, and it had given him an idea for something on his test he wanted to correct after all. The overheard feedback had drawn him in.

If you have found great ways for your students to give each other effective and actionable feedback, we’d love to hear about it or even come see it in action. Be in touch!

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