In John Milton Gregory's classic, The Seven Laws of Teaching, one of the laws he describes is that learning must move from the known to the unknown. He writes: "Find out what your pupil knows of the subject you wish to teach...This is his starting point", and, "Lead him to clear up and freshen his knowledge by attempting a clear statement of it", and again, "Make every advance clear and familiar, else the next step may be from unknown to unknown--a violation of the law."
Getting feedback from students on their learning, and then also giving to students feedback on that learning, are critical pieces in the process of moving from the known to the unknown. Below are a few important things to keep in mind about feedback:
Getting Feedback from Students
1. Teachers should frequently seek to find out during the lesson what students are understanding and misunderstanding. There are many means of doing this, from hand signals and white boards to pair-share activities, and more.
2. Feedback from students should be involuntary. It's vital to check with all students, not just the eager few who want to answer. Teachers should check frequently with individual students as well as with the class as a whole, not just ask for volunteers. A good ratio would be something like 3:1--three involuntary responses for every voluntary.
3. All-inclusive. There should be some checking for understanding in every lesson that involves all students--no volunteers, no opting out.
4. These checks should usually be non-graded events. The purpose is to see what students' level of understanding currently is and to adjust your instruction accordingly. The activity can be scored, of course, if a numerical value is of help to you and the students.
5. Use the results to revise instruction as needed. Again, the purpose of getting frequent, involuntary feedback from all students is so that teacher can be modified if necessary to respond to areas of misunderstanding or partial understanding.
Giving Feedback to Students
1. Feedback to students must be descriptive, not merely a number or a grade. In fact, as every teacher knows, when a piece of work is returned with comments and a grade students generally focus on the grade and largely ignore the fine and helpful comments teachers have given them. Find ways to separate any grade (if one is necessary) from the descriptive feedback so that students will concentrate on responding to improving their performance.
2. Make sure feedback is specific. Comments like 'good job' or even 'excellent', while meant to be encouraging, are not effective feedback. Students need to hear specifically where their work is excellent and where it needs to be better. Tying specific feedback to previously introduced rubrics will allow students to know more exactly what they need to do to improve. This will also help them to take more responsibility for their own learning.
3. Feedback should be frequent and timely. Students need to receive frequent feedback on how they're doing. There should be many opportunities for them to express their understanding, with feedback coming back to them in a timely way so that they can act on it and improve their learning.
4. Students should use feedback to revise and track their learning. Time should be planned for students to use the feedback to make changes in some way, as needed. They may need to revise an essay, or rework a math problem. Students should also be giving the time to track their progress, again using the feedback they receive from classroom assessments and assignments.
Getting and giving effective feedback helps both teacher and students stay focused on the learning and what students may be misunderstanding or only partially understanding. Without feedback teachers don't really know how students are doing, and students don't really know how they're doing. Teachers who plan to frequently check all students for understanding, and who give descriptive, specific and timely feedback to students, will be able to ensure that their students are learning what they want them to learn, and that their students will increasingly take responsibility for their own learning.
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