Feedback for Learning: Make Time to Save Time

Feedback for Learning: Make Time to Save Time

Focused feedback from a trusted teacher or partner helps students learn.

Focused feedback from a trusted teacher or partner helps students learn.

By Dylan Wiliam

What Dance Teachers Know

At Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, a high school jazz dance class is in session. The teacher has organized the dancers so each student is partnered. When Alannah Miles starts belting out “Black Velvet” from the speakers, partner #1 performs a complicated sequence of dance moves, while partner #2 observes with a focus: the observing students have been asked to give their partner-dancer specific feedback to help them improve the sequence.

If you’re going to use your precious time to give feedback, plan classroom activities so students can respond and act on it.

The first group finishes, and the partners confer. The teacher circulates, listening for the quality of the feedback and making corrections and elaborations, or giving praise. When the dancers try again, she moves through the lines, adjusting an arm position here, the tilt of a head there. She demonstrates for one student how choreographer Bob Fosse taught his dancers to “flow, then snap!” By the end of class, the students have improved their articulation of the sequence, and they know it: They give themselves a round of applause. Because the improvement in performance is so clearly linked to the feedback, it’s easy for the students to relate how focused feedback from a trusted teacher or partner clearly helps them learn.

Dance teachers and sports coaches have long known how to plan ample feedback time into their lessons and practice. They realize how a learning sequence of introduce/practice/feedback/practice again can yield big, often immediate, leaps in student learning. Can teachers of academic subjects take a page from their playbook?

Reflection and Action

In last month’s post on feedback, we talked about how building trust between teacher and student is a crucial part of feedback that works. But teachers in academic subjects know that even when that bond is solid, it can be much more difficult for students in conventional classrooms to see the link between the comments, suggestions, or notes a teacher makes and improvement in their own learning. Lesson timescales in academics tend to be longer, and the practice of minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day feedback and assessment has not traditionally been part of academic school culture—at least not in the way it has been for sports, dance, and theater classes.

But students in academic subjects benefit from the kind of reflection and practice that athletes understand so well. Indeed, such reflection can also help teachers ensure that feedback is working. After all, if your students can’t tell you how they are using your feedback to improve their work, the feedback probably isn’t having its intended effect.

Don’t give feedback unless you allocate class time for students to respond.

In many, perhaps most, classrooms in the United States, teachers spend hours crafting feedback for their students, but they spend much less time ensuring that students are using that feedback appropriately. This is a wasted opportunity.

Let’s face it. Writing comments in a student’s notebook is one-to-one tuition (I don’t know a single teacher who can grade two books simultaneously). One-to-one tuition is the most expensive form of education—what Benjamin Bloom called “the gold standard” (Bloom, 1984). Spending time giving helpful comments to students but then failing to ensure that students are responding appropriately seems perverse.

As a general rule, I recommend that teachers should not give feedback to their students unless they plan time for students to respond—to build on the feedback, put it into practice, or reflect on how it can improve their work. Put simply, if it’s worth your spending time generating feedback, it’s worth taking instructional time to ensure that students respond.

And, just as important, when students know that feedback will tell them what to do next, feedback stops being the “post-mortem” on how badly they did last time, and instead focuses on “What’s next in my learning?”

And then it’s also important to make sure to monitor how students are responding. You might use feedback sheets, with the upper portion for your feedback and the lower portion for student responses. Some teachers ask students to maintain a “feedback log” set up the same way in a separate notebook. If students don’t respond, the teacher withholds further feedback until they do.

Ultimately, the systems themselves are not as important as the teacher having a way to check if students are incorporating feedback for improvement.

Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.

Robyn Renee Jackson suggests that one of the most important principles for teachers is “Never work harder than your students” (Jackson, 2009). I regularly ask teachers whether they believe their students spend as long processing feedback as it takes for the teacher to provide it. Few teachers say yes. We spend far too much time giving feedback that’s either completely ignored or given scant attention. That’s why making class time for processing feedback will save you time in the long run.

Teachers: Have you come up with interesting ways to offer feedback and monitor how your students process or act on it? Tell us how in the comment section below. And take a look at Dylan Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box series to learn how to use productive, consistent formative assessment to raise student achievement and foster a shared belief that all students can improve.