Who's doing the thinking?

Much has been written about the value and power of effective feedback on student learning. We know it helps students improve their work and can enable them to get past the ‘hard bits’ of learning. Feedback is something that is highly valued by students, and it works. However, can teacher feedback actually be doing a disservice to the student?

One of the most quoted phrases from the New Zealand Curriculum vision states that we want our young people to become confident, connected, actively involved lifelong learners. If this vision is to truly be achieved we need our students to become self-regulating, independent learners. This requires them to be reflective, analytical, self-evaluators. If the teacher is the one always providing the feedback then how can these skills be developed?

Take a typical situation in a classroom where students have been given a writing task. A learning intention has been shared and success criteria developed by the class. The students then begin to attempt the task at hand. A student finishes his draft. What happens next is crucial. Does the teacher:

A - provide some immediate specific feedback to the student based on the agreed criteria?


B - give the student the task of self-assessing his work before consultation with the teacher takes place?

Scenario A

By providing timely specific feedback the teacher is following many of the rules of good formative assessment practice. The student and teacher can discuss the feedback and identify strengths and weaknesses within the work and also provide some next steps for the students to make the piece better overall. On the face of it, this is sound classroom practice, as the student has been very well supported to be successful with the task at hand. However, who is doing most of the thinking? The teacher, of course. The critique of the draft and identification of positive and negative aspects has been largely done by the teacher. Yes, there may have been some really good analytical discussion between the teacher and student. However, the student is mostly reliant on the teacher to provide the ‘analytical expertise’ and has largely taken a passive role in this process. The worst case scenario is that the student feels they have lost some ownership of their work as the teacher is the most influential figure in reshaping the work.

Scenario B

Self-assessment is not something that students become an expert in straight away. Students’ lack of skill in this area is often the reason given by teachers for abandoning this process, as it does not produce the required results straight away. However, as with anything, you need to practise if you are to become good at it. Take an extremely simple self-assessment process as seen in the picture below. The student was asked to self-assess his handwriting identifying the best ‘E’ (green) and one he could have done better (orange).


This seems so simple, but some of the analytical processes the student may have used include:
•    Comparing his work to a model
•    Checking key criteria – Starting at the right place firstly then slope, size etc.
•    Comparing each of his letters to those criteria
•    Eliminating some based on those criteria
•    Making judgements
•    Finding the worst example (based on the criteria)
•    Finding the best example (based on the criteria)
•    Identifying common errors
•    Identifying common strengths
•    Thinking about ways to get better
•    Identifying what to work on next time.

While the student may not have used all of these processes, it is a great way for a five year old to begin self-assessing his work.

It is the same with the writer in Scenario A. The student is required to reflect on his own piece of writing first and foremost. He has criteria to support him and also that inner sense of knowing whether this is the best he can do. The goal should always be to make it better. Once this self-assessment is complete the teacher can then discuss the student’s decisions with him rather than giving specific feedback on the task. This not only reduces the workload for the teacher, as they are not required to do a full analysis of the work, but it also takes the reflective discussions to a higher level because it is the student’s decisions in relation to their work that are being discussed, not only the piece of writing. Who’s doing  most of the thinking now? The student!

ThinkingSome of the reflective questions for this student could include
•    Have I achieved the learning goal?
•    Can I identify where I have met the success criteria?
•    Which are the best examples which I can highlight?
•    Where are some bits that I could do better?
•    Can I find any better words or phrases?
•    Does it read well?
•    Have I got any basic spelling or punctuation errors I can improve on?
•    Am I happy with the quality of my work?
•    Will someone else be able to understand my piece of work?

The benefits of this process include:
•    Ownership of the task remains with the student.
•    Independent learning has been practised and encouraged.
•    The student has to reflect and focus on his own work before other input is received.
•    The student’s self-assessment and analytical skills will be practised and will improve with time.

Branch & Paranjape (2002) describe the difference between the two processes well:
    “Whilst feedback tends to promote skill acquisition and competency, reflection leads to individual growth and interpretation of the greater meaning and implications of an experience or action. It is important to establish a reflective atmosphere with your student.”

So, when teaching in your class, it is worth asking yourself this question before you proceed with any acts of feedback:
“Have these students had the opportunity to self-assess and reflect on their own efforts first?”

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Tags: feedback active learners self assessment

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