May 25, 2016

Specific Feedback: Why It Matters & How You Can Implement It

Teachers across the board hear these expressions often... "Great job! Good work! Nicely done! It looks great!" Some of us might even say them to our students often. Even though we're trying to reinforce students and their learning, we're actually doing them a disservice by not being more specific!

Specific feedback was discussed in every undergraduate and graduate teaching class I ever took. We practiced how to give specific feedback, how to recognize examples of unspecific feedback, and how to rework unspecific feedback into specific feedback. All of this practice, all of this repetition, and yet, from time to time, I find myself still providing unspecific feedback to my students. I typically catch myself and rework the feedback each time, but it still happens even though I know all of this! Why?

Unspecific feedback stems from rushing to get to as many students as possible without providing enough individual attention to give them a specific critic or emphasis. It's the easy way out for feedback and every educator has fallen into the trap at some point, but we need to be diligent about providing specific feedback. Our students engagement is depending on it!

According to an exert of an article by Bryan Goodwin and Kirsten Miller in September 2012, researchers have discovered that video games are widely successful because they provide large amounts of specific feedback:

"Many parents have observed the irony that a child who shows little perseverance when practicing piano or doing homework will joyfully commit countless hours to mastering Guitar Hero or other video games. In fact, by the time the average U.S. adolescent turns 21, he or she will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games (Prensky, 2001)—which is, as it turns out, about the same amount of time necessary to fully master a sport, musical instrument, or area of professional expertise (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993).
According to Prensky (2007), the addictiveness of video games can be partly attributed to the constant stream of feedback they provide. At each level of the game, players learn what works and what doesn't, and they can immediately use that knowledge to advance to more challenging levels. And researchers have found that the same dynamic applies in education: One of the most powerful keys to unlocking student motivation and perseverance is feedback."

I recommend reading the entire article here. I wish I could quote the entire thing within this post, but I will let the eloquence of the original authors shine through. There is a lot more evidence cited as to why specific feedback is so important!

So this begs the question, how can we incorporate SPECIFIC feedback into our classrooms? 
(Note: I am approaching this from a physical education perspective, but all classrooms benefit from specific feedback).

In my classroom, my class size ranges from 19 students up to 31 students. Many teachers, especially in physical education, have class sizes double or even triple that! Getting to every student can be an enormous task, but there are a few tricks to help us out, regardless of how large (or small) our classroom may be.

1. Pick one item to critique each class period. Learning is a step-by-step process and our physical education classrooms are no different. When we're teaching students the steps in how to swing a baseball bat, they aren't going to get every step right the first time! In teaching the baseball swing, start in steps and critique/provide feedback as you move through. For example, day one of teaching the swing, focus on providing feedback for their hand position. This will allow you to be specific while still reaching each child. If you try to focus on all seven to eight components (depending on your style) you'll never reach every child and you'll be forced to provide unspecific feedback.
Specific feedback sounds like:
  • "You're doing an excellent job of keeping your dominant hand on the top of your grip while swinging the bat."
  • "I can see you're working very hard on your swing, but remember to place your dominant hand on top of your non-dominant hand while holding the bat during your swing."
2. Avoid standardized feedback cards. I'm noticing a trend on TpT of seller's offering feedback cards with cute phrases like "Great job in class today!" or "You rocked PE today!" and while I'm sure those are nice, they don't tell your students WHAT they did a good job with. If you want to provide feedback cards to your students (which I think is awesome) you need to provide them with specifically created cards for them and your activity. Does this take a lot more time? Yes, but aren't our students worth the investment? We're teaching to make a difference! Making specific feedback cards takes longer and therefore I provide them once per unit. This is a picture of a feedback card I typically give to my students. They are not available for sale on my TpT store, but I would anticipate them becoming available over the summer. 

3. Complement long-term feedback with short-term feedback. The research is showing that students respond best to immediate feedback. Provide informal, specific feedback daily to every child and then compliment that feedback once a skill has been mastered (or improved) in the long-term. In my classroom, I provide daily feedback on the skill focus of the day and I provide long-term feedback with my cards at the end of the unit. 

4. Assess students clearly and provide specific feedback. When my students participate in an assessment, they are told exactly what I am looking for. In our bowling unit, I assessed four key areas of importance to me (hand position, three-step approach, stepping in opposition, and follow-through). When I assess, I utilize a trials method of two trials per skill. If the skill is present students receive a 1, if the skill is questionable or absent the student receives a 0. The best trial is scored for their overall grade. These skills are the focus of the unit and each receives specific feedback in the four days leading up to our overall assessment. My students know what is being assessed, what is being looked at, and how to perform each skill. I do not provide feedback during assessment, but instead utilize the specific feedback sheets after assessments have been given to share what students did well and where they can improve.

Although this post was specific to physical education, specific feedback should be given in every subject area across the spectrum. In ELA classrooms, teachers should be writing constructive and specific feedback when editing writing assignment. As the article I linked eludes to, simply writing awkward next to a sentence doesn't give the student much to work with. What about the sentences was awkward? How can they fix it? Is it the whole sentence or a small part? Is the verbiage awkward or is the sentence structure awkward? I know grading essays can take a very large chunk of time, but are we really help students writing improve by providing such vague direction? 

I personally suffered through this during my IRB process in graduate school. One professor edited my drafts and provided unspecific feedback and when it came time to turn in the final, the second professor gave me an incomplete and required me to rewrite the enter paper. Her logic was "he should have known better." So why was I, as the student, being punished for something she blatantly admitted wasn't my fault? 

Specific feedback is what helps guide students in the learning process. It allows them to process information, correct their wrongs, and move forward to more challenging topics. It is our responsibility as educators to ensure our students are able to "level up" and progress in our classrooms.

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