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Dedicated to Teachers

The Heinemann Fellows: Michael Pershan on Student Feedback

Michael Pershan is a Heinemann Fellow with the 2014–2016 class and has been an educator for four years. In today's post, Michael questions the processes of student feedback and how he can best change them through research.

by Michael Pershan

The most exciting thing in my life right now is parenthood. A few weeks ago my son was born. Since then, my wife and I have received a lot of unsolicited advice. Some of it is sensible but obvious like, “Make sure he’s eating,” and, “Babies like to be hugged.” Other people have wildly unrealistic recommendations like, “Sleep when the baby is sleeping.” While it might be nice to get more sleep, that’s also our time to eat or shower. (Or write blog posts. He’s sleeping on me as I type.)

This reminds me of my teaching. I am suffused with teaching advice, very little of which ends up being helpful: “Focus on learning,” “Put the child at the center,” and, “Help students be independent.” All these sentiments are unobjectionable, even stirring, but ultimately they don’t help guide my teaching.

This is true for more specific areas of teaching as well. A great example is student feedback. I teach math to elementary and high school students. For the past few years I have been unsatisfied with the feedback I give my kids and confused about how to do better. I’ve looked for advice but found the existing wisdom unsatisfying.

I have been looking more carefully at feedback that makes a difference for my students

A quick web search turned up many articles promising to help improve the feedback students receive. “When it comes to feedback, the sooner the better” was a common urging. I took this advice to heart. I created answer keys for my students so they could check their work immediately after finishing their quiz. You can’t get much sooner than that! Even better, my students were giving themselves feedback, so I was able to fulfill another bit of the received wisdom by putting my students behind the steering wheel.

This past year, as one of the Heinemann Fellows, I have been looking more carefully at feedback that makes a difference for my students. The closer I look, the worse the commonly offered advice seems. “When it comes to feedback, the sooner the better” sounds good but doesn’t hold up to close inspection. Effective feedback needs to address the needs of individual students, and it’s hard to do this while rushing. And aren’t there situations when it would be insulting to receive quick feedback? Imagine spending a month working on a term paper and having the teacher give you feedback moments after it’s handed in. Wouldn’t that feel rushed, even a bit disrespectful?

Instead of searching for the “best” ways to give feedback, I have been focusing on my decision making. This shift is subtle but important. From studying my students’ reactions to feedback, I know that different feedback is appropriate in different situations. Asking for the most effective ways to give feedback is like asking a doctor to list the most helpful qualities of drugs. The list would be wildly unhelpful and likely generate platitudes. (“One: drugs should be digestible. Two: medicine should improve health.” Well, duh.)

Although feedback resists simple characterization, the situation is not hopeless. Since context matters, to make good decisions about feedback I need to pay attention to the right things. I ask myself four key questions while deciding how to give feedback to a student:

  • What are my learning goals for the class?
  • What are my learning goals for this student?
  • What will this student be able to do once she or he has received my feedback?
  • How will this student react to receiving this feedback?

Knowing what questions to ask makes a big difference.

However, there is so much more I have to learn. What other factors do I need to consider? Does all feedback have the same purpose? Does it all work the same way? What other questions can I ask myself to improve my feedback planning? These questions are all open-ended, and my research will attempt to address them.

In future posts, I’ll share some student work that shows how this research plays out in my classroom.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Michael Pershan is a math teacher at Saint Ann's School in New York City. His research question asks, "Is written feedback or oral feedback more beneficial for fostering geometric thinking in high school students?"

Follow Michael's progress on Twitter @mpershan.

Visit the Heinemann Fellows page.

Topics: Heinemann, Heinemann Fellows, Mathematics, Math, Michael Pershan, Student Feedback

Date Published: 03/18/15

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