We Need To Rethink Feedback: Shifting from Evaluative to Learning-Focused

Olympic skier going down a mountain and rounding a markerOriginally posted February 24, 2017

Picture this scenario—you’ve found yourself asked to provide feedback to an aspiring Olympic downhill skier. You’ve never skied before nor have you studied any of the technical side to downhill skiing. How do you focus your feedback?

Well, I can offer some possible conclusions of what might happen based on a similar scenario I implemented with classroom teachers. Working with a group of 7th-12th grade English Language Arts teachers on feedback and revision practices, I knew I had to place them outside their comfort zone of content knowledge to truly “get” how easily we fall prey to providing ineffective feedback. The new content—juggling! Creating trios, I assigned roles: a juggler, a coach, and a field researcher. Each field researcher was given a checklist delineating out Jan Chappius’ Five Characteristics of Effective Feedback:

  1. Feedback directs attention to intended learning, pointing out strengths and offering specific information to guide improvement.
  2. Feedback occurs during the learning, while there is still time to act on it.
  3. Feedback addresses partial understanding.
  4. Feedback does not do the thinking for the learner.
  5. Feedback limits corrective information to an amount the learner can act on.

The field researcher was told not to share their notes with their trio partners but rather, to place check marks in a chart similar to the below example:


Using Jan Chappuis’s Five Characteristics of Effective Feedback, note how many times (using a √) during the activity you hear the peer reviewer give feedback connected to the corresponding feedback characteristic. Jot bits of dialogue, phrases, etc. in the notes column.

Effective Feedback Characteristics Notes
Characteristic #1
Characteristic #2
#3…  and so on

I then shared a brief how to video on juggling. Then, with three tennis balls in hand, jugglers were to juggle and coaches were to provide helpful feedback. You can imagine the mayhem that ensued. Very quickly coaches became exasperated because, as they said, “I don’t know how to juggle.” They, like their juggling trio partner, were entering into a practice in which neither had any background experience. Quickly coaches fell back to supportive statements such as “Don’t give up—keep trying” or “You almost got it that time.”

So why do I share this story? Because we enact what we know and learning-focused feedback is not necessarily something we as educators have experienced. In Joellen Killion’s The Feedback Process: Transforming Feedback for Professional Learning, she lifts up that feedback is a process and not a product. In the foreword, colleague and friend Jim Knight (University of Kansas Center for Research and Learning) states, “skillfully crafted feedback that doesn’t prompt growth or learning is no better than poorly crafted feedback that doesn’t lead to change—what matters is growth, learning, and change” (pg. vii). How frequently as educators do we engage in “feedback” that we believe is about growing learning but falls flat? Could our past experiences with feedback be trapping us into a hierarchical positioning that disempowers a learner?

Ending the expert to novice mindset

When I placed teachers into the trios, empowering one to be the coach, I was also playing into a long-held perception that feedback providers must enter into the relationship as the master of the content and the juggler as the responder. I saw this dynamic play out noticing that in some trios the juggler didn’t engage in conversation with the coach but rather just kept trying to juggle as the coach shouted encouragement. But in a few trios I saw the juggler and coach strategizing together; assessing quickly what wasn’t working and problem solving new methods to try. Killion’s book addresses the phenomenon I witnessed. As she shares, the common lament of how to get people to use another’s feedback “suggests that those asking the question see themselves as the master and the recipient as a responder to their demands or expectations” (pg. xi). In this dynamic of master and responder there’s an unequal investment. In learning-focused feedback, Killion explains, the learner is in the driver’s seat. More than half my room of 7th-12th grade ELA teachers lived into a master-to-recipient hierarchy. They did not position the juggler as the driver of the learning. As the activity progressed, they increasingly grew very uncomfortable in their roles as coach without feeling expert on the content being enacted.

So the challenge of learning-focused feedback is to let go of seeing feedback as an expert-to-novice dynamic and to live into being a learning partner. As Killion describes, we need to see feedback as a “constructivist process that engages learners with their partners in generating and deconstructing knowledge” (pg. xi). How frequently has someone providing feedback received feedback on their feedback? Sound confusing? If we are entering into a “constructivist process” in our feedback then we must move beyond a one directional flow of feedback. Wondering what that might look like embedded in classroom practice?

Theory into practice

As a writing teacher, providing feedback to student writers was a daily event. My early instructional approach to writing highlights all the “don’t do” moves of feedback. I’m sure I wrote many ineffective “awk” (awkward) notes in margins. I felt only useful feedback came from an expert. Over the past 5 years I’ve been researching the power of peer feedback. Research is emerging on the power of learning that can happen for the one providing feedback–especially when the one providing feedback receives feedback on the level of helpfulness from the receiver. Eli Review, a peer review software, is just one example of an evolving landscape of educational feedback resources repositioning feedback into a constructivist process versus a one directional red pen copy-edit interaction. But the Eli Review group would also share how peer feedback—or even shifting feedback practices of writing teachers—is still in its infancy.

Join the conversation

Shifting our feedback practices will take intentional focus. We invite you to engage further in exploring how to build learning-focused feedback practices:

  1. February 27, 9:00 pm on a Twitter chat facilitated by Joellen Killion in collaboration with Learning Forward Virginia and Learning Forward Michigan. Join the chat at #lLFMI. Spend
  2. March 21, 8:30-4:00, with Joellen Killion to examine the attributes of the feedback process as well as the various types, purposes, and sources of feedback among teachers. Register at http://learningforwardmichigan.org/events/the-feedback-process-the-power-of-learner-focused-feedback/

Learn how to create a culture in which educators routinely engage in the feedback process for professional growth. Gain a deeper understanding of the feedback process and how to employ it to promote increased educator effectiveness.

Additional online modules centered around the Standards for Professional Learning and Learning-Focused Feedback will be available this spring through the Michigan Department of Education’s Edupaths professional growth portal.

Susan Wilson-GolabSusan Wilson-Golab joined Oakland Schools in 2010 following 22 years of in the field 6-12 experience across two different states and rural, suburban, and urban contexts. Her research and practice focus heavily on the evolving definition of literacy, developmental learning progressions, and formative assessment. At the district level, Susan has served as classroom teacher, Literacy Specialist, and ELA Curriculum Coordinator. These experiences and study helped Susan in her role as Project Leader for developing a model 6-12 ELA curriculum for the Michigan Association of Intermediate School Administrators (MAISA)— a curriculum resource now globally available. More recently, Susan launched Michigan Teachers as Researchers Collaborative (MiTRC). The mission: to build collaborative participatory research between university and secondary teachers from around the state interested in exploring and developing the teaching and assessing of writing. In 2000, she joined the National Writing Project through the satellite Oakland Writing Project site based out of University of Michigan. She now serves as Site Director for the Oakland Writing Project