Friday, December 2, 2022

Using Grades as Effective Feedback

This week's article summary is Can Grades Be An Effective Form of Feedback.

A number of my recent summaries have focused on feedback: Is Any Feedback Effective, The Many Negatives of High-Stakes Standardized Testing, IQ Testing.

This week’s summary focuses on how to make classroom grading more effective through feedback. (Thanks to Jill for sharing the article with me!)

The article begins by detailing the many negatives of grading, in particular how demoralizing a bad grade can be for a student. We tend to think that a bad grade—like punishment for bad behavior—will act as motivation for more effort. Yet, most of us don’t respond positively to negative results.

Equally interesting to me is that the absence of grades in the classroom is also ineffective. I had one class in college in which we students chose our final grade. The professor’s intentions were to motivate us. I didn’t work very hard yet still gave myself an A. All I really learned from that class was the professor was naive to trust a bunch of 20 year olds.

The gist of the article is grades are effective when used principally as a feedback tool to students, including four components. 

First, a grade shouldn’t define the student. Following Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, teachers need to be careful that students don’t view a grade as the final word on them and their capacity for learning. Teachers need to help students see that any grade is an assessment of where a student is in the process of learning/mastering something.

Second—and similar to the previous component—is making sure students view grades as formative, not summative. Grades viewed as formative help students see what they have learned, what they still need to know, and next steps to get there. 

Third, classroom grading should be criterion-based, not norm-based. I had a few teachers when I was a student who graded on a curve, their rationale being that the curve took into account the level of difficult of the assignment/assessment. I don’t necessarily agree with all the negatives the article lists about norm-referencing in the classroom, yet I agree that basing grades on mastery of skills, concepts, and procedures is more beneficial for the learner. After all, the goal is to learn and master material, not compare oneself against the rest of the class.

Fourth, grades need to include teacher specific next steps so students can move closer to mastery.  

At our fall divisional parent meetings Sheree, Ira, Marsha, and Jill spoke about how education has evolved over the past twenty years in having grading/assessments move from the summative/normative to the formative. As I read this week’s article I was again proud of how Trinity is a leader in this area as we are in so many others.

 Joe

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Grades are portrayed as a villain by many in education today. Some researchers and authors contend grades stifle creativity, foster fear of failure, and weaken students’ interest. Others argue that grades diminish students’ emotional and behavioral engagement in learning. These claims have led some to believe that we could significantly improve students’ attitudes, their interest in learning, and the classroom learning environment simply by going “gradeless”.

But do grades deserve the supervillain label? Would eliminating grades suddenly increase students’ interest in learning and make our classrooms better places to learn? Not much evidence supports this. 

If we use grades the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons, they can be an effective form of feedback for students. To guarantee their proper use and avoid their misuse, however, we need to be sure that teachers develop and implement grading policies and practices that highlight grades’ usefulness as a form of feedback while reducing any potentially negative connotations. To function as effective feedback, grades must meet four necessary conditions. These conditions not only allow grades to serve important formative purposes, but also help remove the negative consequences of misuse.

Grades must be assigned to performance, not to students: Beginning at the earliest levels, teachers must help students and their families understand that grades do not reflect who you are as a learner, but where you are in your learning journey. Teachers further must stress that grades never describe students’ capabilities or learning potential. Rather, they provide an indication of how near or far students are from reaching specific goals. Too often, students see grades as a reflection of their innate talent, skill, or ability. Grades become personal labels that students use on themselves that can be difficult to change. When students and families see grades as a reflection of current performance only, they recognize that knowing where you are is essential for improvement. Informative judgments from teachers about the quality of students’ performance help students become more thoughtful judges of their own work. 

Grades must be criterion-based, not norm-based: Norm-based grades assess students’ relative standing among classmates. It’s sometimes known as “ego-involving” grading or “grading on the curve.” With norm-based grading, a C doesn’t mean you are at step three in a five-step process to mastery. Instead, it means your performance ranks you in the middle of the class and is “average” in comparison to your classmates. Norm-based grading has profoundly negative consequences. First, it communicates nothing about what students have learned or are able to do. Second, it makes learning highly competitive, because students must compete against one another for the few high grades the teacher will assign. Third, it discourages student collaboration, because helping others threatens students’ own chances for success. Criterion-based or task-involving grading describes how well students have met learning goals. Students’ grades are based on clearly defined performance expectations and have no relation to the performance of other students. Thus, criterion-based grades serve the communication purposes for which grades are intended. Because students compete against themselves to meet learning goals and not against each other, criterion-based grading encourages student collaboration. It also puts teachers and students on the same side, working together to master the goals.

Grades must be seen as temporary: Students’ level of performance is never permanent. As students study and practice, their understanding grows and their performance improves. To accurately describe how well students have learned, grades must reflect students’ current performance level. When students understand that grades are temporary, they recognize that assessments don’t mean the end of learning. Instead, assessment results describe where students are currently in their journey to mastery. Teachers must emphasize to their students that achieving less than mastery doesn’t mean you can’t make it, but only that you haven’t made it yet, and there’s more to do. This temporary quality of grades also calls into question the process of averaging, which combines evidence from the past with current evidence, yielding an inaccurate depiction of what students achieved. Instead, current performance should always replace past evidence to make sure grades are accurate and valid.

Grades must be accompanied by guidance for improvement: Students need guidance and direction on how to make better progress, reach the goals, and achieve success. This is true of all forms of feedback.

This aspect of feedback stems from the work of Benjamin Bloom. In his descriptions of mastery learning, Bloom explained how teachers could use well-designed formative assessments to offer students regular feedback on what they learned well and what improvements were needed. He referred to these as corrective activities. Corrective activities must be new and different from the original instruction. Reteaching concepts in the same way simply repeats a process that has already been shown not to work. Instead, correctives must offer instructional alternatives that present concepts and skills in new ways. He also recommended that students study only the concepts and skills on which they are having difficulty. In other words, the correctives are individualized, based on students’ unique learning needs.

Students need honest information from their teachers about the quality and adequacy of their performance in school. Parents and families need to know how their children are doing and whether they are meeting grade-level or course expectations. Although grades should never be the only information about learning that students and families receive, they can be a meaningful part of that information. When combined with guidance to students and families on how improvements can be made, grades become a valuable tool in helping students achieve learning success.

Friday, November 11, 2022

Is There Any Value in IQ Tests

This week's article summary is Is IQ a Load of BS?

Similar to last week’s summary on standardized tests, this one focuses on the pros and cons of IQ tests.

With both standardized and IQ tests, the goal is an objective assessment of general intelligence (aptitude and/or achievement).

As you’ll see in the article, there is a slight correlation to IQ results and career success, yet myriad other factors play a role in our professional and personal successes. It’s not simply what your brain can do, it’s how you use it, especially in your interactions and relationships with others. Yes, you need some gray matter to succeed, but, especially in today’s marketplace, you need to be able to work collegially, collaboratively, and productively with colleagues. 

Nevertheless, it seems to be a human instinct for us to want to know our IQ score. Whenever I come across an article that promises to assess my IQ in only a few questions, I can’t resist taking the bait. I think we all want to be considered smart. Validation from an IQ test perhaps can give us the confidence to push ourselves to take intellectual risks, like reading Moby Dick, a book I’ve tried to read several times yet failed miserably.

Just as Trinity emphasizes a whole-child approach to education, we also need to see that our brain power is only one part of the greater whole of who we are and what contributes to our success and happiness. It’s why Trinity focuses so much on character/social-emotional (sense of self and care and concern for others) development. Intelligence is dangerous without being guided by goodness.

 Joe

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At the turn of the 20th century, people were falling over themselves trying to make tests to objectively measure intelligence. It was based on the common assumption that all kinds of intelligence — verbal reasoning, spatial awareness, memory, and so on — were simply manifestations of some central, basic general intelligence. The first test to measure this general intelligence was well intentioned. It originated in France and was designed to identify which children would need extra help at school. This test, known as the Binet-Simon test, eventually became the model on which all IQ tests today are based.

It wasn’t long, however, before the tests were turned to ill. Children as young as three are told they are of below-average intelligence based on a series of questions inspired by a century’s old psychology. Racists have long used IQ as an “objective” measure of racial superiority. The Nazis used versions of these tests to “prove” that certain ethnicities were subhuman. They used it to justify forcible sterilizations or the murder of children considered of an insufferably low IQ. In 1927, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 8-1 in Buck v. Bell to allow states the right to forcibly sterilize those they deemed “mentally deficient” by these tests. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously wrote: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” It’s thought that roughly 70,000 people were victims of this ruling.

Just because something has, historically, been used for immense evil doesn’t necessarily mean it is, in itself, unfit for purpose. So, with what we know today, how far should IQ be trusted?

To answer that question, we have to first ask what IQ is. These days, most reputable IQ tests or psychologists will openly admit that IQ is not a complete measure of how smart you are. These tests do not tell you, nor are they intended to tell you, your overall cognitive prowess. What IQ does measure is something called “general mental ability” (for example, pattern recognition), also called g. The Raven Matrices, one of the most popular tests, is pretty reliable at telling you what a person’s g might be. There are many other more specific tests that can investigate particular cognitive aspects — like memory, verbal reasoning, mathematical ability, and so on. If you want to know someone’s g, then an IQ test is the best tool for the job.

Additionally, there does seem to be at least some evidence pointing toward a correlation between someone’s g and their overall academic and professional success. Personality traits such as agreeableness, conscientiousness, trust, and generosity also feature highly in indicating future success, but, as one study puts it, “Higher intelligence results in significantly higher… earnings.” Personality matters, but IQ matters a bit more.

There’s also a practical aspect to IQ. In a world where large organizations, from the military to multinational corporations, insist on some kind of psychometric testing, IQ tests might be the best we have available.

But, there are two major problems with IQ.

The first problem with IQ stems from those who misunderstand what it’s trying to measure. IQ measures your score on a test against the averages of everyone else taking that test. It tells you how good someone is at answering certain types of questions, as compared with others. Thus, it’s not about an absolute intelligence, but relative intelligence. The trouble occurs when people misunderstand this point.

They assume IQ represents raw “brain power.” Worse, some people equate IQ with worth. Employers, especially, might write off a person based on a low IQ. Doing so fails to appreciate that many employees can offer skills and abilities that lie beyond the scope of IQ tests (such as personality factors like conscientiousness). Furthermore, the correlations mentioned above — that is, those between IQ and success — are still, statistically, considered small ones. The data we have — the data some people use to pigeon-hole a person for life — is desperately weak and inconclusive.

The second problem is that IQ is far too narrow a metric to dominate so much of the psychometric landscape. IQ represents only one, or a few, kinds of intelligence. Even the ancient Greeks knew there were different types of intelligence. For example, there was techne (vocational skills), episteme (general knowledge), phronesis (practical wisdom), or nous (a kind of rational intuition). Psychologist Howard Gardener identified eight different kinds of intelligence, and “IQ tests and other kinds of standardized tests valorize” only two of them.

So, is IQ BS? Well, it’s complicated. IQ is a test, designed to gauge a certain type of intelligence, which some argue (on weak data) is a good indicator of lifetime success. It ranks people against each other, when no other information (such as examinations or qualifications) can meaningfully help in that ranking.

Headlines like “Ways to improve your IQ!” seem to reveal what IQ is — an examination. And, like any exam, you can game and train for it. The fact that you can improve your IQ reveals a still more fundamental point: IQ is not a measure of who you are. It isn’t something structural to your being, unchangeable and predetermined (such as your genetics).

Human society is diverse. No one is identical, and no two people will approach a problem in quite the same way. Each of us is better and worse at different aspects of life. When employers seek to hire only one type of person, they risk missing the benefits of what others — those beyond the remit of IQ tests — can provide.


Friday, November 4, 2022

The Many Negatives of High-Stakes Standardized Tests

This week's article summary is The Psychological Toll of High-Stakes Testing.

I’m guessing that very few of us recall with glee taking standardized tests. I remember getting my first SAT results as a junior in high school: I had always felt I was fairly intelligent and while not Ivy League material I assumed most colleges would accept me. Getting those SATS scores was a shock to my ego. I literally worried if I would get into any college.

So, I prepped before I took the test a second time and raised my scores enough that I no longer felt stupid. Still, it really wasn’t until second semester of my freshman year in college that I began go regain confidence in my academic abilities.

Not surprisingly, the article below highlights the many negatives of standardized tests.

Topping the list is that they are a poor predictor of future academic performance because they don’t measure qualities like creativity, work ethic/effort, perseverance, and resilience.

The article points out some good aspects of standardized tests as well, especially that they provide a snapshot in time of where we stack up compared to others.

It’s dangerous, however, when scores are used to determine important decisions like college admissions or for our students middle school acceptance.

Partially due the pandemic and partially due to changing trends, many schools are beginning to re-assess the purpose and use of standardized tests. In many ways, what we have traditionally done at Trinity is what many schools are now using them for: one data point to help inform where a child is and needs to go. We don’t teach to the test yet we know from experience that our child-centered, differentiated pedagogy yields positive results (more a byproduct of) in traditional assessments, like standardized tests.

According to the article, it’s not standardized tests that are evil; it’s making them ‘high-stakes.’ It will be interesting to see to what extent colleges continue to de-emphasize standardized test results in their admissions process.

 Joe

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One problem with standardized tests: We don’t fully understand what they measure.

They are ideally designed to provide an objective appraisal of knowledge or perhaps even of inherent intelligence. 

But a recent study by Brian Galla, a psychology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, with Angela Duckworth and colleagues concluded that high school grades are actually more predictive of college graduation than standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. 

That’s because standardized tests have a major blind spot, the researchers asserted: The exams fail to capture the “soft skills” that reflect a student’s ability to develop good study habits, take academic risks, and persist through challenges. 

High school grades, on the other hand, appear to do a better job mapping the area where resilience and knowledge meet. Arguably, that’s the place where potential is translated into real achievement.

“The more I understand what testing is, actually, the more confused I am,” said Duckworth, a psychologist and expert on measuring human potential. “What does the score mean? Is it how smart somebody is, or is it something else? How much of it is their recent coaching? How much of it is genuine skill and knowledge?”

Yet standardized tests are still a mainstay of U.S. education. They play a critical role in deciding whether students graduate, what college or university they’ll attend, and, in many ways, what career paths will be open to them. Despite the fact that they take a few hours to complete—a tiny fraction of the time students spend demonstrating their learning—the tests are a notoriously high-stakes way to determine academic merit. 

By several measures, high-stakes tests are an inequitable gauge of aptitude and achievement. A 2016 analysis, for example, found that the tests were better indicators of prosperity than ability: “Scores from the SAT and ACT tests are good proxies for the amount of wealth students are born into,” the researchers concluded. 

Even students who manage to do well on the tests often pay a steep price emotionally and psychologically. “Students in countries that did the best on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) often have lower well-being, as measured by students’ satisfaction with life and school,” wrote Yurou Wang, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Alabama. 

Test results are often tinged with a kind of existential dread. In an 2011 study, Laura-Lee Kearns, a professor of education at Xavier University, discovered that high school students who failed the state standardized literacy test “experienced shock at test failure,” asserting that they “felt degraded, humiliated, stressed, and shamed by the test results.” Many of the students were successful in school and thought of themselves as academically advanced, so the disconnect triggered an identity crisis that made them feel as though “they did not belong in courses they previously enjoyed, and even caused some of them to question their school class placement.”

“I enjoyed English, but my self-esteem really went down after the test,” a student reported, echoing a sentiment felt by many. “I really had to think over whether I was good at it or not.” 

High-stakes testing commonly begins in third grade, as young students get their first taste of fill-in-the-bubble scantrons. And while the tests are commonly used as diagnostic tools (presumably to help tailor a student’s academic support) and to evaluate the performance of teachers and schools, they can come with a bevy of unintended consequences.

“Teachers and parents report that high-stakes tests lead to higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of confidence on the part of elementary students,” researchers explained in a 2005 study. Some young students experience “anxiety, panic, irritability, frustration, boredom, crying, headaches, and loss of sleep” while taking high-stakes tests, they reported, before concluding that “high-stakes testing causes damage to children’s self-esteem, overall morale, and love of learning.”

Tests like the SAT and ACT aren’t inherently harmful, and students should learn how to manage reasonably stressful academic situations. In fact, banning them completely might be counterproductive, denying many students a critical avenue to demonstrate their academic skills. But to make them a condition of matriculation, and to factor them so prominently in internal ranking and admissions processes, inevitably excludes millions of promising students. 

Last year, the University of California dropped SAT and ACT scores from its admissions process, delivering a resounding blow to the power of two standardized tests that have long shaped American higher education. Meanwhile, hundreds of colleges and universities that dropped testing for pandemic-related reasons are reconsidering their value--including all eight Ivy League schools.

“This proves that test-optional is the new normal in college admissions,” said Bob Schaeffer, FairTest’s Public Education director. “Highly selective schools have shown that they can do fair and accurate admissions without test scores.”

In the end, it’s not the tests—it’s the almost fetishistic power we give to them. We can preserve the insights that the tests generate while returning sanity and proportionality to a broken system. Quite simply, if we deemphasize high-stakes tests, our students will, too.


Friday, October 28, 2022

7 Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs

This week's article summary is The 7 Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.

At a parent education meeting earlier this month, I used the 7 skills listed below (from Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making) as an example of how we shape our students’ academic and character foundation needed for subsequent success in school and beyond.

 

As the article explains, these 7 skills constitute the many different qualities needed for successful executive functioning: habits and skills that help us manage our thoughts, actions, and emotions to achieve our goals.

 

What I like about this list of skills is it encompasses both the self (interpersonal) and relationships with others (intrapersonal). It’s these EQ habits and skills that complement and support our IQ (intelligence) to help us be happy and successful.

 

As I discussed with parents at that meeting, schools can often overly fixate on content knowledge and overlook that students’ social-emotional development requires as much time and attention and instruction and practice as academic work.

 

Especially as we are about a third of the way into the school year, ask yourself to what extent your students are developing and exhibiting these skills.

 

Joe

 

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What can teachers and parents do to strengthen critical executive function skills in children? These aren’t skills that children just pick up.


Executive function refers to the processes that involve managing thoughts, actions, and emotions to achieve goals. The skills make it possible to consider alternative perspectives and respond to changing circumstances (cognitive flexibility), to keep information in one’s mind so it can be used (working memory), and to resist automatic and impulsive behavior (inhibitory control) so one can engage in goal-directed reasoning and problem solving.


Why are they so important? Higher executive function skills have been linked to success in school and life—health and wealth in adulthood—and have been shown to be even more important than IQ for future success. While science tells us that developing these skills is critical in the youngest years, they can be developed throughout life: it’s never too late!


Focus and Self-Control: Children need this skill to achieve goals, especially in a world filled with distractions and information overload. This includes paying attention, exercising self-control, remembering the rules and thinking flexibility.

 

Perspective Taking: This involves understanding what others think and feel, and forms the basis for children’s understanding of the intentions of parents, teachers and friends. Children with this skill are less likely to get involved in conflicts.

 

Communicating: Much more than understanding language, reading, writing and speaking, communicating is the skill of determining what one wants to communicate and realizing how it will be understood by others. It is the skill teachers and employers feel is most lacking today.

 

Making Connections: This Life Skill is at the heart of learning: figuring out what’s the same, what’s different, and sorting them into categories. Making unusual connections is at the core of creativity and moves children beyond knowing information to using information well.

 

Critical Thinking: This skill helps children analyze and evaluate information to guide their beliefs, decisions and actions. Children need critical thinking to make sense of the world around them and to solve problems.

 

Taking on Challenges: Children who take on challenges instead of avoiding or simply coping with them achieve better in school and in life.

 

Self-Directed, Engaged Learning: By setting goals and strategies for learning, children become attuned and better prepared to change as the world changes. This helps children foster their innate curiosity to learn, and helps them realize their potential.


Friday, October 21, 2022

Is Any Feedback Effective

This week's article summary is The Danger With Giving Students Feedback.

In the course of my career in education one area that has grown exponentially is feedback—to students, to/from colleagues, to presenters, to/from direct reports. (Back when I began teaching there was very little feedback. I still remember the words of my middle school principal the year I started teaching: “Joe, if the next time we meet is in June, you’ve had a successful first year.” Nothing formative, just summative.)

As a kid, I never really felt much benefit from feedback. If I had to get it, I obviously preferred positive to negative. Yet, I found the positive didn’t help me get better beyond feeling good and the negative didn’t motivate me to try harder.

As you’ll see in the article below from Alfie Kohn (who’s the ultimate intrinsic motivation, anti-authoritarian gadfly of education, hence I only heed the spirit of what he writes) that there’s little research that shows feedback helps us grow and learn.

So if feedback from an expert (and we teachers are experts) doesn’t lead to greater learning, what does

The most important motivator is our own desire to learn. When we’re motivated to learn something, almost nothing will stop us. Especially today with YouTube, the basics of everything are a click away—from how to throw a sinker in baseball, to re-tiling a bathroom floor, to learning how to play guitar.

How do we know if we are getting better? Through self-evaluation. We are great at assessing progress (personal improvement) and achievement (how we fare against an objective standard). 

Do we need the advice and guidance of experts? Yes, but it’s really only effective when we seek it. Being assessed constantly by a superior does little to motivate or improve. However, when we ask an expert for advice—often a specific question about how to do something—we are more likely to utilize the tip.

Ultimately the key to learning, improving, mastering is self-reflection, evaluation, and ongoing trial and error. As the earlier article stated, teachers need to empower our students to be the most important contributor to their learning. 

I know it’s ingrained in us as teachers to be assessing at all times, and I do believe that the increase in formative assessment has been a plus in schools. Yet Kohn’s article is a reminder about how critical to learning our relationship to and support of our students is to their learning than telling them how well or poorly they’re doing. Or as the article’s last sentence says: “I was concentrating so hard on perfecting my feedback that I forgot to focus on my kids!”

 Joe

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A lot of people make a living by offering advice about how teachers should give feedback to students—or how administrators should give feedback to teachers. 

Unfortunately, a body of compelling theory and research raises troubling questions about much of that advice. It turns out that hearing how well we’ve done (typically from someone in a position of power) often doesn’t lead us to improve.

When feedback is contaminated with evaluation (“Here’s what I think about what you did. ... "), it tends to become not only less effective but often downright damaging—both to future performance and to recipients’ interest in whatever they were doing.

For decades, studies have shown that praising people when they succeed can be just as counterproductive as criticizing them when they fail. Nor does it help to tweak the phrasing or to praise one thing rather than another (for example, effort rather than ability) because the problem rests with the experience of being judged. 

In the 1980s, researcher Ruth Butler found that students often became more intrigued by a task when they received simple comments about what they had done, whereas praise “did not even maintain initial interest at its baseline level.” More recently, two Vanderbilt University researchers reported that students, particularly those who were reasonably proficient, did worse at math if they had previously received praise for succeeding.

What is true of the judgment inherent in praise is also true of the judgment inherent in grades. A series of meta-analyses published in 2020 by Duke University researchers showed that substantive feedback without any grade attached was preferable for promoting both motivation and achievement. In fact, getting a grade was more damaging to motivation than receiving no feedback at all, particularly for struggling students.

If good grades are just as destructive as bad grades, incidentally, it may be because the most striking feature of a positive evaluation isn’t that it’s positive but that it’s an evaluation. (One psychologist remarked that kids would come to find it unpleasant even to watch TV if they were regularly evaluated for how well they did it.) 

But the central point here applies to adults as well as children, which is why teachers often bristle at having an administrator sit in judgment of them. What’s remarkable is that some of these teachers may not think twice about subjecting their students to a constant stream of evaluations.

Why do evaluations backfire? First, because they, like other rewards, are typically experienced as controlling—and people don’t like to be controlled. Second, to receive a pat on the head (an A or a “Good job!”) for doing a task well serves to devalue that task; it’s been reframed as just a prerequisite for receiving a reward. Finally, evaluation creates pressure to keep up the good work, which, in turn, leads to risk avoidance. If the point is to perform well, better to stick with what one is likely to succeed at—a posture not exactly conducive to learning or growth.

Feedback is better than evaluation, but that doesn’t mean it’s always constructive. In fact, the most comprehensive review of the research, comprising more than 600 experimental comparisons, found that even pure feedback often has a negative effect on performance. And even when the effect is positive, its impact may be small, and any learning that results may be shallow.

So what determines whether, and to what extent, feedback will help?

  • Hearing that you succeeded at a task, not surprisingly, is more apt to strengthen interest than hearing that you didn’t. (The supposed benefits of failure are wildly overrated.)
  • Sometimes it’s obvious whether your efforts paid off: Either the seed you planted sprouted, or it didn’t; either readers are surprised by your ending, or they aren’t. Such feedback is less likely to reduce interest than when someone tells you how well you did, which pulls you out of the learning experience. Students are then less engaged with what they’re doing and more concerned with how well someone thinks they’re doing it.
  • Feedback is most likely to backfire when it’s given publicly or in comparison with other people. Contrary to a widespread American myth, competition tends to undermine intrinsic motivation and achievement—for winners as well as losers.
  • Feedback works best when it’s just one step in a learning process rather than a final judgment, although even the formative kind isn’t always beneficial (particularly if it’s based on a test).
  • It matters not only how but why feedback is given. If the rationale is experienced as manipulative (to meet someone else’s standards), it may be damaging. The ideal scenario is for information to be offered at the recipient’s request. In general, effective teachers and managers do a lot more asking than telling: “How can I help?” “What do you need to know?

A final caveat: Even research suggesting that certain feedback can be useful turns out to be less reassuring than it appears because of dubious assumptions about what “useful” means. As Lorrie Shepard at the University of Colorado noticed, most studies of feedback “are based on behaviorist assumptions. Typically the outcome measures are narrowly defined [and] feedback consists of reporting right and wrong answers.” Thus, even if feedback “works,” it may do so only on tasks of questionable value, such as cramming forgettable facts into short-term memory.

With feedback, then, as with so much else in education, paying too much attention to perfecting a method distracts us from reflecting on our goal. And the goal should concern not only the quality of learning but the experience of the learner. Hence, educator Cris Tovani’s evocative confession: “I was concentrating so hard on ... trying to perfect the feedback ... [that] I forgot to focus on the kids.”

Thursday, October 13, 2022

The Five Virtues of a Good Writer

This week's article summary is The Five Virtues of a Good Writer, and it is a follow-up to last week's summary in which I reminisced about my high school years learning—or more accurately not learning—how to write well.

This article identifies five components of good writing. For me, these components are more applicable to us as adults than our students, as the most important goals we should have for our elementary school students are to foster their enthusiasm and confidence as writers. Yes, we begin to introduce these components to our students, particularly in our upper elementary grades, yet true understanding and application of them doesn’t begin to coalesce until our students are in middle, high school, or even later.

Hence, as all of us at Trinity have writing responsibilities from progress reports to written communication to students, colleagues, and parents, keeping these components at the forefront of the writing process can be very helpful.

As I read the article, what impacted me the most was the need for a clear purpose before writing. I wrote progress reports for over 30 years, and I often struggled writing about the students who fell within the meaty part of the bell curve. The all-star performers and chronic strugglers were easy for me to write about because I knew where they shined or needed to improve. It was the middle kids whose description (strengths, challenges, needs/next steps) eluded me. But as the summary below points out, I didn’t have a clear purpose of what I wanted to write about them because I hadn’t thought carefully and deeply enough about them before I started to write about them. Instead, I would just begin writing and hoped the right words would follow. Those progress reports were often uninspired and ineffective because they didn’t capture the uniqueness of the child.

Stephen King is his book On Writing, advises to “write with the door closed (for you), then rewrite with the door open (for others).” Once you have your purpose, writing–at least the rough draft—becomes much easier.

The other four components of writing (although I also like the article’s sixth one: rhythm) come into play during the editing and revising processes. It’s through revision that our ideas are reorganized and more clearly expressed so others can easily follow and understand.

Like any skill—and writing ultimately is a skill—writing requires constant practice. Even as we write simple emails to colleagues, we should keep these five components in mind and strive to further hone our writing.

Joe

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The great journalist and author Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) offered the following excellent advice to writers:

“The reader who seeks to write well and think well should aim first at the essential qualities—coherence, clarity, precision, simplicity, and brevity. Euphony (pleasant to the ears) and rhythm are of course also desirable, but they are like the final rubbing on a fine piece of furniture—finishing touches justified only if the piece has been soundly made. The apprentice writer should try to acquire these Five Virtues by vigilant abstention from the Five Vices of Incoherence, Obscurity, Vagueness, Pedantry, and Circumlocution.”

Here are a few of my own thoughts on these writing virtues and corresponding vices.

Coherence (as opposed to Incoherence) is the quality of forming a unified, integrated whole. For a writing piece to have coherence, it must have a clear purpose, and every constituent part of it must contribute toward that purpose. Long digressions and non sequiturs can make a piece incoherent.

Clarity (as opposed to Obscurity) in writing is about being easily understood by the reader. A writer who wants to be understood must think in terms, not only of expression (sharing one’s thoughts) but exposition (sharing ideas intelligibly). Often attaining greater clarity in exposition goes hand-in-hand with attaining greater clarity in your own understanding of the topic. For a piece to be clear, it must flow well: both narratively and logically. Each passage must advance the story and/or argument of the piece in a way that naturally follows what came before it. A piece that is disjointed and “jumps around” too much will confuse the reader. Clear writing must also be complete. It must not omit any points that are necessary for the reader to understand what you’re saying. Missing context will obscure your message. Unfamiliar, un-introduced jargon will also make your presentation opaque to the reader. Remember that the reader does not share all your knowledge. Be wary of presuming that a necessary connection will “go without saying.”

Precision (as opposed to Vagueness) in writing is about being exact and specific in conveying your meaning. Attaining precision is often a matter of “playing around” with a sentence to find just the right wording and phrasing to accurately get your meaning across.

Simplicity (as opposed to Pedantry) in writing is about limiting your exposition only to the essential. Writers with extensive knowledge of their subject are often tempted to over-share arcane details that would overload the reader. Don’t try to cram a comprehensive education of your subject into one piece. Shoot for the realistic aim of providing your reader an important lesson that is simple enough to be fully digested in one sitting.

Brevity (as opposed to Circumlocution) in writing is about getting your meaning across in as few words as necessary. (But no fewer. Brevity in excess can result in vagueness and obscurity.) Often one’s first stab at a sentence will be needlessly wordy and thus unwieldy to the reader. See what you can do to cut, compress, and recombine your wording to make your sentence more concise and elegant. Prune any sentences that don’t “carry their weight”: that don’t contribute enough value to your presentation to justify the additional work they demand from the reader. Sometimes this can mean cutting whole sections. You have to be willing to “kill your darlings” as William Faulkner put it.

Friday, October 7, 2022

Feedback That Empowers Students

This week's article summary is Feedback That Empowers Students.

Think back to when you were in high school nervously awaiting your English teacher to hand back the essay you wrote. 

Once the teacher returned the graded paper to you, you probably flipped to the end--skipping over the teacher’s corrections and comments, usually written in blood red ink--and jumped right to the grade he/she wrote. 

If the grade was B or better, you then might have looked at the teacher’s written comments, expecting there’d be more praise than suggestions for improvement (which to most of us means criticism)—after all, only a masochist prefers criticism to praise.

However, if the grade was below a B--if you were like me--you crumbled the essay into a tight wad and threw it in the classroom waste basket when the teacher wasn’t looking. As someone who received a lot of grades below B on essays, my defense rationale was that the teacher didn’t like or understand me. (Every student knows the story that Einstein failed  a math in middle school.)

Similarly, when I was an English teacher, I was discouraged when my students did the same thing to me when they got back their papers that I had critiqued so diligently. For them, it was basically an either/or dichotomy where good writers got praise and satisfaction while poor writers sunk deeper and deeper into the belief that they would never get my approval and were destined to never write well.

Schools and English classes have gotten better with tools that help students write like laptop computers (which make revising and editing much less painful) and rubrics (where students have a better understanding of the components of their assignment like a persuasive essay).

Still, as an adult whose job involves a lot of writing, I wish I had begun to hone my writing skills back when I was in school rather than learning on the job what good writing entails. As a student, I was loath to revise my rough drafts; today, I embrace that my initial draft is nothing more than a rough sketch or outline that will take much thought and revision on my part.

What you’ll see in the article below is how important it is for teachers to guide their students to be more empowered and to understand how much influence they have in their own learning. I sought my teacher’s approval in the grade he/she gave me when I should have focused more on his/her comments to further my development as a writer. I just didn’t feel empowered as a student, and most students struggle with their confidence throughout the inevitable ups and downs of their school years. 

Another article I read over the summer on ‘resilience in the classroom’ stated that the purpose of school is to help students learn, practice, and reflect. 

When I was a kid, I only thought school was for learning,  yet now I know that it’s through practice and reflection that we learn.

Joe

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Feedback can be a powerful process that greatly impacts student learning when it affirms students’ identities as learners, is clear and direct, and considers the individual attributes of each student.

Here’s an example. A student receives the following feedback from her teacher:

  • Strength: You clearly state your claim, The women’s rights movement began with the suffrage movement but it’s not over yet, and provided a list of recent events, such as the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s court case, to support your thinking.
  • Need: Include the counterclaim and how you would respond. What would someone say if they disagreed with you? Where would they find fault with your supporting evidence?
  • Next Steps: Work with your writing partner to talk through the Claim, Support, Question protocol. Do some more research to address the questions that you and your partner generate, and add this information to your essay.

This feedback moves beyond what students often receive in response to their work—statements such as “Great job!” “Shows improvement.” “Add evidence.” The more comprehensive feedback can empower students because it’s individualized to the student; leverages students’ assets, interests, and learning preferences; and builds students’ confidence in themselves. Let’s unpack the above example to see how to accomplish this.

Strengths: Identify what students can do in relation to the learning target, regardless of whether they’ve achieved mastery. The feedback in our example is based on the following learning target and success criteria for the student: I can write an argument by doing the following: stating a claim, providing supporting reasons and relevant evidence, addressing counterclaims

When a teacher identifies what students can do, it communicates the belief that all students are learners and can achieve high expectations. Students know what to repeat in future assignments and, most important, develop confidence in themselves.

Needs: Identify where a student is in relationship to the learning target. The language the teacher uses in identifying needs can affect how students receive the feedback. In our feedback example, the teacher states the need—Include the counterclaim and how you would respond—and then provides some questions to prompt student thinking. 

Direct and honest feedback helps students understand that feedback is affirmation that the student can reach the goal. When feedback is cushioned or vague, a student may interpret it to mean that the teacher doesn’t believe in the student’s capability.

Next Steps: These directly correlate with the identified needs and provide suggestions on how students can move forward. Too often, students are given feedback but don’t know how to address it. The teacher supports student independence and self-regulation by describing actions that the student can take on their own to strengthen their work. In our example of feedback, the teacher reminds the student to use a thinking routine that has been repeatedly used in class—to identify possible counterclaims and provide stronger evidence to support their reasoning.

Next steps should also consider the individual attributes of the student. For example, if the teacher knows a student is an artist, suggesting that the student use sketch noting before writing might be a good next step. Students who use oral language to process information might benefit from peer discussion, as mentioned in the example, before writing.

The Amount, Timing, and Format: These can influence how a student receives the feedback and their willingness to act on it. Some students need less feedback more often, while other students prefer to have the time to process and apply the feedback. Feedback can be verbal or written and offered privately or in small groups. The same process for providing feedback will not work for everyone. If a teacher is unsure as to what strategy might work best for the student, the teacher can conference with the student and discuss different strategies. This builds the trust that underlies the successful feedback relationship.

The feedback that students receive from their teachers serves as models for students to engage in peer feedback and self-assessment. When students use the same process with their peers and then apply it to themselves, they’re truly empowered. Students, like their teachers, must have clearly articulated learning targets and a protocol, such as the strengths, needs, and next steps. They must also reflect on the feedback process. Questions such as “How did feedback from your classmate help you revise your work?” “What did you learn from examining your classmate’s work that will help you in revising your own?” and “How did you revise your work after completing your self-assessment?” all help students see the value of the feedback process.

Empowering students through feedback begins with teacher feedback that identifies what the student can do, clearly states areas of needs, and considers the individual attributes of each student in providing next steps. When students receive quality feedback from their teachers, they are primed to engage in peer feedback and self-assessment, and empowered to be self-regulated, independent learners.