Giving Effective Feedback

Giving Effective Feedback

Giving effective feedback is a balancing act

My students are about to receive their mock results. For some, this will be a time for them to feel relieved that their efforts so far have paid off. For others, they won’t be happy with their result. Ultimately though, the result itself doesn’t really matter. It’s how my students respond to their result that counts. The hope is that my students will find that balance between fear of failure and over-confidence, to best prepare them for the final exams. In this post, I explain the methods used to ensure that my students respond positively, so that they will achieve their desired result in the future. Giving effective feedback is a tricky business and the stakes are too high for us to do it badly.

Why target setting is priority number 2

As teachers, we constantly set targets, whether short or long-term, aspirational or realistic. Target setting is absolutely necessary, but it must be well-informed and fully explained. Otherwise, your students may not understand those targets immediately.

In many cases, my own students have seen their own targets as too high, too low, or completely arbitrary, before the targets are explained. If I didn’t explain the targets to them, then they risk putting insufficient effort in, to achieve their target. The explanation, though, must contain the ‘bigger picture’; this is priority number 1. More on that in a moment.

Students’ lack of engagement with targets also seems to be caused by their own perceptions of themselves as learners. They often see themselves as an “A grade” student, for example. This makes it harder for them to come to terms with any grade that doesn’t fit with that label. Following a positive result, they can then become lazy, thinking it’s in the bag. A negative result can leave students thinking it can’t be done. It’s vital then, that we spend time, before giving feedback, to help students understand what they should be looking to achieve, both in the short and long-term. They need to know and be constantly reminded that ‘progress‘ is not linear and that their path to success will not be a straight one.

Students need to see the bigger picture

One exam result can seem like the entire picture to some students. So, in order for targets to be meaningful to your students, they need to understand their own situation. By this, I mean that your students need to be able to see what their current level of achievement looks like, compared to their past achievements. Have they dipped? Plateaued? Accelerated? Where is it going?

They should also be made aware of how far a student like them should be expected to achieve by the end of the course. I often cite examples of students from previous years, who have achieved similar mock results, but have then gone on to have even greater success when they have followed a specific plan. I then share that plan, breaking it down into practical steps, which when followed, led to my previous student achieving the desired result.

By making the steps simple, my current students are able to see further progress as realistic. This provides them with the motivation required to increase performance in preparation for the exam. Because the feedback conversation is focused on future achievement, rather than past failure, my students’ mindset is far more receptive and they tend to react more positively.

Students need to feel supported

Many students will know that a poor result is their ‘fault’, but guilt and remorse will only make them dwell on negatives. This distracts from the positives and creates a barrier to forming a solution-focused mindset. So, ensure you are giving effective feedback by using as many comments as possible about what your students have achieved. By beginning the feedback conversation in this way (and feedback must be a conversation, not just one-way) your students will be encouraged to feel as though they have a platform to build upon for future success. They will also see you as being on their side, rather than just being there to find fault.

Many successful schools use the “What Went Well / Even Better If” structure to ensure positive feedback. Here, students are left in no doubt that their successes, no matter how limited, have been recognised and rewarded on some level.

Top Tip: A good way to enhance the WWW/EBI system is to share with the whole class a range of WWW comments that you have given to the group. This then provides students with concrete, achievable examples that they can strive to emulate in future assessments.

Preparing students to receive feedback

This week I’ll be giving my students a brief questionnaire to fill out before they are able to access their results. The purpose of the questionnaire is twofold. Firstly, I aim to prime the students with as much positive-mindset thinking as possible, so that their result will be seen as just one step on the way to future success. I want to build resilient learners. Secondly, I want the students to be able to see what practical steps they can put into place, to get them from where they are to where they need to be.

Here are the questions I’ll be asking:

  1. What do you stand to gain from success in this subject?
  2. What is your end-of-course target?
  3. What practical steps did you take to move towards your mock exam target?
  4. Which of those practical steps paid off?
  5. What was your target for the mock exam?
  6. If your two targets are different, then explain why.
  7. Which practical steps would you change or not use again? Explain your reasons.
  8. How close do you think you will be to your target?
  9. If you achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  10. If you don’t achieve your mock target, how will you react? Why?
  11. If you could go back in time and give advice to yourself three months ago, what advice would you give?

I may change the wording of the questions, or even add/remove some of them. However, what I want to do is to create a dialogue with each student about their own journey. The questions are really just conversation-starters.

Planning your next steps

After giving feedback on the mock exams, it’s crucial that you put a plan in place to ensure that every single student can be monitored and so that their performance on exam day is not left to chance. The plan should be specific, realistic and time-bound if it is to work. But most importantly, the onus should be on the students to solve the problem. All you are doing is giving them a blueprint to follow and dates by which you will measure their success on agreed criteria. Your role is an advisory one. You certainly shouldn’t be expected to re-teach content, especially if your students are perfectly capable of independent learning!

Steps you can put in place:

  • Students should respond to feedback as early as possible – create improved answers or redo the mock exam from scratch.
  • Set aside specific times for on-to-one conversations with each student (if logistically possible). This should happen as soon as possible.
  • Share results with colleagues in other departments and the Head of Year to see if there is an issue beyond your subject.
  • Students create an action plan for the final exams: exam dates, when they will begin revising, successful revision methods, when they will be assessed throughout the revision period to see if it’s working.
  • Book another one-to-one for 6 weeks time to see how students have got on individually. Did they bother to stick to the plan? Where’s the evidence? Did it work? How do they know? What do they now need to focus on? Is parental involvement necessary at this point?

Finally…

Don’t judge yourself as a teacher, according to the exam results in front of you. There’s a good chance that you weren’t in control of more than half of the factors that affected your students’ performances on the day.

Besides, by now giving effective feedback, you will make a huge difference to your students.

You can be proud of that.

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Encouraging College Students to Read

Encouraging college students to read

Why is encouraging college students to read so hard?

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Students don’t read books anymore. Instead, they “waste” their time on social media, binge on box-sets, play video games and go out with friends. Personally, I think that sounds brilliant. They are living the dream, aren’t they? (I can’t remember the last time I did all four of those things in one week!) The forms of entertainment they pursue, though, do have one thing in common. They offer instant feedback and gratification. Books can do that too when chosen wisely. However, many college students don’t know which books will offer that short-term “buzz” which other media seems to offer so effortlessly. Encouraging college students to read is a challenge, but hopefully, a much easier one, once you’ve read the rest of this post!

I want to share with you something I’ve shared with my students over the years: I have a very limited attention span for reading books. I always have, but the key for me was not to just give up reading, it’s to read something else. When your students visit a bookshop or an online store like Amazon, they don’t know where to begin. This post is my attempt to shorten the list, to help students to choose a book, that is appropriate for their reading level, but that will stimulate their minds too.

Why should students read at all?

Of all the different forms of media, books offer students the highest quality. The best books are written by authors who have had polished their writing style to make it easily accessible. Their texts have been edited and re-edited to enhance the reading experience. When written well, they offer complete escapism. Books expand students’ experiences. Above all else, the quality control measures put in place by publishers ensure that only the best books get published. They are then reviewed and only when something is of high enough quality will it gain the attention of the masses. Oh, and books make you smarter, so encouraging the reading of books can only end well.

The same cannot always be said about some other popular forms of media. Video clips, blog posts (I include myself here) and the pseudo-journalism that seems to have invaded social media are all flawed in many senses. The result is, that if students only get their information about the world from unvetted and unedited sources, then they limit their experiences. But even worse, their idea of how the world is, or should be, can become warped. News intertwines with fake news. Celebrity endorsements take priority over rational thought. This can’t turn out well!

What books should my students read?

My students don’t read very much. In fairness, neither did I when I was their age. My reason was that I’d outgrown the children’s books I’d been reading but I had no idea where to look for books with a bit more grit. I’ve heard the same story from many students I teach. In the end, I usually recommend to them the same books year after year. This is my list. I hope you see some value in it. I won’t pretend that it’s “a list to end all lists”, in fact, it’s largely swayed by my own personal beliefs, political leanings and what I find interesting. It isn’t balanced and certainly isn’t complete!

I included a variety of fiction and non-fiction texts, but both serve the same purpose. They both teach us about ourselves and they both teach us the importance of contributing to the world. When you see the titles, this will be obvious in some cases, but perhaps not so much in others. My solution would be to read the book to find out why it made the list.

I’ve categorised these books so that if students want to read more about a particular topic, they can be directed straight to a relevant book. Some of these books are very accessible to pre-college students, but most students would need to be at least 16 years old to gain the most value from them.

 

Fiction books for college students:

The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

The Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell

A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult

The Martian by Andy Weir

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Non-fiction books for college students:

Positive Mindset and Success:

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Understanding People:

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

 Leadership:

Winners by Alistair Campbell

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Understanding Truth:

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Law and Politics:

The Secret Barrister: Stories Of The Law And How It’s Broken by The Secret Barrister

Chavs by Owen Jones

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Entrepreneurship:

Will It Fly? by Pat Flynn

Anything You Want by Derek Sivers

 

Finally…

Encouraging college students to read is a long game, so keep at it. Reading is one of the best ways to help students improve their understanding of themselves and of the world.

By the way, you might want to check out my post on 19 Books That Make You A Better Teacher Today.

Also, if you think I’ve left out something brilliant and that should be read by students, then you’re probably right. There’s a good chance that I haven’t read it, or I forgot to add it to the list. Just leave a reply at the end to let me know!

 

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