Years ago, as I shifted toward empowering students, I ask myself the question, “What am I doing for students that they could be doing for themselves?” One of the most glaring answers was assessment. So, I began to incorporate peer assessment and self-assessment.
However, my first attempt at peer feedback was a crash course in what not to do.
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My Epic Fail with Peer Feedback
I had a vision of how the writer’s workshop would look. Students would pour over each other’s drafts offering statements like, “Have you considered _______?” or “I appreciate the way you ________.” They would lean in intently, offer their own thoughts, and jot down a few ideas for next steps. After some back and forth, they would switch roles and engage in the same back and forth feedback process. The feedback would be practical and instant and it would lead to improved clarity in writing and perhaps even better word choice. They might argue over ideas and sharpen their logic and argumentation. The workshop would buzz with excitement, followed by small lulls as students revised their drafts.
I began the class period with a warm-up where students wrote about the value of peer feedback and after a short discussion, I said, “You’ll need to find a partner who will read your work and then give you feedback. Take as long as you need. Then you can switch and both of you will find a new partner.” I explained that this was how writer’s helped one another improve. This was a process professional writers used on a regular basis. They were now part of that larger collective of writers who would help one another improve in their craft.
Ten minutes later, I watched as students wandered around the room. A few students pulled out their phones (and this was pre-smartphone) and texted friends. They talked about football and fashion and tv shows and video games and everything but writing. A few students shot paper football at the ceiling. Gradually, the class moved from a hum to an ear-splitting roar. I quieted them down, instituted a “no moving” rule and added a timer for accountability. Still, it was a waste of a class period.
In second period, the students took the peer feedback process more seriously. I reminded them of the expectations to stay focused on the text and to share feedback. However, the feedback was too nice. It was a lot of, “This is great. It’s really good. Have I told you how good it is? Great job.” It was cotton candy feedback – vague, amorphous, and overly sweet but ultimately lacking any substance. In third period, students were not giving cotton candy feedback. It was more like giant shards of glass. A few students made comments like, “This sucks. None of your sentences even have periods.” Two students refused to talk to each other. Three students were in tears. By lunch time I scrapped the writer’s workshop entirely and had students use a checklist for self-assessment instead.
Looking back on it, I wasn’t wrong in my vision for quality peer feedback. However, I didn’t communicate that vision students. I wanted them to say, “Have you considered ______?” but I didn’t provide them with the sentence stems to do so. I wanted students to follow a protocol of listening and asking questions before giving feedback but I didn’t share any protocols or create any structures. I wanted the feedback to be practical and useful but I didn’t model that for students and I didn’t set the parameters for how to give feedback or in how the feedback would be used.
Seven Strategies for Getting the Most Out of Peer Feedback in the Classroom
The following are some strategies you can use as you empower students to own the peer feedback process.
1. Make sure students are beginning with a place of trust.
We live in a world full of unsolicited feedback. Whether it’s a snarky comment on a YouTube video or a honking horn from a fellow driver. Incidentally, I learned that folks use their horns way more often in the east coast than they do here in Oregon. I also learned that “bless your heart” is the southern middle finger. These are the fun lessons I’ve learned in doing PBL workshops around the country.
Sometimes, the feedback we receive is downright toxic. Sometimes it’s misinformed. However, sometimes it’s the very thing we need in order to grow.
This is why feedback requires trust. Sometimes this trust is relational. Do they have my best interests in mind? Other times, the trust is more about expertise. Do I trust that this person’s feedback is actually valid?
When I taught middle school, I noticed that students often struggled to distinguish between critical feedback and insults. For all the stereotypes of middle school mean kid behavior, I actually found that most of my students struggled to provide critical feedback. They worried about insulting their friends and classmates.
About ten years ago, I created a grid to help students with the feedback process:
On one hand, there is the continuum of trust, ranging from negative to positive. On the vertical axis, there is a continuum of feedback, ranging from negative to positive. These work to create four separate quadrants. When the feedback is positive but there is negative trust (you don’t trust the person), you end up with flattery. This feels great but it’s potentially toxic and often manipulative. When there are distrust and negative feedback, it’s just hating. And the haters are going to hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. When the feedback is negative but there’s a high level of trust, you actually have critical feedback. It doesn’t feel good but it’s often where growth happens. Finally, when the feedback is positive and there’s a high level of trust, you have affirmation – and we all need more affirmation in our lives. These are the words that can pull you through even when you stop believing in yourself.
Here’s a video version of this grid as well:
Even now as a professor, I sometimes do a simple survey as a “pulse check” to see how well students trust the members of their group. Here, students fill out an anonymous Google Form. Often, it’s an exit slip with 3-5 questions. Here’s a sample of the questions I might ask:
On a scale of 1-5, how well does your group trust each other?
On a scale of 1-5, how well do you trust your group members to complete tasks?
Do you feel like you can speak freely and share ideas with your group?
In this case, I’m looking for trust in general and for whether or not they trust each other with tasks and with communication. Other times, questions might connect to conflict resolution or risk-taking. But the goal in each case is to get a pulse check on student trust.
2. Use structures to guide the peer feedback process.
My first writer’s workshop had no clear structure. Students weren’t sure what they were supposed to do. I was afraid that structure would make things less authentic but the free-for-all led to confusion and chaos. Students spent the whole time chatting or wandering around. Later, I started thinking about feedback in real life. True, there are times when it is unstructured. But if we take a deeper look at the seemingly unstructured peer feedback, we’ll notice that it often follows a pattern and a system. A friend asks you for an opinion. You spend time looking at the work. You ask some questions. You give strengths and weaknesses using scripts that you don’t even realize are scripts (something like, “I noticed that you _____”) and this leads to a conversation and a set of next steps. Even if it doesn’t feel like a protocol, we often default into our own feedback protocols informally.
On a more formal level, people sometimes use structures because the limitations of the protocol actually facilitate better feedback. Whether it’s an art collective or a corporation, structured protocols can help facilitate better feedback. The following are specific structures you can use as students provide peer feedback:
- The 20-Minute Feedback System: This approach begins with one student sharing their work or pitching an idea while the other student actively listens. It has some elements that are similar to critical friends.
- Structured Feedback with Sentence Stems: Here, you as a teacher provide specific sentence stems that your students can use to provide diagnostic, clarifying, or critical feedback.
- 3-2-1 Structure: This is simple. Students provide three strengths, two areas of improvement and one question that they have.
- Feedback Carousel: Each group gets a stack of sticky notes and offers anonymous feedback as they move from group to group.
- Peer Coaching: Students interview each other about the process, using the coaching questions from the student-teacher conferences to guide them if they struggle to come up with reflection questions.
- Mastermind: this is a longer peer feedback structure. I’m actually a member of two different mastermind groups for blogging and one mastermind group for research and dissertation writing.
- Rubric: Students use the rubric (or a checklist based on the rubric) to give targeted feedback on how another student is doing.
Note that the 20-minute peer feedback structure is fast.
On the other hand, the Mastermind Structure is slower and allows for a more dynamic give-and-take that can take an entire class period.
In both cases, though, students follow a specific protocol with clearly defined structures. This sense of structure doesn’t inhibit authentic feedback. Instead, it facilitates better feedback by setting parameters.
In some cases, it can help to think about peer feedback in rounds. If you’re doing a project-based learning unit, you might have stages where you move from more open-ended feedback toward more specific feedback. At first, students might need general feedback but later it can be more targeted.
Students might start out using something like a 20 minute peer feedback process but moving toward something like peer feedback on a rubric toward the end.
3. Explain the purpose of the feedback.
As we think of the larger scope of feedback, it’s important for students to know what they are receiving feedback on and why it’s important. Last week, I shared the metacognition cycle and the how authentic feedback can help students learn to think about their thinking. As teachers, we sometimes need to make this explicit for students by sharing the following ahead of time:
- What type of feedback you will give and receive. Is it about the process or the product? Is it about the accuracy of knowledge? Is it about a particular skill?
- The key areas where you want to focus. In writing, it might be feedback on word choice. In a design thinking project, it might be feedback on the research students engage in. In math, it might be feedback on an approach to solving a problem.
- What students will do with the feedback. Remind them ahead of time what they will do when they receive feedback. In other words, how will students use the feedback they are giving and receiving?
You might provide students feedback on their ability to use the design thinking process in a project. Or you might provide feedback on their current product so that they can continue to revise and improve it. Students need to know both the parameters of feedback and the rationale. They should have a sense for why they are getting feedback, what type of feedback they are getting, and how they will actually use the feedback to further their learning.
4. Don’t allow students to grade one another.
It is critical that peer assessment does not become peer grading. You are the teacher and the expert on the content. While students can benefit from peer feedback, you as the teacher ultimately know their level of mastery best. Peer grading can create unnecessary power dynamics that actually get in the way of meaningful feedback. Consider the role of peer reviews in companies. While most employees enjoy asking for feedback on a specific idea, they hate peer reviews – the biggest reason being that they feel judged and graded by their peers. There’s actually a fascinating section about this in the book Nine Lies About Work.
If that’s the case for adults, we want to avoid that dynamic with students. When students grade one another, the focus shifts from the feedback to the grade. In these moments, students don’t actually use the feedback that they receive. This is actually true with teacher feedback as well. In my experience, when I provided a grade with the feedback, my students focused almost entirely on the grade and not on the feedback. This was true for rubrics, for checklists, or for overall grades on things like blog posts or documentaries. Jennifer Gonzalez has an excellent thought-provoking post on this topic. She suggests the following steps:
- Write comments on student work and write the grade on the rubric separately
- Return just the papers to the students.
- Have the students read your feedback and write three observations and two questions based on your feedback
- Have the students use the rubric to give themselves a grade.
- Conference one-on-one with students and have them share their rubric while you share your rubric with them. This helps clarify any misunderstandings they might have.
- Give them a chance to revise their work.
I’ve actually been using a modified version of this with my current pre-service teachers as they develop their lesson plans and unit plans. As a result, each teacher candidate has a clear sense of what they know, what they don’t know, and what they will do to improve without focusing on their final grade.
5. Provide revision time in class.
Often, in education, we value speed and accuracy more than depth and mastery. Students take timed math tests and focus on fluency in reading. They watch the tight time deadlines, knowing that if they fall behind, they’ll be seen as slow. I’ve seen some students struggle with the whole idea of revision because they’ve rarely needed to revise their work at school. But if we want students to make sense out of feedback, we need to block out time for revision.
This is why I love using project-based learning and design thinking. Both of these frameworks include a section for student revision. This is possible, because they spend less time in direct instruction and they are often learning multiple standards at the same time. Students in a PBL classroom are also assessing as they go rather than stopping to take a multiple choice test. In the process, they gain additional time to focus on making sense out of their feedback and using it to revise their projects. Here, students begin to view revision as an iterative part of the process rather than a punishment for getting things wrong.
It can help to ask your students the question, “What are you going to do with this feedback?” Often, they struggle with this. In their schooling experiences, they have typically received a grade and walked away without thinking much about it. This approach focuses on using feedback in a way that’s more self-directed. If students understand the purpose of the feedback, they are better able to make modifications, set goals, and own the learning process. It can help to use the sentence frame, “I plan to use _________ feedback to change __________.” Or another option might be, “One valuable piece of feedback is _______. I plan to _________ to improve my __________.”
6. Set parameters and expectations for peer feedback.
In the disastrous writer’s workshop example I shared earlier, my third period class struggled because they were giving harsh feedback. Some of this had to do with lack of trust. However, I hadn’t set expectations for the language we would use in peer feedback. The next time we attempted a writer’s workshop, I had the class develop a set of norms, or behavioral expectations for peer feedback. These included the following categories:
- Respectful language: What are the types of phrases you want to use? What words or phrases do you want to avoid?
- Active listening: What does it mean to listen actively? What does it mean to listen with the goal of understanding? What does active listening “look” like? (Note that it’s important we allow students to do this in a culturally responsive way that doesn’t require eye contact)
- Focused participation: What does focused participation look like? Have students visualize this by stating specific positive behaviors. Have them consider any distractions they might need to look out for ahead of time.
- Being prepared: What does it mean to show up to peer feedback fully prepared? Is there work you need to bring? Are there questions you need to have?
- Staying on-topic: What do you need to do in order to stay on topic? How do you keep focused on the feedback at hand?
After setting up the norms, you might need to have students review the norms before they meet for feedback. As students begin to internalize the feedback, you might not need to remind them of the norms every single time.
7. Model and practice the peer feedback process.
Great feedback does not always come naturally. It’s something that students have to learn through practice. That shouldn’t surprise us. Consider how many people you know who are awful at giving or receiving critical feedback. For this reason, you may need to model the process with students. It works best to have a confident student give you feedback and to explain and label each part of the process.
To reduce cognitive load, you might break down a peer feedback protocol and demonstrate the first step, followed by having students practice that step. Then, do the same for the third, fourth, and fifth steps. This helps students solidify the process in their long-term memories. It can also help to have a visual (like a PowerPoint slide or an anchor chart) that students look at as they practice a protocol. While this modeling process can feel slow at first, students quickly learn the protocols and the peer feedback become quicker and smoother. Eventually, students are giving and receiving meaningful feedback and using the feedback to clarify misconceptions, improve their skills, and take their learning to the next level.
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