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Feedback: A dollop of student success

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By Dana Lee Thomas

At age 10, my daughter started a club. She was going to become a writer and would employ her classmates as apprentices. After devising a contract and business cards headlining in bold print, “Let That Writer Write,” she quickly recruited friends. Business cards were passed out to family, friends and teachers. In essence, this group would “write” whatever was needed. I was even enticed to post the business cards on social media to draw in more business. 

My daughter’s passion for writing came from not only her innate creativity, but also the work of great teachers and a mother who has given her feedback along the way. As a former fifth grade teacher, I was ecstatic when my children came home with writing assignments. After reading over their drafts and giving feedback, powerful teachable moments emerged. This one-on-one feedback sparks ideas, builds background knowledge and INSPIRES a child! Young writers don’t just have ideas “pop” into their heads. They need process writing instruction, along with individualized feedback. 

John Hattie, author of Visible Learning, has reviewed over 500,000 research studies on high-yield, high impact instructional strategies. Feedback has proven to be a top teaching strategy in producing measurable student growth. Recently, my school district has taken Hattie’s research on feedback and implemented it across grade levels. We began live scorings to give students guidance in the elements of good writing. What began as an attempt to produce better scores has developed into a protocol that gets students excited about feedback. This intentional, one-on-one process is given to students immediately after writing. A key feature is an analytical rubric focused on the six traits of writing. By honing in on each of these areas, we have direct conversations with students on how they can improve in each area of the rubric. You might think of the rubric as a list of symptoms; we remedy these symptoms with “just-right” feedback.

The impact of this process has not only increased students’ scores, but more importantly both students and teachers know the power of effective feedback. One teacher notes, “I love that students get to conference with someone one-on-one. This is hard to do in the regular classroom. It’s so meaningful for them to have that reflection.” This protocol is not a one and done process. We conduct multiple scoring sessions throughout the year. Students receive feedback from instructional coaches, classroom teachers, special area teachers, and now pre-service teachers. These multiple perspectives build students’ background knowledge, and each session includes teachable moments with precise ways for students to improve their writing. One teacher sums it up best, “When someone different reads and responds to their writing, I think they listen and take notice.”

While this strategy benefits students the most, my district knew that it had to be meaningful and purposeful to teachers. We know that data drives instruction, so the data analysis provided to teachers is another valuable tool of the process. After each session, teachers receive a breakdown of students’ performance. The areas of the rubric are driving points in the data analysis. For example, reports indicate exact percentages of students performing at mastery levels in each area of the rubric. Therefore, if students are not performing adequately in a particular area, then teachers know what to address next in instruction. The scoring process is not about the score, but the feedback given to teachers and students. It’s the dollops of feedback that move students to success. 

Finally, this protocol focuses on student goal setting. Once students get feedback from teachers, they examine the rubric to determine how they can make their writing better. Hattie reiterates when students take ownership in their learning by setting goals, that’s when typical achievement accelerates and learning becomes more meaningful. Goal setting is used throughout the scorings so that students are focused on long term goals, and experience a sense of self-efficacy in the process. Goal setting plus purposeful feedback equals more confident and successful students. Trust me, just hearing a student fist pump in the air and exclaim, “Yes, I used more transitions!” is a proud teacher moment. 

My daughter is older now, and I don’t always get to have those “teachable moments” at the kitchen table. In contrast, she has internally taken these moments and applied them in her work. I have discovered, both as a parent and teacher, that when we “let that writer write,” students (and daughters) become masters of their own creativity and use feedback to drive their work. 

While my daughter’s business was short-lived, her love for writing continues today. Feedback lets students know where they are and where they need to be going. As Hattie states, “The simplest prescription for improving education has to be dollops of feedback.”  

Editor’s note: Dana Lee Thomas has been working in the Marion County Public Schools for 10 years, where she currently serves as an elementary English language arts instructional coach, working with grades third through fifth. She previously worked for 10 years as an intermediate teacher in the Washington County Public Schools. Thomas earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education at Campbellsville University. She is a National Board Certified Teacher and is currently working with the Kentucky Department of Education Next Generation Leadership Network.