Critique, or at least what precedes it.

I’m doing some digital house-keeping today – going through old files and notes, and making sure that everything is organized heading into the coming school year.  One of the joys of such a task is that sometimes I uncover a little nugget from the past.  Here’s a found note-to-self, written on January 9, 2009:

“I want all students to be able to give detailed, descriptive feedback/critique of another student’s work.  I have yet to convince them to take it seriously and see giving feedback (the ability to critique) as a skill that is in fact more valuable and more applicable than the ability to, say, solve equations.  It remains, on the other hand, ancillary, in their minds, to any real math that they’re trying to learn, or worse, an annoyance akin to a visit to the dentist.  I guess I’ll admit that sometimes I treat it the same by the simple fact of how much time I commit to critique.  Or, by not creating assignments that are as adaptable to critique.”

Two-and-a-half school years later, I’m still working toward the ideal of getting students to be comfortable giving each other useful feedback.  It remains a very current concern, but I have made some progress.  At PCMI, our “Reflecting on Practice” sessions were focused on formative assessment and feedback, so I’ll also be working on folding those ideas into my work this year.

My greatest success has come from making feedback a naturally, rather than artificially structured part of my classes.  Most often, I use student experts, which I’ll describe here.  Students are presented with a task that requires them to do some reading, some thinking, and some problem solving.  I do not give them too much information about the task before letting them get started.  Soon, a student or two will have a very specific question.  I join them at their seats and help them through their questions.  Invariably, more students follow with similar questions a few moments later.  At this point, I ask the latter group if they’d mind asking the former for help, and I ask the former if they wouldn’t mind helping me out.  Maybe I point them all to a single table so they can get together and work through their questions.  So after a little movement, they’re together talking through things.  I might hover a little, to make sure there are no huge misconceptions.  There usually are not.  The helpers are taking pride in their ability to help, and they’re exercising the part of their brains that allows them to explain things to a classmate.

Thinking about this makes me realize that I might be mixing up the idea of feedback with the idea of questioning.  Maybe my approach has been to get students asking questions of each other, and that the answers to those questions are the feedback — but in this case, if dialogue is happening, I think there’s value in it.

Along those lines, mastery-based grading helps too.  When students are clear on what they’re trying to learn, they ask better questions of each other, which in turn allows them to give better, more specific answers.  I use my learning targets to teach vocabulary, and students are able to clarify for each other what a given word might mean.  The same goes for project rubrics – they can become the crib sheet to which a student tries to figure out what they were talking about.  I saw some great conversations this year between students who were comparing the feedback they received on a project rubric.  Often, these conversations began competitive in nature, before turning into analyses of what went well, what needs improvement, and why for each student.  Students quickly identify their expertise and are able to share it.

At PCMI, we saw that feedback, when unaccompanied by grades, helps students to learn within the assessment cycle.  My favorite type of rubric falls in between.  On a 4 point scale, students could receive a 4, a 3, or a “Needs Improvement.  Here’s why:”.  The characteristics of a 4 and 3 are written on my rubrics, but the third column is blank.  When a project is not up to the level of 3, I provide feedback directly on the rubric explaining what they should try to improve.  I welcome them to make those changes, and this Spring, nearly all of them took me up on that offer.

Now, I don’t know if I have appropriately responded to my original self-critique of three winters ago.  But I can see in my own thinking that student questioning and teacher feedback are key building blocks on the way to students being able to provide detailed, descriptive feedback to one another.  Hopefully, when I commit to these ideas, I’ll be better modeling feedback, and can therefore expect it more from students.  In order to make this work, I have to continue striving to build assignments that will allow for students to ask great questions of each other, and foster useful critique and feedback.

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