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We run the risk of giving the wrong kind of feedback for students, and it’s not because we are bad people. We love our students. We want them to be successful, and sometimes these desires can actually get in the way of a student truly learning.
Take a typical situation of a math problem involving money. A student is unable to determine the percentage that he or she should be getting, and is struggling with multiplication of decimals. Often we notice this struggle and “swoop in” to save the day. As educators, we sit down with that student and show him or her how to do it, pat ourselves on the back, and move on the next student. In fact, we didn’t “save” that student’s day — we may have made no difference at all. Feedback that simply shows a child how to do something won’t cause that child to think. He or she will merely learn to replicate what the teacher did without truly “getting” the concept being taught.
3 Strategies for Structured Teaching
We need to move away from this type of feedback and toward feedback that causes thinking and metacognition. Here are three ways that teachers can guide students in the right direction, as described by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in their book Better Learning Through Structured Teaching.
We all know that asking questions can help us check for understanding, but questions can also be great tools for having students really articulate their ideas in a deeper way, and allowing them to think about it. Try asking open-ended questions to probe student thinking and push them to think deeper. Instead of “Do you understand that?”, move toward questions that cause students to explain and justify their ideas.
Prompts are statements and questions that cause students to do metacognitive work. We teachers should not be doing their thinking work for them during guided instruction. We should be empowering students to think by using the right type of question or statement. Take this example. A student is working on a written assignment, and the teacher notices that he or she may be missing commas. The teacher says, “I see this paragraph has some commas in it, but the next paragraph seems to have none.” This will cause the student to look at the paper with the idea of adding more commas if necessary.
Similar to prompting, cueing “shifts the learner’s attention.” Cues are often more specific. There are many types, such as verbal, gestural, and visual. Even highlighting an error on a paper can cause students to think about how they might fix the error without necessarily giving away the answer. With this cue, you prompted thinking. Similarly, a verbal prompt like, “This step in the problem is tricky, don’t forget how I modeled it this morning” will shift the students to think and reflect about their process and perhaps move in the right direction. Don’t forget that even pointing to something can serve as a cue for students to think.
Errors Versus Mistakes
As you see students struggle with concepts and notice a “wrong” answer, consider this reflective question: “Is it an error or a mistake? How can I find out?” Through specific questioning, you can dig deeper to find out what’s going on in a student’s head, and make the thinking visible for both of you. Sometimes a wrong answer means a mistake. This implies that a student really does know a concept and only made a misstep in the application of learning. As the teacher, you only need to redirect. However, if you uncover that there is an error, it means that a student really does not understand the concept, and he or she will require a different type of instruction, perhaps further modeling or teaching, and different kinds of prompting, cueing, and questioning.
Dylan William, in Embedded Formative Assessment, says “Feedback should cause thinking,” and I couldn’t agree more. If we focus on feedback to cause thinking, we can prevent “learned helplessness” in our students. When we limit ourselves to showing students how to do something, or maybe do it for them, we may be communicating to kids that only the teacher can persevere and solve the problem. If we want students who are self-directed learners, then we have to scaffold appropriately — and then remove the scaffolds. Modeling a concept and thinking aloud are critical components of teaching, but we then need to turn the power over to students and let them struggle and finally experience success. Feedback for thinking creates a “can-do” atmosphere in the classroom.
What are your strategies for encouraging students to think?