The Secret Ingredient in Student Agency
By Kathleen Cushman, co-author, Belonging and Becoming (Harvard Education Press), and
Wendy Baron, Chief Officer, Social and Emotional Learning, New Teacher Center
No matter what we are trying to do well, every learner needs feedback. From soccer to singing, geometry to knitting, attending to what others notice about our efforts can play a huge role in developing our potential.
This common-sense realization has special impact for school teachers. After synthesizing more than 1,200 meta-analyses of the factors that boost student learning, Australian researcher John Hattie ranks feedback among the most powerful influences on achievement. Evidence Based Teaching calls it “the single most potent teaching strategy that teachers can use with all ages and across all subjects — leading to an average academic gain of 29 percentile points.”
Yet the art of giving feedback — whether from teacher to student or from students to peers — entails a delicate balance of academic goals with social and emotional factors. If we strike that balance, we can move students forward, whatever challenge they face. If we don’t, our feedback may shut the learner down, despite our best intentions.
In the optimal learning environment that New Teacher Center envisions , effective feedback:
- Promotes a growth mindset, supporting each learner in productive struggle,
- Engages feedback partners through safe, caring, and respectful protocols, and
- Uses variances among learners to expand perspectives and develop agency.
How teacher feedback can backfire
After her first semester teaching ninth-grade English in a large Atlanta high school, for example, Janice felt discouraged and perplexed. (Names have been changed.)
“Every Friday, I would have students turn in a short essay on an assigned topic,” she recalled a few years later. “And every weekend, I would mark up their papers for hours on end.”
But Janice’s copious notations regarding content, organization, grammar, and other elements of writing appeared to have no impact. At midyear, very few students showed meaningful improvement.
“I’m not sure they even read my comments!” she said, ruefully. “It almost felt like they cared even less.”
Frustrated, the teacher asked several students to bring in their papers during lunch period. (“I bribed them with pizza,” she admitted.) Her goal was to understand if and how her critical comments were landing — and why.
“I don’t know what you want,” a girl named Yamil told her warily in that lunchtime conversation. She pointed to where Janice had red-penciled the first sentence of her autobiographical essay. “Me and my mom came to USA in a small boat when I had 10.” Yamil hesitated. “Was I not supposed to tell you that?”
“Of course you were!” responded Janice, taken aback by the question. “That image drew me right in!” Too late, she realized that her avalanche of grammar corrections had eclipsed Yamil’s strong introduction to her narrative of displacement.
Emphasizing the positive, embracing the struggle
What Janice learned in that discussion dramatically changed her approach to giving feedback. “Now I focus first on building rapport and optimism,” she told me. “It’s easier to work toward a particular academic outcome once they’re feeling more receptive.”
Indeed, considerable research shows that a recipient’s fragile confidence can block the effectiveness of feedback. If students feel misunderstood and criticized, they will resist comments about where the work falls short.
To address that issue, Janice also began to model a growth mindset in her classroom. She shifted her approach by encouraging students to treat mistakes as essential opportunities to produce high-quality work, and explicitly praised students who persisted in the struggle to improve.
She also infused her feedback with a tone of warmth and empathy, to support students’ belief that success is possible and within their control — a key element of agency.
Making one target the focus
Those social and emotional shifts set the stage for her students to reach for a clearly articulated academic target. “I hadn’t realized how entangled the students felt when I gave feedback on too many skills at once,” this teacher reflected.
Limiting feedback to just one target increases its effectiveness, studies have shown. Too much feedback makes it hard to take anything in — but taking aim at a single target focuses the learner’s attention.
Now Janice tailors her assignments to one specific skill or understanding that students can intentionally practice and improve. “Last week, we worked on making transitions in expository writing,” she said.
As a first step, her class together analyzed strong exemplars of that academic target. (Her prompt: “How does this writer use transitions to connect ideas?”)
Next, Janice had small groups work together to revise weak examples of the target skill, and then compare their results. And finally, she asked students to focus on that specific target skill in their weekly homework essay.
A collaborative search for evidence
On Fridays, while Janice holds feedback conferences at her desk, pairs of students also critique each other’s work. All follow the same process, which keeps the learning target front and center. (An opener: “We’re looking for transitions where you connect an idea to another idea.”) Then they look for evidence, using this process:
- Refer to the desired target. (“We’re looking for transitions where you connect an idea to another idea.”)
- Invite the partner to point out any evidence of that target in his or her work.
- Help the partner decide on a manageable next step.
Timing is everything
Coming soon after the drafts are written, the “Friday feedback” routine has more impact, Janice has noticed. “Their writing is still fresh in their minds,” she said, “so they can focus on what needs to change.”
If it comes too late, studies confirm, feedback won’t matter — the learner has lost the connection or moved on. (That’s why baseball players watch game tapes with their coaches right away.)
The payoff: student agency
Janice finds her new feedback process not only simpler but more effective than her previous red-penciling process. For example, she no longer gives instructions on how to make the work better. “What are you trying for?” she might ask instead. If her concerns do not align with those of the student, she will frame her issue in a way that relates it to the student’s goals. In this way, the teacher is shifting the cognitive load to students, building ownership.
“They care more — and they learn more — because they plan their own next steps,” Janice noted. Her feedback focus on academic targets is resulting in a social and emotional payoff: the crucial sense of agency that puts the learner in the driver’s seat.
 K. W. Eva et al., Factors influencing responsiveness to feedback: On the interplay between fear, confidence, and reasoning processes. Advances in Health Sciences Education: Theory and Practice (March 2012) 17 (1):15–26.
Research in the learning sciences shows that feedback helps learners most when:
- We offer evidence-based feedback instead of judgments or opinions
- We limit the amount of our feedback, so students can absorb and use it
- We manage the timing of our feedback
- We interpret the students’ cues as to whether our feedback “lands”
- We help each learner reach for the appropriate next step
A Simple Feedback Protocol
The critique protocol developed by the Expeditionary Learning network of schools, designed for use by both teachers and peers, describes effective feedback as “kind, specific, and helpful.” Its guidelines:
- Begin by noting the positive. (For example, point out effective transitions in the work.)
- Offer constructive probing questions and comments.
- Personalize critique (by using “I” statements, such as “I think…,” “I wonder…,” or “I noticed that…”).
- Stay specific.
- Assess the work, not the person or the team.
Grades and Scores Aren’t Feedback
Grades and scores actually block the effectiveness of your feedback . . . because the learner experiences your marks only as reward or punishment. If you are going to put a grade or a score on a piece of work, you may as well not write comments. Studies show:
- Learners given only marks make no gain from the first to the second lesson.
- Learners given only comments score on average 30 percent higher.
- Giving marks alongside comments cancels the beneficial effects of the comments.
It Takes Time to Change
Market research shows: It takes seven human touches to overcome someone’s resistance to a change. The same is true with beginning teachers when it comes to shifting their practice.
It takes time and multiple encounters for the mentor and the learner form a relationship of trust. Only then can we “walk with” people as they change their ways.
Over time, the mentor demonstrates the desired behavior, models it, even fails at it sometimes.
Through it all, we talk about the change with the other person. Sometimes we come at it from one angle, sometimes another.
With time, we can cover pretty much everything that makes a difference to the work . . . and everything that matters to the learner.
Gawande, Atul. “Slow Ideas.” The New Yorker (July 29, 2013). Some innovations are dangerously slow to spread. Atul Gawande’s compelling research on coaching North Indian midwives to adopt best practices reveals how to make critical feedback take hold. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/07/29/slow-ideas
What Feedback Skills Most Challenge You?
- Offering evidence-based, descriptive feedback instead of judgments or opinions
- Giving strategic feedback in chunks that learners can absorb and use
- Giving feedback very soon after learners do the work
- Interpreting cues from the listener about how my feedback lands
- Helping learners reach for the appropriate next step
What idea from this research on feedback do you think you could follow up on?
What three specific steps can you take to turn that idea into action?
How will you know if those three steps are working?
Interpreting Cues from Your Listeners
Communication science offers insight into why our feedback may not “land” with the receiver. Staying alert to subtle cues from listeners can help us understand and adapt when that takes place.
For example, a message may not arrive as intended between:
- People with different ethnic or cultural backgrounds
- People with significant age differences
- People with gender differences
- People whose formal education levels differ
- People with different family norms that indicate respect
- People whose neural systems absorb information in different modes
- People communicating on cell phones or video call-ins.
Misunderstandings commonly arise because people have different social and cultural norms regarding how directly or indirectly to express themselves. For example, imagine yourself with others at a table. Suddenly you realize that you need a pencil. Which of the following ways of expressing that need sounds most like you?
“Is that a pencil over there?”
“Would you please hand me that pencil?”
“Somebody gimme a pencil!”
I’d reach across and take the nearest pencil
I’d quietly reposition myself so I could get a pencil with nobody noticing
As this example illustrates, some people use indirect communication to deliver or receive a message. They mean more than they actually say. When they listen, they gather meaning from contextual cues, not just what people say. But others may perceive them as vague, deceptive, or manipulative.
Other people favor direct communication. They tend to say what they think, with the goal of getting or giving information. They expect (and respect) honesty and bluntness. But others may perceive them as inappropriate or rude.
Do you consider yourself more of a direct communicator or an indirect communicator? What elements of your background might have shaped that style?
Think about a time when you had difficulty receiving oral feedback from another person. What kind of thoughts or images were going through your mind? What physical sensations did you experience?