Feedback: Hacking the System

In my previous post, I wrote about how providing multiple access points for feedback enables students to take more ownership over their learning. And I would like to continue along this vein, but dig a little deeper. I want to find ways to hack the feedback process while still maintaining (or rather increasing) its effectiveness.

The basics.

If you do a quick Google search for feedback, you will find a ridiculous amount of information, and sifting through it there are definitely trends that emerge:

(1) The general characteristics that help to make feedback more effective rise to the surface—if it is timely, relevant, goal-oriented, transparent, consistent, user-friendly, and actionable (Wiggins, 2012) then you have a recipe for some pretty purposeful feedback that a student can use to guide their learning.

(2) The feedback cycle is also a popular concept—students request feedback or there is a need for a student to receive feedback…then (most likely) a conferring session will take place where the student will receive feedback…and finally the student will (hopefully) implement the feedback by making improvements.

This is a typical cycle and it—or something resembling it—can definitely help a student move through the process of a task. And focusing on the characteristics and some sort of cycle of effective feedback is important, but it is just a start.

targetKeeping the learner at the center.

Gemma Roadley discusses another critical aspect in thinking about feedback in a brief post here. She notes that sometimes we can get so focused on a given task that we forget about the bigger picture: We end up teaching to improve the task instead of teaching to grow the learner. 

Critical Point #1: We need to keep the writer (or reader, or singer, or thinker) at the center.

When we keep the writer at the center, the feedback will:

  • use language that is not just task specific, but skill based
  • connect current skills to previous units/tasks
  • discuss how current skills can transfer to alternate/future contexts
  • reflect on soft skills (responsibility, self-directed learning, collaboration, etc.)

Enabling students to see the skills they are developing outside of the isolated context of an activity or summative task is imperative in building a connection to their learner identity. The skills we teach in class are just seeds planted—it is students themselves who need to use these skills in order to bloom. They need to find their voice. They need to see the relevance. They need to gain ownership.

Okay…but how?

Feedback learners
— Grant Wiggins

We know that feedback takes time. And when you are reading multiple class sets of responses, it can take A LOT of time. With efficiency always a goal, we can often try to find ways to make the feedback process more streamlined—we try to hack the process.

Who hasn’t created template comments, used the Google comment bank, focused on class trends…I could go on. And I easily get caught in the trap of giving too much feedback, only addressing areas of improvements, or giving answers, instead of asking questions (this list is not exhaustive). This trap causes me to forget about what is really important—about creating a context for feedback to become more of a reciprocal process where there are opportunities for students to gain more agency over their learning.

Feedback can’t be given, it needs to be nurtured.

The easy way: Tell students what they are doing well and what they need to improve on and continue to do this until the task meets or exceeds the rubric standards.

The nurturing way: Mediate a students thinking by having a conversation their topic and audience AND even more importantly, the choices they are making in to connect to said topic and audience.

Mediating someone’s thinking is a learned skill—it doesn’t come naturally. What comes naturally is to put on our teacher hat and tell a student what they are doing right and mostly what they are not yet doing right…to take the easy way.

What does mediating a students thinking look like?

I am going to apologize in advance to Harvard Business Review for grossly oversimplifying this article. It is a phenomenal read and reminded me of what it means to nurture a students learning—to keep them at the center. In the article Buckingham and Goodall pinpoint a collective (and false) theory where we believe that “feedback contains useful information, and that this information is the magic ingredient that will accelerate someone’s learning.” 

But, the research points in the opposite direction. Learning is less a function of adding something that isn’t there than it is of recognizing, reinforcing, and refining what already is. 

The article goes on to discuss how focusing on an individual’s strengths catalyzes learning, where as focusing on weaknesses impairs it. When I first read this article I first had to share it with everyone I knew IRL and on Twitter. And then it just so happened that I had a stack of opinion responses waiting to be graded. And so, I took the opportunity to do what Buckingham and Goodall so eloquently discussed—I focused on the positive.

The next couple of days I conferred with students and there was a noticeable difference in the dialogue—I was asking more questions about what I had noticed them doing well and they were more engaged in asking questions on how they could turn other aspects of their response into a strength. I tried to avoid telling them what to do and instead tried to guide their thinking. This mediation of their process allowed them to start to find their voice, to see the relevance, and to gain a sense of ownership.

Feedback hacked! (Okay…not entirely. I still have a long way to go…but it is a start.)

Critical Point #2: We need to think about the type of feedback we are giving—and how it helps or hinders a students ability to learn.

When we nurture and mediate the feedback process, we:


  • ask students what they are proud
  • focus on what they are doing well already
  • ask questions to help mediate their thinking and guide their process
  • encourage them to ask questions
  • compliment WITH evidence

How do you hack the feedback process? What do you consider to be the most effective feedback tools and strategies? What other “critical points” would you add to this list? Find me on Twitter @readwritemore

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