Near the top of your list (professionally) is a core pathway that really boosts learning. We all take it for granted. Based on peer-reviewed brain research, it lands on my Top 5 List for ALL instructional paths. Do you use this strategy effectively already? This newsletter focuses on # 3 of my top 5. Earlier newsletters dealt with Consolidation and State Management.
PART 1: Backstory and Research
What should your priorities be this year? From a personal standpoint, managing your health through good food, exercise, and stress reducers are all smart paths to follow. After all, if you’re not at your best, you and your students miss out.
Since you don’t have time for every instructional idea on earth, what factors will support your students’ growth the most? This month, we’ll focus on another of my top five factors that drive most student achievement. The research we draw from this month is grounded in work from multiple sources and with high credibility.
Focusing on these Top 5 is one sure way to ‘disaster-proof’ teaching. When you do what matters most student learning jumps up. Curious? Keep reading. This month, we dive into the third, fresh growth angle: feedback.
I have found that understanding the human brain helps me do my work better. Let’s introduce the three principles that are in play. You’ll soon see why this fresh feedback path is worth your high priority.
Principle #1: Our brain is primarily a ‘gist processor.’ This means that we are more interested in being fast (vs. correct) so we can quickly determine the substance of any experience or learning (Brainerd & Reyna,1990). Suppose you’re unsure if danger lurks; it’s better to respond and be wrong than to ignore it and die (Kazanas & Altarriba, 2015). Jumping to a conclusion may save your life. Our brain must have fast feedback, or we all lose a needed reality check on the situation.
The ‘gist processing’ principle helps teachers expand their point of view. Success takes reframing, enthusiasm, and skill-building to manage a deep dive into content. Details are hard work. We survive better by being effective and fast (goal acquisition) than we are by being an efficient, deep thinker or knowing a lot of background. In the classroom, this means that most kids (unless we shape their brains differently) would much rather get quirky headlines and be done for the day. The good news is brains can change (Anand, et al, 2011).
Principle #2: The brain is primarily a ‘prediction processor.’ We predict every moment, all day long (Barrett & Simmons, 2015). When we are correct, we feel more comfortable, even if we predict a negative event. When we are wrong, feedback allows our brain to learn and alter our future predictions (“We thought it was a big spider, but it was just a leaf.”)
The brain relies on an exquisite collection of feedback processors to become effective. The feedback of our experiences helps us correct our senses, thoughts, and behaviors. Your sensed information (heard or seen) is used to adjust the initial predictions you made (embedded with your prior beliefs, mindsets, and experiences) to the updated reality of the environment (De Ridder, Verplaetse & Vanneste, 2013). In short, your brain is nearly useless without constant feedback.
Principle #3: Our brain is driven more by emotions than logic. This confirms why fear, anger, regret, anxiety, sadness, and joy have such a big say-so in our lives (Seth & Friston, 2016). Your emotions are making meaning from the sensations of your world. Emotions seem like your reaction to the world; but they are your construction of what the experience appears to you in that moment. In the classroom, student emotions and learning are locked together. You evoke the right emotions and become a better learner (Lebois et al., 2020). Feedback is maximized with a positive emotion.
Now you know why ongoing feedback matters (a lot.) Let’s get to the specifics. We include knowing the student’s ability, the course content, the present circumstances, the emotions generated, feedback type (duration, form, intensity, nonverbals, developmental appropriateness of feedback), the students’ prior mindsets, and prior experiences (background). This is why a variety of tools is critical for success.
For K-2 teachers, the most effective feedback (…. drum roll please…) is nonverbals. Applaud a student and with raised eyebrows and a big smile, say, “Wow” while giving two thumbs up, a high five, or do your ‘happy dance.’ The more you weave positive emotions in your feedback, the faster the student learns.
Keep in mind it is far better to use lower-quality feedback with many variations (constantly) than to give students more detailed feedback weekly or monthly. That’s why nearly any feedback-driven strategy (even quizzes) will support greater achievement (Logan et al., 2011). For you, it’s now time you graduate from “basic” to “prime” feedback tools.
PART 2: Practical Applications
Here are seven guidelines for enhancing your results while using more and more effective feedback. Learning from mistakes speeds up changes in the brain. Getting affirmation for correct answers helps build confidence and a love of learning. Formative assessment is great feedback, but you’ll want to find ways to mix it up. Ensure you mix it up around this time of the year (variations are below).
1. SPECIFICITY. Here is why comparing and contrasting texts work: 1) attention to detail, 2) reflection engaged for biases, definitions, and themes, and 3) higher-order thinking is fostered. Examples include students’ use of a checklist, key points listed from each text, pre-testing, interim and partner quizzes, and the use of a rubric as a team to guide the process.
Compare and contrast has a strong effect on student learning. Divide the learning into two groups. Compare two reading passages with the same or similar main idea. Each can have a different area of focus, details, or point of view. Or compare and contrast to illuminate similarities via a Venn Diagram, then share it with others.
Three more of my specific feedback strategies are simple to use with secondary students. The 3Ms have a strong effect size. Ask students their ‘Mark’ (what was your recent score?), your next ‘Milestone’ (upcoming goal or standard), and the ‘Method’ (how will you get there?). The 3Ms help students build a tracking tool for feedback and reflection.
Focus feedback that describes the content, not the person. For example, make it specific and say, “Put the semicolon right after THIS type of phrase, not that type. Just to review, which type is best?” Student says, “After an incomplete phrase?” You say the words. “That’s correct. You learned a new skill.”
When you want to be specific but don’t have a quick response ready yet for your students, your ‘fallback tool’ can be to use S-E-A (strategy, effort, or attitude). “Good work; I love the way you tried a new strategy to get a solution.” Or, say, “I think your effort made the difference. Stay with that effort and you’ll do well.” Finally, “Love that positive ‘can do’ attitude you have.”
2. GET PHYSICAL. Students also gain more with emotions in the feedback. In a large study of ninety-six diverse schools with a random sample of teachers, the evidence was clear: emotions of positivity and optimism make a significant contribution to student achievement (Hoy, Tarter, & Hoy, 2006).
When you engage the body, the attentional emotions (curiosity, memory, and interest) are raised. Use ‘Gallery Walks’ or have students build a physical model. Provide games with competition, implement using an author’s chair activity, small group discussion, use audio or video feedback, peer editing, student presentations, or hypothesis building.
3. ENGAGE INTERDEPENDENCY. While peer-connected students usually like the feeling of being depended upon and supported, it can get stale. Mix it up! In short, remix the teams for a day or switch up student partners for a day. New partners can give more than a fresh face; they can provide and get fresh feedback. Teach students HOW to give feedback and partner reinforcement within the new grouping instead of always being the one who GETS it. Then, make it a habit to reorganize the collaborations weekly.
4. USE TECHNOLOGY FOR BETTER FEEDBACK. On a smartphone, make an audio recording of a small student group interacting (they LOVE to feel like a star). Then allow the class to hear, learn from, and give suggestions. Video can also be used; ask students for permission to film a group and debrief teamwork. Some staff love to use clickers, tablets, or software that lets them give instant contributions to class learning. Students can score themselves (based on tech data) and graph out the growth over time.
5. USE GAMES TO GIVE STUDENTS FEEDBACK. With younger students, use classic games for attention-building and awareness, such as red light/green light, charades, Head/Shoulders/Knees & Toes, Simon Sez, or “What’s Different.” Many unknowing teachers dismiss those games, but the evidence is strong that they are effective (McClelland, et al., 2014). With middle and high school students, try Sudoku, memory games, and energizers with positive messages played (e.g., “Top of the World” by Imagine Dragons).
6. USE SOCIAL STRATEGIES for feedback that students usually love. They include using team competitions, making brief presentations, or playing question/answer games within a team. The novelty and fresh insights can reactivate the learning and effort.
7. ENGAGE EMOTIONS IN FEEDBACK. Typically, some staff have an upbeat, charge-ahead mindset, exuding warmth and positivity. Yet others may think arousing emotions is a bunch of silly “rah-rah.” What does the evidence tell us? Let’s ask a critical question. Which of the following six factors contribute most to student learning: personality, reading ability, hopefulness, math scores, IQ, or previous academic achievement? It turns out that emotions (e.g., hope, joy, and satisfaction) are the most critical emotions to foster in your students (Day, Hanson, Maltby, & Proctor, 2010). Do you foster those emotions daily or just wish they would happen?
Any feedback in class can be framed as either optimistic or discouraging. When you give feedback or restate feedback from another person or device, simply ensure you put a positive, upbeat spin on it. Be the bearer of good news every day; foster hope and be sure to focus on different students each day (Marques, Lopez & Pais-Ribeiro, 2011). Say to the student, “It’s good to see your improvement. The sky’s the limit for you.” Why? It matters.
Your positivity paves the path to student success (Catalino & Fredrickson, 2011). Emotions pioneer Dr. Federickson says we are most effective at learning when we get a 5-1 ratio of positives to negatives. If you criticize, downplay, or discourage a student twice a day, you now OWE 10 positives. Sound crazy? It’s been tested and validated (Fredrickson, 2013).
That’s it for this month; it’s closing time. Now for my biggest fear. Maybe you still use the ‘time bias.’ Many will read this newsletter and respond, “I’m just too busy; I’ve got no time for those changes (to help me and my students soar like eagles).” If you feel that way, I am sorry; I have failed you.
But most everything in life worth having over a lifetime also requires the ‘the long game.’ At school, it includes building relationships and fostering better feedback and cognitive capacity. At home, the list consists of maintaining relationships, appreciating the daily blessings, and saving for retirement. Choose right now; what have you decided on… long or short? Then begin… right now.
You see, life goes by so fast that many would say, “Live in the moment, smell the roses, life is short.” And they’re right. Life is about savoring the smell of the flowers, eating a great meal, and enjoying hugs from friends and family.
CEO, Jensen Learning