Opinion
Teaching Opinion

Actionable Feedback Is Essential for Growth

By Starr Sackstein — October 16, 2016 3 min read
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Have you ever seen one of those Life Lock commercials where the patient is in the dentist chair and a man looks in his mouth dressed as a dentist tells him that he has a bad problem that needs to be fixed? Once he identifies the issue, he starts walking out when the patient say, “well aren’t you going to fix it?” He then explains, it’s not my job to fix it, only identify and monitor the problem.

The take away is that Life Lock isn’t only in the business of recognizing problems, but also correcting them and too often in education we spend time analyzing data to figure out what is wrong, but don’t spend enough time actually working on fixing what we find.

Perhaps it’s just the new buzz word of the moment or maybe it’s the missing piece in how we make feedback more meaningful, but actionable feedback means not only identifying what needs improvement, but also offering a plan of action to make the necessary improvement possible.

It’s easy enough to tell a person what’s wrong with their writing or a math set but it is a whole other thing to help them understand how to tackle the challenge and start to improve it. This is clearly more important than naming the problem.

Too often in education we spend time naming problems rather solving them. We talk about what’s wrong at length instead of living in solutions.

Actionable feedback is where the solutions begin.

There are lots of different ways of providing actionable feedback and depending on the age of the students and the content you’re addressing, just make sure you’re focusing on the how.

First start with making sure the students understand the standards and/or success criteria that they are working toward in each lesson or project. This way even at benchmark moments you can provide feedback in a meaningful way that will push the learning forward.

Consider the following when providing actionable feedback:


  • Once an issue has been identified, how can the student tackle the issue? - Providing a strategy to employ and then asking the student to practice using it and then reflect on the learning is useful.
  • When listening in on a small group working on a problem set, interject with a probing question that allows them to grapple with different ways for staying focused on the task and solving the problem. Which strategy did they use? Was it successful? How do they know? Then follow up with some specific feedback about what you heard and how they can dig deeper or offer another strategy.
  • Make sure students know the rubric and that you’re using the language of the rubric when providing feedback. For example if we’re working on developing an essay with evidence, ask students how will they develop? Will they explain further the words of the quote selected? Will they add more analysis by connecting what they’ve selected to the claim they are trying to prove?
  • If the students are missing a part of the scientific process in their lab reports, how can we help them what is missing and why it needs to be added?

Often when I see students tracking their feedback, they just say “I will work harder to complete my work” as a plan which doesn’t specifically address how. The how is where the strategy and learning lives. Students need to be given explicit direction on how they can move forward once a problem has been indentified. Once they become more adept at identifying strengths and challenges in their own writing, then they can visit the tool boxes of strategies they’ve developed and figure out how best to improve.

We must scaffold this procces though. Some students may not have go to strategies yet and will need direct instruction. We can then group the students intentionally to provide instruction and have them practice the strategy; later they can refer to it as a possible means to other solutions as well.

Providing feedback is an art and as we continue to propel our students into independence, we need to carefully monitor where they are providing them the necessary steps like training wheels until they are ready to ride alone. The magic is in that moment when they realize that they know how already.

How do you help students discover strategies for improving their learning in your classes? Please share

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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