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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Five Steps to Giving Students Effective Feedback

Students today are bombarded with information, images, music, noise, and soundbites. So how do we get through the communication barriers and provide them with effective feedback in the math classroom? Let's take a look at five characteristics of effective feedback: Immediate, Targeted, Concrete, Action Oriented, and Confidence Building.

After students turn in an assignment, they often have to wait a day or two to find out whether they were on track. In that brief amount of time, they can easily forget why they made the mistakes they did. And since they haven't yet discovered where or why those mistakes occurred, they keep making them again and again. As a result, the mistakes continue and bad habits are beginning to form.

When students get immediate feedback, they can switch gears and start tackling math problems correctly. Dr. Janice Raymond, the author of Excel Math lessons, created a natural feedback loop with the unique CheckAnswer system. The Excel Math CheckAnswer lets students see immediately if they've made mistakes and gives them a chance to correct those errors on their own. It is used throughout Excel Math lessons for Grades 2-6.

This CheckAnswer system enables students to check their own work and verify for themselves that they understand the concepts in the daily Guided Practice and Homework. As a result, students are encouraged to solve the problems, show their work, check their answers, and then go back and fix any errors they've made. At the same time, students are given an immediate feedback loop so they don't have wait until the next day to find out which problems they've missed. Read more in our previous post.

Feedback is most helpful when it is targeted and applied to a student's specific needs. This can be difficult, if not impossible, with a class of 30+ students. Fortunately, Excel Math tests have built in some feedback tools teachers can use to identify students who need more help on certain concepts.

Regular assessments are included in each Excel Math grade level. In the Teacher Edition, on every test page is key to the concepts each test problem covers. When a student misses a problem on the test, you can see at a glance which concept was addressed in that problem and where that concept was first introduced. In the example test below, the first question asks students to add 4-digit numbers:
Excel Math Student Lesson Sheet Grade 3 Test 19
Click here for a larger image

The test table in the Grade 3 Teacher Edition shows that the concept covered in test question #1 was first introduced in Lesson 67. So students who missed this question can be given a recap of Lesson 67 or solve a few problems from the Guided Practice for additional review:
Excel Math Grade 3 Teacher Edition Test Table 19
Click here for a larger image

Concrete, specific, individualized feedback can help students pinpoint the problems they are dealing with so they can address those problems head on.  Since some students are visual learners, providing a visual explanation of math concepts can sometimes help them grasp the concept more easily. In addition to looking at the example on the Student Lesson Sheets, projecting the lesson on a screen or interactive whiteboard gives the teacher a chance to explain the problem-solving technique to many students at once. With Excel Math Projectable Lessons, slides of the problems are followed by slides showing the answers and the steps needed to complete the problems. It can be helpful to leave these examples on the screen while students move on to the Guided Practice as a visual reminder of how to solve the problems.

According to Grant Wiggins in his Educational Leadership article for ASCD, "Research shows that less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning. And there are numerous ways—through technology, peers, and other teachers—that students can get the feedback they need." Read more at

For the most part, the lesson of the day for math class needs to take only 15-20 minutes (or less), allowing plenty of time for students to practice solving the problems on their own. During Guided Practice, students find out where their understanding is weak, and the teacher is available to help students who need it, while allowing them to progress independently through problems they understand. In this way, the teacher can give specific, individualized feedback and students can catch and correct any errors before they are repeated at home.

Action Oriented
Instead of simply pointing out errors when students make mistakes, it's more helpful to students when we give them the tools to continue the problem-solving process independently. As students solve problems on their own, they start to succeed at mathematics. Building on that success, the student begins to relax. We've eliminated any reason for the student to be defensive. Instead, the student gains confidence and realizes "I can do it!" and "it's not that hard."

When students take an assignment home, there obviously is no teacher to help them. It is assumed that if a teacher gives help in class, the student is therefore 'ready' for independent practice. The problem however, is that in many mathematics curriculums, students are asked to complete homework on concepts to which they have just that morning been introduced. It should be no surprise that kids come back to school the next day and say, "I didn't understand this, so I couldn't do it." Here's where Excel Math's true spiraling process with spaced repetition and a built-in feedback loop help close the achievement gap and make homework more of an independent study and review process.

When a concept has been practiced by the student and guided by the teacher for at least a week, by the time it goes home for independent instruction (homework), the student is able to complete the homework successfully most of the time.

Confidence Building
Being able to complete homework independently (for the most part) is a huge confidence builder for students who have struggled with math. Confident students are much less likely to become discouraged when faced with more difficult problems. Instead, they are better equipped to tackle new challenges when they come up in the future. 

During Guided Practice, students work on math problems that reinforce the concepts just taught. The teacher is free to move around the classroom, helping those students who get stuck. Students are can work independently but still ask for help when they need it. This system allows students to check their own work and gives them a chance to actually get the answer correct!

Parent/teacher conferences can also be confidence-building tools. Teachers can point out areas where the student is improving and may suggest additional resources for skill building such as paper or electronic flashcards, Timed Basic Math Fact Practice, math games, cooking (measuring, doubling a recipe), menu planning on a budget, measuring with a ruler or tape measure, etc. Many parents feel ill-prepared to tutor their students in math. Some simply aren't available after school when students do their homework. You may want to provide parents with a list of resources such as your own office hours and availability, free tutoring groups, students available to be "math buddies," homework clubs, online helps, and homework chat lines.

Click here to download the Word file 
Here's a feedback form you can customize and use at your next parent-teacher conference to give parents feedback about their students. Once you download the form, you can fill it in on your computer or print it out, copy it and fill it in by hand. Click here to download the customizable Word document or here for the printable PDF file. TIP: If you print out the form, sign and date one form. You may want to add your class expectations on the back. Then print a signed form for each student in the class and fill them out individually. Keep one copy of each student's form for your records.

What feedback methods have you found work best in your classroom? Share your ideas using the Comments section below.

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