By Ashley Liput

No matter how many books you read, college courses you attend, or professional development sessions you participate in, really learning how to be a teacher comes from experiences. You take all that you have learned, apply it to the classroom, make mistakes, reflect, collaborate with colleagues, and try again.

This process becomes much more challenging when the main method of communication is conveyed through a computer screen, no one is allowed to go into the school building or see each other, and the world is at the start of a global pandemic. The shift to virtual learning in March was an unexpected one that teachers did not have much time to prepare for and became a true work-embedded learning experience.

Understanding the middle man

So much learning, instruction, and evaluation happens in the classroom every day. A quick smile that lets you know you are on the right track, a look as a reminder to stay focused on the task at hand, the slight frown and downturn of the eyebrows that show confusion, or the light behind the eyes indicating that much sought after “Aha!” moment.

These subtle classroom nuances do not transfer as well across the internet. These messages become harder to send and receive when they must first pass through a middle man—the online format. With so many changes and uncertainties, many teachers in my school, and likely, around the country, did not realize that some of their best teaching practices could be brought into their new virtual classroom. There are, however, some routines and good teaching practices that can transfer from the classroom into the world of virtual learning.

Why feedback?

Feedback was one such teaching practice that seemed to bring much frustration to the teachers in my upper elementary school this past school year. Students were completing all of their assignments in math, reading, writing, science, and social studies online.

As assignments were handed in each day, many teachers felt that they had to leave feedback on each assignment for all of their students. This became hard to manage and overwhelming as teachers were tied to their computers for hours well past the normal school day. In reality, leaving this much feedback on student work was unrealistic. Students would not receive this type of direct feedback on every assignment on an average day in the classroom.

Students, too, were likely overwhelmed by the laundry list of suggestions they were receiving from their teachers each day. A deeper dive into the issue showed that teachers were leaving comments on student work as a way to connect with students and motivate them to continue working. The lines between connection and feedback became blurred. In this way, feedback lost its authenticity. It quickly became clear that teachers needed support.

Step 1: Connection

When students have strong relationships with their classmates and teachers, the classroom environment is more conducive to learning. In a time of uncertainty, students need these relationships to continue as a support to their social-emotional development, notes education reporter and children’s book author Kara Newhouse. When the normal routines are thrown off and people are expected to stay home and away from others for long periods of time, children benefit from any structure or routine that can provide some sort of stability. Being able to maintain as many established classrooms routines and norms as possible can help to provide the needed structure. Additionally, maintaining strong relationships with students continues to be important for academic learning.

As a way to connect with students and provide opportunities for social connections, teachers in my school held daily, virtual morning meetings. Morning meetings had already occurred in the classrooms throughout the school, so this was a familiar routine for students.

These virtual meetings provided opportunities for social connections that students had been missing. Students could greet each other, participate in a “share,” and do an activity as a class.

Special area teachers and guidance counselors were invited to attend these meetings, allowing students the chance to see some of the faces they would normally see in the school building.

These meetings also set the tone for the day and provided a routine structure. In addition, teachers held small, social groups for students over Google Meet, hosted virtual field trips for the class, read books allowed with a social-emotional learning focus, and sent letters to students through the mail. Teachers also used weekly reflections as a tool to check in with their students.

All of these strategies showed students that even though they were not in school, their classroom community was still there to support them.

Step 2: Feedback

Once the social connections were established, teachers could then focus on giving targeted, authentic feedback. Feedback was a major focus for teachers because when meaningful feedback is given, it can encourage student reflection, promoting student ownership of learning, and ultimately, fostering strong learners.

The effects of feedback, however, can be highly variable, and feedback can have a negative impact on student learning. According to Cameron Brooks and his fellow researchers in Australia, feedback that is perceived by students to be inaccurate or feedback that is received after an assignment has been finished could be demotivating. If an overwhelming amount of feedback is given, students may simply ignore the feedback and any additional feedback that is given in the future.

Marianne Stenger reports in her Edutopia article “5 Research-Based Tips for Providing Students With Meaningful Feedback” that “if learners feel too closely monitored, they may become nervous, self-conscious, and disengaged from learning.” In a time when there are many challenges to learning, it is important that students are given effective feedback so they have every opportunity to continue learning, even at a distance.

We know from Grant Wiggins’ “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback” that for feedback to be effective, it should be goal referenced, timely, actionable, specific and descriptive, and consistent. According to Benedikt Wisniewski and his fellow researchers, the feedback channel does not make a difference in how the feedback is received, whether it is oral, written, seen through video, heard through audio, or delivered online. This tells us that feedback could be just as effective when given in the virtual learning environment as it is when given in the classroom.

As my colleagues and I considered how to give students effective feedback virtually, many strategies emerged from educational blogs, research, experience, and collaboration. The strategies that were ultimately used by teachers to give meaningful and manageable feedback included:

  • Providing prompts and cues – If a student’s writing is filled with capitalization errors, a teacher may write something like, “Remember that proper nouns—people or places—need to be capitalized. As you revise, please look for these proper nouns.”
  • Charts and examples – These can be posted in an online space that students have access to, like a Google Classroom for example.
  • Small groups – Use Google Meet or Zoom, in accordance with district policy, to host small groups for students who need explicit reteaching.
  • Demonstrations – Record a video showing students examples of how to use a specific strategy.
  • Partner feedback – Encourage partnerships to give each other meaningful feedback. You can add in an accountability piece by having students respond to a question or complete a reflection. For example, students may have to jot one thing they learned from their partner’s work or one suggestion they made.
  • Student feedback requests – Have students submit one piece of work they are proud of and one piece of work (or a specific part of the work) that they want feedback on.
  • Office Hours – Have students sign up for designated office hours if they need extra support.

Each of these strategies allowed feedback to become more manageable for teachers while also promoting student learning and independence. These strategies can also be found at padlet.com/ashley_liput/esbtuo7mogtv.

Final thoughts

With many schools relying on some sort of distance learning this year, it is important to notice what is working for teachers and students and what can be improved. Feedback was something that my school chose to examine because that was an area of need at the time.

Whether a school or an individual teacher is considering improving feedback or another best practice, it is important to remember that the underlying foundation of many good practices does not change when the learning is shifted to a virtual environment. Educators know what good instruction is, and they know what is best for their students. They just need the time and the nonjudgmental space to reflect, ask questions and try new strategies.

One of the most important things that came from the examination of feedback was not the strategies that teachers ultimately used. It was getting the opportunity to celebrate any successes and communicating and collaborating with colleagues that kept the cooperative learning culture of the school building alive in the virtual world.

This helped to reestablish our cycle of taking all that we have learned, applying to the virtual classroom, making mistakes, reflecting, collaborating with colleagues through Google Meets, and trying again and allowed us to continue to give our students the best learning experience.

References

The following resources were referenced in this article:

Brooks, C., Huang, Y., Hattie, J., Carroll, A., and Burton, R. (2019). What is my  next step? School students’ perceptions of feedback. Frontiers in Education.

Newhouse, K. (2020, March 24). Staying in touch: Why kids need teachers during coronavirus school closings. Retrieved April 15, 2020

Stenger, M. (2014, August 6). 5 research-based tips for providing students with meaningful feedback [Blog post]. 

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10-16.

Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., and Hattie, J. (2019). The power of feedback revisited: A meta-analysis of educational feedback research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

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