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5 Simple Ways to Give Students Feedback During Project Based Learning: #HackingPBL

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Grant Wiggins defined feedback as, “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.” A few specific examples he included were:

  • A friend tells me, "You know, when you put it that way and speak in that softer tone of voice, it makes me feel better."
  • A baseball coach tells me, "Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn't really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball."

For both examples, the recipient receives specific guidance in regards to what to do next…When we provide feedback during project based learning (PBL), or any type of learning, we should have this same goal in mind. Students should walk away with an idea of what their next steps will be (otherwise, what we’re giving probably doesn’t meet the definition of “feedback”).

John Hattie, who has synthesized over 1,000 meta-analyses related to student achievement, identifies feedback as among the most powerful influences on student success in the classroom. He says feedback, when goal-focused, has “twice the average effect of all other schooling effects.”

But, when and how do we make time for feedback during project based learning?

Here are five ways to make this happen.

1. Verbally, while conferring

As students are engaged in their projects, it could be tempting to sit at your desk, using this time as a “break” from the real teaching. However, this time is often when the most valuable teaching and learning takes place. While students work, you have limitless opportunities to grab students for one-on-one or small group conferences, which can be tailored to meet their specific needs. The continuous facilitation of these types of conferences should be a non-negotiable of any PBL experience, or any sort of framework in which students work one-on-one or in small groups (e.g., Writing Workshop).

As a teacher, as I met with students I regularly wrote down noteworthy information: what students were currently working on, what help was needed, possible next steps, etc. These notes were used to guide subsequent conferences and also to possibly inform larger scale instruction if many students had the same needs. Conference notes can be recorded on notebook paper, and you can also consider making room for them on the project’s rubric.

2. Written, on the rubric 

As you confer with students, make sure their rubrics (and possibly, project directions) are visible. The presence of the rubric will help to ensure discussions are more intentional. As you meet with students, and as they progress through their projects, they should be able to see how what they are accomplishing will result in them hitting (or surpassing) the project’s learning targets, which should be on the rubric. In other words, the understandings they must demonstrate through their work should be completely transparent.

To increase this transparency, as I mentioned in my previous post, 5 Reasons Your Rubric Needs a Makeover – “on the rubric, think about leaving a space where feedback can be provided pertaining to each goal [or learning target].” This approach helps students to pinpoint what their next steps should be, and they can make more explicit connections between the written feedback and what they have to accomplish and understand. If the rubric has been created and shared with students via Google Drive (or something comparable), teachers can provide written feedback at their convenience, whenever it may be necessary and not just while conferring.

3. Google Drive, comments in the margin 

There is a strong chance a good amount of the project will be completed in something like Google Drive, especially if a great deal of writing is required, or the students used a template as a starting point (which was initially distributed via Google Classroom or by using this trick right here). In fact, if a good amount of word processing or spreadsheet creation is going to be taking place, I don’t see too many reasons why students shouldn’t be working in the cloud.

As a teacher (and even now as an administrator) I was constantly going through Google docs and leaving feedback in the margins by highlighting text and then hitting Option+Command+M. Overall, one of my main concerns was the need for a “paper trail.” Once a student had decided to resolve/delete a comment, I needed to be able to see if he had actually satisfied my feedback prior to getting rid of it.  Of course, since Google archives all comments, this was never a problem. I was always able to clearly see (1) what I had asked of a student, and (2) whether or not he had done it. Nonetheless, while a continuous stream of comments may sound appealing, it can be overwhelming for both teachers and students. So, sometimes it is better to have a schedule as to when comments will be left.

4. Conferences, scheduled ahead of time

While students should always be receiving some form of feedback pertaining to their project, it can be beneficial to set up more formal feedback checkpoints, during which students must get approval from the teacher before moving on to the next step. While this feedback can involve the comments in the margins, ideally, it should also involve some form of face-to-face discussion. Students want to know teachers are invested in them as students and people, and not just their work. Often times, words on a page (or computer) do not suffice in conveying this message.

All of my project directions had at least one step that read something like, “Teacher conference/approval.” At times my students flew through these checkpoints with no problems at all, while other times they had to repeatedly go back and revise their work before proceeding. Either way, these checkpoints help to ensure students learned the necessary material while also allowing for them to work at different paces based on their abilities.

5. Mini-lessons, in small or large groups

In general, mini-lessons serve two purposes during PBL. First, while inquiry-based learning (which encompasses PBL) is based on students uncovering content (as opposed to the teacher covering it through more direct instruction), not everything can be inquiry. As students make their way through their projects, there will be vital information they won’t uncover, and therefore it should be taught through more direct mini-lessons.

Second, a mini-lesson can emerge as a result of several students or groups struggling with the same concept (the larger scale instruction that was mentioned in Verbally, while conferring). For example, if you have recognized that more than half of your students are having the same problem, it would be more efficient to meet with them as one large group, rather than dealing with them individually or in small groups. This way, you would be making the best use of class time while also creating an environment in which students are working through their struggles together. While a mini-lesson usually wouldn’t be categorized as feedback, here we have an exception as it is provided in response to students’ difficulties in reaching their goals.

In the End

In the previous post we took a look at how classroom cultures of learning are driven by feedback, not grades.

So…To support students in moving forward with their goals in mind, not only should we know what feedback is and isn’t, but we must also be intentional regarding when and how it is given.

What are your thoughts on the when and how of feedback? What has worked for you and your students?


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I am the coauthor of Hacking Project Based Learning, and the Supervisor of Instructional Practice K-12 in the Salisbury Township School District (1:1 MacBook/iPad) in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I am an Apple Distinguished Educator and a Google Certified Innovator. My passions are inquiry-based learning and quality professional development. I blog about these topics at rosscoops31.com. I regularly speak, present, and conduct workshops related to my writings and professional experiences.

When I am not working, I enjoy eating steak and pizza, exercising, reading books, playing on my computer, and provoking my three beautiful nephews. Please feel free to connect via email, RossCoops31@gmail.com, and Twitter, @RossCoops31.

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Guest Monday, 18 March 2019