The educator Dylan Wiliam notes in his book Embedded Formative Assessment that “feedback should cause thinking. It should be focused; it should relate to the learning goals that have been shared with the students; and it should be more work for the recipient than the donor.” Providing this kind of feedback experience is ideal but is not always logistically tenable because of the burden it places on teacher workload. It would be ideal if we never thought twice about providing feedback on 80 eighth-grade text analyses, but the fact is, we do think twice—and that’s OK.

As a 15-year International Baccalaureate educator whose primary method of assessment is essay writing, I’ve struggled with the trade-off between workload and feedback my entire career. Recently, I began to realize the power of peer feedback. Peer feedback empowers students to play an active role in the learning process. Indeed, there are few learning experiences that have the educational payoff that peer feedback brings to your learning community.

Creating quality peer feedback experiences for your students takes practice, persistence, and precision–and, yes, work on the teacher’s part. However, I’ve realized that peer feedback is one of the most powerful teaching tools we have. The following guide should give you a solid foundation upon which to craft your own peer feedback experiences.

Step 1: Identify Your Learning Target and Analyze for Clarity

Charles Jennings, cofounder of the 70:20:10 Institute, famously claimed that there are four main drivers of learning:

  • Challenging experiences
  • Opportunities to practice
  • Creative conversations
  • Time for reflection

Peer feedback, when done correctly, creates all of these experiences for our students. The first step to creating a peer feedback experience is to decide the following: What skill, standard, or learning outcome do you want your students to receive feedback on? And, more important, “what does this standard look like in practice?”

It can be tempting to simply copy and paste a standard into a single point rubric and have your students get started with the feedback process. However, before you have your students put pen to paper, it is important to ask yourself: Do students understand the language used in the standard or learning target as written?

If the answer to the above questions is yes, great. However, if the answer is no, then do the following:

  • Break the standard or learning target down into its component parts, and
  • Ensure that you are using language your students will understand.

For example, the IB Theory of Knowledge essay rubric is notoriously opaque, using descriptor words like “cogent,” “formless,” and “mainstream.” To combat this lack of clarity, I have fun creating clarifying addendums to the rubric like “The arguments were so persuasive that I want to show my mom how well you write!” or “I found myself saying ‘huh’ a lot.”

While you can certainly construct a peer feedback experience in which a student is assessing multiple standards and skills (my seniors do this all the time), it is better to scaffold the experience for both you and your students by starting with a single skill or standard. Then, after the students (and you) have become comfortable assessing single skills or standards, you can combine those elements into a larger experience such as a final essay, inquiry project, or lab report.

Step 2: Create Action

John Hattie’s Visible Learning report identifies self-efficacy as having the largest impact on a student’s “beliefs, attitudes, and dispositions” about learning. As I read the report, I said to myself, “Why not nurture self-efficacy by empowering my students to assess themselves and each other?” I realized that doing so would require students to be responsible to one another for their own learning as well as require greater engagement.

That greater engagement comes from requiring action after identifying learning targets. You need to require that your feedback providers do something. While it is certainly OK to have your feedback providers underline or highlight an element, it doesn’t actually engage them with the “opportunity for practice” that we want to require of them. The better you engage your feedback providers, the better quality of feedback and reflection.

When my U.S. History students had to provide feedback on a component of College, Career, and Civic Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards indicator D4.1.9-12, “Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims…,” in regard to an inquiry focused on methods of oppression, I realized that students may not know how to do this. So I asked myself, “What does this look like in practice?” I decided that precise and knowledgeable claims required topic sentences that made a claim while simultaneously explicitly linking that claim to the prompt/problem/question.

I required my feedback providers to “write the word or phrase that links the claim to the prompt in the topic sentence of each paragraph.” This not only guaranteed that students would get the feedback they needed to be better writers; it also served as a cognitive reminder to the feedback providers themselves that such an element was necessary for quality work.

Step 3: Require a Conversation

After the feedback is complete, it is important that your feedback provider and the student whom they are working with have a conversation. I require my feedback providers to orally explain their feedback in order to leverage what we know about the power of “creative conversations” and social interaction in learning. Students provide their peers with specific feedback about ways in which they were successful in regard to the learning target, as well as specific elements that should be improved.

As teachers, we are always searching for that intervention or pedagogical approach that can help our students be their best. Peer feedback is that intervention. Not only does it allow your students to receive the frequent and focused formative assessment that they need, but also it leverages what we know is best practice from both a neurological and a social science perspective: challenging experiences, social interaction, and personal reflection on achieving learning targets. And hey, the fact that you’ll get home before sundown isn’t bad either.

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