Pondering Peer Feedback

There are many benefits to peer feedback, just like there are benefits to using multiple choice questions. However, like for MCQ, my motive for using this more in my classroom was Grade 6. Four sections of Grade 6. Ninety-nine students. Which is a lot of rough drafts. Which is a good reason to delegate some of the feedback burden.

But there are other bonuses to using peer feedback. The students can read the work of their peers, to give them ideas for their own writing. And, by leaving comments, they can reflect more on the characteristics of quality work. However, I was not going to operate under the assumption that my middle school students would know how to write good feedback. I was going to train them.

First, I needed a structure for peer feedback. I wanted it to be simple, easily applied to a variety of assignments, and, well, to actually help students write good feedback. The ACE/SPACE structure used by Mrs. Humanities was one option, and had a catchy acronym, but it was not as flexible as I would have wanted it. It seemed better suited for non-fiction writing, such as explanatory or argumentative writing. I wanted the students to use peer feedback for a fictional story they were going to do as a performance task, so this format didn’t fit my needs.

I ended up choosing David Didau‘s format for peer feedback, explained in his book The Secret to Literacy. His approach is also explained in this post on his blog.

I started by explaining the criteria for good feedback (kind, helpful and specific), along with examples and non-examples.

Next, we practiced with a homework assignment. I redistributed the assignment, they left comments, then I collected the assignments and read aloud the best feedback. We repeated the same process later with another homework assignment. No pictures from that practice.

​The goal for this process was for them to give feedback on rough drafts for a project. Their task was to write a story about an immigrant who moved from one country to another, using what they researched about the two countries and the novel Esperanza Rising as a model. In an effort to encourage revision and to guide them towards writing great stories, we were going to do two rough drafts before the final draft; peer feedback would be given on the first one, and I would give feedback on the second. Here are some examples of the feedback given, ranging from excellent, to mediocre, to poor, with a few examples of the perils of ELLs giving other ELLs feedback on spelling and grammar.

Their next major writing assignment was an argumentative essay. Students chose a historical figure, researched the person, and wrote an essay on whether the person was a good or bad leader. No, it is not a big, grand question, but we did a similar project last year, earlier in the year, and the sixth graders struggled with it. Giving them a question to focus on, even if simplistic, has helped them a lot in writing something that is actually argumentative. They were also given an outline to fill out, with what to write in each paragraph clearly stated. This will hopefully help with organization (I have yet to grade the final drafts, to see if it worked), but it also made it easy for me to give feedback on their ideas. I circulated to the students, and gave verbal suggestions for their thesis, supporting arguments, and examples. I didn’t get to all of the students; I certainly missed those who did not have an outline ready for feedback, and possibly a few others, but made an effort to reach as many as possible.

For their rough draft, we did peer feedback, like before, and also structured self-feedback. I did a bit of this with their story project, for their second rough draft, but did not allocate nearly enough time. For things that you know students are going to forget or make mistakes on, but that they know how to do (e.g. including citations, capitalizing proper nouns), it is easy to have them check in class, and reduces repetitive comments on their rough drafts (e.g. “Remember to include citations”).  I expanded the amount of time allocated for self-feedback, and the number of things to have them check. We did two short rounds of peer feedback. Here is a selection of the comments.

I have five main take-aways from these two experiences:

1. Peer feedback is a useful tool. 
It is helpful for students to draft and redraft their work, but burdensome for teachers to provide feedback at every stage. As well, most students did have enough knowledge to provide some useful feedback, whether on spelling, areas of confusion in the narrative or explanation, or redirection towards the main goals of the assignment.

2. Teacher feedback is still valuable and necessary.
The peer feedback for the stories was better than the feedback for the essays, which is not at all surprising; they’ve been writing stories in ELA far longer than they have been writing essays in any of their classes. Their ability to give feedback depends on their own expertise. If I am trying to teach them how to write an argumentative essay, I can’t expect them to have mastered this skill in such a short time-frame in order to provide good feedback for their peers. As well, while some of them did give very good feedback, some did not, and every student should have the opportunity to receive clear direction on how to improve their writing. The teacher is still the expert in the classroom, both in content knowledge and pedagogical expertise, and should not be sidelined in the feedback process.

I know some teachers conference individually with students about their writing, but I am not confident enough with my classroom management skills to trust the remaining students to stay on task, even with my assistant teacher circulating. I found it efficient and effective to circulate around the classroom and give quick verbal feedback on the outlines for the essay, and was able to talk with far more students than I would have if I was calling them over to my desk. In the future, I would take my clipboard with me, with a class list, to make sure I don’t miss anyone. In terms of the written feedback I gave for the second rough drafts of their stories, a lot of the students did make at least some of the improvements suggested.

3. Integrating structured self-assessment is helpful. 
If students are checking whether their work meets the requirements, they are more likely to remember to make those changes in their final draft than if the teacher writes a comment that might not even be read. It also avoids teachers writing repetitive comments for items that students already know how to do. The key here is the teacher-directed structure; older students are independent enough to read through the assignment handout to see if they are missing anything, but sixth graders need more explicit instructions.

4. Get students to reflect on their feedback and redrafting progress. 
Moving forward, I think I would require students to write a short statement on how feedback was used to improve the next draft, to get students to reflect on and think about the feedback, and also as an accountability measure to get them to actually read and use the feedback. I would also try to make the purpose of feedback and multiple drafts more clear, perhaps by showing them Austin’s butterfly. ​​

5. Feedback can only fill so many gaps in the instruction and scaffolding.
Feedback is important, but so is the instruction provided and scaffolding put in place prior to the task or assignment. For example, as a class, we read through and annotated an example of an argumentative essay, so students could see how it is organized and how much evidence is provided. I also gave them an outline to fill out for their own essay, to provide further scaffolding. However, I still had students complete the outline correctly, following the structure, and then proceed to write essentially a biography for their essay, disregarding the work they did for the outline. If I were to do this assignment again, I would use the model essay to fill out the outline, so students can see the connection between their planning and the final product. Here is a good post from John Tomsett on using exemplar essays to guide student writing.

For the story, I would have liked to have had copies of the novel in the classroom. It would have been easy to refer to features I expected them to have in their own stories (“Look, on pg. #, how the author uses information on the physical geography of Mexico to describe the setting.”). I also struggled to guide them in how to format dialogue, and the book would have been a far easier reference tool than the examples I quickly found online. The teacher who takes over this course for next year will have this tool on hand.

Overall, I would label the experience as a success, and good progress in my evolving efforts to give my students good feedback.

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