Feedback for Thinking: Working for the Answer

Teacher at the chalkboard looking toward students

We run the risk of giving the wrong kind of feedback for students, and it’s not because we are bad people. We love our students. We want them to be successful, and sometimes these desires can actually get in the way of a student truly learning.

Take a typical situation of a math problem involving money. A student is unable to determine the percentage that he or she should be getting, and is struggling with multiplication of decimals. Often we notice this struggle and “swoop in” to save the day. As educators, we sit down with that student and show him or her how to do it, pat ourselves on the back, and move on the next student. In fact, we didn’t “save” that student’s day — we may have made no difference at all. Feedback that simply shows a child how to do something won’t cause that child to think. He or she will merely learn to replicate what the teacher did without truly “getting” the concept being taught.

3 Strategies for Structured Teaching

We need to move away from this type of feedback and toward feedback that causes thinking and metacognition. Here are three ways that teachers can guide students in the right direction, as described by Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey in their book Better Learning Through Structured Teaching.

1. Questions

We all know that asking questions can help us check for understanding, but questions can also be great tools for having students really articulate their ideas in a deeper way, and allowing them to think about it. Try asking open-ended questions to probe student thinking and push them to think deeper. Instead of “Do you understand that?”, move toward questions that cause students to explain and justify their ideas.

2. Prompting

Prompts are statements and questions that cause students to do metacognitive work. We teachers should not be doing their thinking work for them during guided instruction. We should be empowering students to think by using the right type of question or statement. Take this example. A student is working on a written assignment, and the teacher notices that he or she may be missing commas. The teacher says, “I see this paragraph has some commas in it, but the next paragraph seems to have none.” This will cause the student to look at the paper with the idea of adding more commas if necessary.

3. Cueing

Similar to prompting, cueing “shifts the learner’s attention.” Cues are often more specific. There are many types, such as verbal, gestural, and visual. Even highlighting an error on a paper can cause students to think about how they might fix the error without necessarily giving away the answer. With this cue, you prompted thinking. Similarly, a verbal prompt like, “This step in the problem is tricky, don’t forget how I modeled it this morning” will shift the students to think and reflect about their process and perhaps move in the right direction. Don’t forget that even pointing to something can serve as a cue for students to think.

Errors Versus Mistakes

As you see students struggle with concepts and notice a “wrong” answer, consider this reflective question: “Is it an error or a mistake? How can I find out?” Through specific questioning, you can dig deeper to find out what’s going on in a student’s head, and make the thinking visible for both of you. Sometimes a wrong answer means a mistake. This implies that a student really does know a concept and only made a misstep in the application of learning. As the teacher, you only need to redirect. However, if you uncover that there is an error, it means that a student really does not understand the concept, and he or she will require a different type of instruction, perhaps further modeling or teaching, and different kinds of prompting, cueing, and questioning.


Author: Allick Delancy

WE ALL HAVE THE POTENTIAL TO DO GREAT THINGS IN LIFE! The areas of education, psychology, motivation, behavioural coaching, management of stress, anger and conflict, has always interested Allick Delancy. For this reason, over the years he has conducted research in these fields and has experienced great success in writing, lecturing and assisting other persons to develop their fullest potentials. He has obtained a Bachelors of Science in Behavioural Sciences with an emphasis in Psychology and Sociology. Allick Delancy also earned a Masters of Arts degree in Educational Psychology, with general emphasis in Learning, Development, Testing and Research from Andrews University. He has worked in the field of community mediation, education--conducting life skills training (for students, teachers and parents), as well as conducting Functional Behavioural Assessments and developing Functional Behavioural Plans. He also lectures at the Bachelors degree level in Early Childhood and Family Studies, Leadership and Management and co-wrote an undergraduate course in social work.

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