Descriptive Feedback: A Way to Support Student Learning

Descriptive Feedback: A Way to Support Student Learning

Gimara Richards & Inmar Romero

Gimara Richards & Inmar Romero

School is a place to learn, and making mistakes is part of the learning process, because we all learn from mistakes.  The way we point out these mistakes to students could either make them or break them. In 2012, we started a teacher research project to improve student achievement by providing descriptive feedback. Descriptive feedback measures students’ progress toward specific, realistic goals – better known to teachers as S.M.A.R.T goals. While teachers in Virginia use S.M.A.R.T goals to capture their own progress, we use the process directly with our students. They are the first step toward helping students make measurable improvement in their language skills. We are passionate about student achievement, so we wanted to make sure our feedback was truly helping students achieve their goals.

We ask our high school students, “Why are you studying a foreign language?” Some students reply, “Because it is requirement for an advanced diploma.” “Because my parents made me.”  But some dream of being able to communicate in the new language: “To read, to understand what my Spanish speaking classmates say, to sing a song in Spanish, to write an essay.” Helping students achieve these real-life purposes are the focus of our classroom. We start by guiding students to establish S.M.A.R.T goals, which stand for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound . They should encompass the interpersonal communication activities in the classroom.

The key to these goals is their specificity. As an example from everyday life, consider a person whose goal is “to lose weight.” While this may be important to them, it is not specific, measurable or time bound. If instead we said, “By June 2015, I would like to lose 20 pounds, to improve my overall health,” we would be much closer to an attainable S.M.A.R.T.  Because the goals are specific, the results are wonderful, providing a powerful tool to measure student growth. Here are some examples:

  • By the end of March 2015, I would like to write a 150 words essay fully in Spanish, with less than 10% of errors in grammar and spelling.
  • By the end of March 2015, I want to be able to sustain a 3-minute conversation with a native speaker student, with no more than 10 errors.

Descriptive feedbackpic of sample goals

Once goals are set, students need to know how they’re doing. We favor descriptive feedback, either oral or written.  For the writing, which is a very important part of our daily classes, we provide feedback to students by not only highlighting errors in content and form of their writing pieces but also praising their improvements and allowing them to redo their work. For speaking,  the teacher conducts a series of conversations throughout the year and provides descriptive feedback about mispronunciation, incorrect use of verbs/grammar, and again, highlights the improvements made. It is important to follow the steps of descriptive feedback:

Stage #1 of descriptive feedback

  • Introduce objectives/learning targets (knowledge, reasoning, skills and end product).
  • Present a sample and point out the objectives/learning targets on the sample.
  • Ask students to restate learning targets and identify targets on the sample.

Stage #2 of Descriptive Feedback

  • Provide one-on-one feedback, according to the needs of the students.
  • Use students’ work to provide immediate feedback.
  • Constantly refer to the objectives/learning targets.
  • Make sure there are self-assessment tools, such as a checklist and rating scale.

Stage #3 of Descriptive Feedback

  • Use written feedback for comments that students need to be able to save and look over.
  • Refer students to the objectives/ learning target.
  • Keep the feedback constructive, positive, and concise.

Always keep in mind providing feedback in a sandwich format: reinforcing – correcting – reinforcing. Remember that a kind word leaves profound prints in our lives….We believe in our students.

Gimara Richards is a Spanish teacher at Stonewall Jackson High School

Inmar Romero is a Spanish teacher and the department chair at Gar-Field High School

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