Thursday, July 10, 2014

We Must Feed Our Students: Learning Targets Chapter 4

Learning Targets- Chapter 4 (part 4 of a series summarizing the book Learning Targets by Connie Moss and Susan Brookhart)

A popular book for principals several years ago, was Neila Conner’s “If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students”.  It is a humorous book filled with ideas to improve staff morale and encourage improvement.  A helpful tool for any principal.  In Chapter 4 of Learning Targets, Moss and Brookhart tackle the topic of “feeding” students through feedback.  I especially like the way they intentionally stress that feedback needs to connect with student goals and that it must happen in “real time” to have the optimal effect. 

“Feedback” has become a popular buzz word in education over the last couple of years (with good reason) as more and more research and literature has become available about effective feedback consistently raises student achievement more than any other factor (p. 63).  However, simply giving students feedback isn’t enough.  As Moss and Brookhart point out, feedback must answer three central questions of the formative assessment process from the student’s point of view:

1.     What knowledge or skills form my learning target for this lesson?
2.     How close am I to mastering them?
3.     What do I need to do next to close the gap?

Feedback has to truly “feed” the student.  The authors compare it to nutritional value…items such as stickers, checkmarks, happy faces, and even grades have “no nutritional value”.  They do not help a student grow and improve because they do not relate to the actual lesson, nor do they give a student anything they can use moving forward.  The feedback that does move students forward shares five specific characteristics (p. 64):

1.     It focuses on success criteria from the learning target from today’s lesson. (Specifically, what did they have to do today that builds upon what they already know and creates a foundation for what they will learn tomorrow?)
2.     It describes exactly where the student is in relationship to the criteria. (We often overlook this step and move straight to #3, but students need to know where they currently stand.)
3.     It provides a next-step strategy that the student should use to improve or learn more (Does your feedback offer suggestions toward accomplishing the success criteria?  Describing how they did is not enough.)
4.     It arrives when the student has the opportunity to use it.  (Three days later in the grade book doesn’t improve learning.  Students need real time information to assess their own learning.)
5.     It is delivered in just the right amount- not so much that is overwhelms, but not so little that it stops short of a useful explanation or suggestion. (Expert teachers can balance their feedback to help students without giving them the answers.)

Most of us give feedback to students based on activity or task completion rather than connecting the learning to specific curriculum standards or learning targets.  However if we want to use our feedback as effectively as possible, it needs to feed our students forward and connect directly to their own goals. In the book “Feedback”, author Jane Pollock mentions two distinct factors that complicate the connection of learning targets, goal setting, and feedback.  First, many teachers write curriculum standards on the board, but do little to expect students to actually interact with the standard as a performance goal.  Second, students themselves do not expect to self-regulate or self-assess on a regular basis. (p. 21)

When learning targets are connected to student goal setting and provided effective feedback  you can truly see the effects of feeding students forward and making them confident independent learners.

Questions to consider:

·      What feedback strategies do you currently use? How effective are they, and how do you know?
·      Have you ever worked really hard to provide feedback that students didn’t seem to appreciate or use? What part of the formative learning cycle mentioned in chapter four may have been missing?
·      Halfway through the book, what has been the most useful idea you have found so far?


  1. Ahhh....the merge of two of my favorite (and instructionally powerful) books, Feedback and Learning Targets. We have spent the better part of a year at my campus discussing feedback and how to it relates to student achievement. Yet still I am finding teachers who give the feedback, but have no recourse for determining how that feedback has altered the course of learning. I have become convinced that the most important part of feedback is how it is measured after it has been given to the student and how/if the student makes adjustments to their learning.

    1. You are on a roll! Feedback can be formative?? Depends on what they do with it....

  2. Yes, feedback can be the most powerful of all formative assessments - if the feedback cycle is completed intentionally and with individual purpose for that student. As Pollock states (pg 10/paraphrased) if teachers are already using feedback and not obtaining the expected gains, they need to change how they are using feedback. I have seen many teachers giving feedback. However it's based on task completion rather than explicitly tied to standards and objectives. Hence my thoughts on Ch 3 of's all comingled together.

  3. I couldn't agree more that feedback is such an essential component to authentic learning. As Kim mentioned above, effective feedback must be cyclical to truly "feed learning forward." I wonder how often teachers spend tremendous amounts of time and energy providing written feedback to students, only for it to be skimmed (if read at all) by the students. What structures and expectations should be in place to provide opportunities for students to internalize and use that feedback in order to improve understanding and/or performance? As the authors stated in chapter four, " isn't effective unless students recognize it as such and can use it to improve their work (p. 77)." They refer to it as "...the golden second chance--the opportunity to attempt part of the performance again, this time informed by your feedback."

    What a powerful chapter (and book!), filled with many opportunities for us to engage in conversations that will allow us to learn with and through each other, challenge our practices and believes, and strengthen teaching and learning in all of our classrooms for all of our students!

    1. "...the golden second chance..." followed by coaching/feedback and another chance/practice, followed by coaching/feedback and another chance/practice. Fine Arts and Athletics have been doing this for years.

  4. Stephanie EspinosaJuly 14, 2014 at 10:57 AM

    "Expert teachers spend more of the lesson engaging their students in challenging tasks that encourage students to commit to the target. In contrast, less-expert teachers spend 80 percent of a lesson talking while their students passively listen." (p. 63).
    Purposeful feedback and goal setting will allow students to be more in charge of their learning and not just sit back and see what happens. The Mirror, The Magnet, The Meaningful Moment analogy on page 66 is an easy way to look at feedback and the engagement of students, so that they are active participants in their learning.

    The mirror - As a teacher, I spent a lot of time telling students what they did wrong and how to fix it. I wasn't allowing students to tell me what they knew or felt they needed help in. Students are the experts in their learning. We have to let students talk! We need to ask them what they know in regard to the learning target and where they need help? If students are more in charge of their learning than they are less likely to "freak out" when they come to a concept that they are less familiar with.

    The magnet - Teachers must provide students with next steps and to model how those next needs to occur. With that said, we must remember to not do Too Much! Never do something for a student that they can do for themselves.

    The meaningful moment - Dr. Thornell posed the question, have you ever given feedback to a student that they did not seem to appreciate? This made me think of my own daughter. When she has completed homework of some type I will make a suggestion or ask a guiding question of some kind. She then always responds with one of those sighs they do so well. She usually then says, but I am already done with it. If students have already worked and struggled through an assignment and they think they are already finished with it, then will they care about the feedback that is given?

    One more thing I want to quickly touch on is the difference between performance goals and mastery goals. To truly move students forward we have to make sure as teachers and administrators we are setting goals with students that lead to mastery and not just a goal that completes a task. I think this is a good discussion item as we continue to work on goal setting!

    I am excited about all the great things that will be happening this year!

    1. Dr. Espinosa, I couldn't agree more with your meaningful moment. We sometimes place too much emphasis on feedback at the end of a performance when we should be giving timely feedback throughout the learning process.

  5. This chapter is POWERFUL! If there is one thing I am passionate about, it is feedback. I have never felt like I gave enough, or that it is what students were craving, but after reading this chapter, I may have been going about it all wrong. I don't think the "feedback" I was giving had any nutritional value, which is probably why I didn't get reactions I had hoped for. I think by retraining my brain and employing the 3 characteristics that feeds students forward my feedback will drastically change the way I look at what feedback I am giving, the way my students see the feedback, and the way their parents see the feedback.
    As a district I think the missing link is Step 4. Once we grade it and give it back, we think that "feedback" is enough. That is sometimes where frustration sets in for Ts and Ss. I would like to talk about Step 5 as well, because we do give students opportunities to redo assignments, tests, etc, if their grade isn't high enough, but is that really giving them the "feedback" they need? Is it really preparing them for the "real world?" I agree with Stephanie, when I ask my daughter about a particular assignment or project after it has been turned in, she looks at me like I'm nuts and says "I don't remember, or that was last week." I don't want my students to have those experiences. I want them to be able to say, "I'm working on ___ or ___and this is what I need to master ____." They will only know what they need if I have given them the proper feedback to be able to determine what they have mastered, or what they still need to work on.

  6. Thank you for guiding us through this work, Dr. Thornell! I find your insight as well as the comments of educators valuable as I read and reread these books.
    I want to share what student told me during walk-throughs this past year as he worked his math. For in his comment, he totally understood the value of feedback and how critical it is for teachers to give it in a timely, genuine manner. He stated, "Mrs. Parker, every teacher needs to teach like her!" when I asked him where he was with his learning and how he knew he was moving forward in the geometry. "This teacher never sits down as we work on our problems. She is up and look at her, she moves to every student, never answering questions but asking questions until we get it on our own. She points, makes a statement, questions, and keeps with us until we get it. I like it because she is around us, in the middle of us, so I don't have to go to her desk." Another student started in on the conversation as well, stating, " She makes it easier to learn because we quickly know where we are struggling as she helps us."
    What these students understood was where they were in the learning, how they got there, and how they overcame mistakes along the way because the teacher was giving timely verbal feedback. The instructional nutrients in the class were feeding their hunger for learning! The teacher had set the learning target, put them to work to meet the target, and guided them with specific feedback so they knew where they were in the learning.
    Feed the children!

  7. This chapter revealed the importance of specific feedback and how it can "feed students forward." I've read Jane Pollock's Feedback book, and I've presented professional development to teachers and staff on how to have both students as well as teachers provide feedback to one another. However, Learning Targets not only provides a framework for feedback; it causes us to reflect upon our feedback and more specifically how is it used to help students measure progress and more importantly achieve competence. While reading, I really stopped and struggled for a bit with the idea of Performance Goals vs. Mastery Goals (p.67-68). Many of our students work on the idea of Performance Goals where they want to appear smart, not disappoint and "make the grade." They work based on extrinisic motives, but do they truly comprehend and achieve full competence? Do our students truly set goals and push themselves to think critically in order to achieve competence? When the text defined Mastery Goals, I was in complete agreement. Of course we want our students to be intrinsically motivated so that their "why" behind their learning is that their deisre to achieve competence (p.68). This all sounds wonderful, but how do we get students to truly be intriniscially motivated? I believe this chapter reflects how feedback can help our students move toward Mastery Goals.

    Students (and teachers/staff) genuinely want "nutrional" feedback; feedback that is of substantial substance. The analogy of the Food and Nutritional Label is exactly what our students and teachers are looking for. In all honesy, I wish I had this label to not only guide the type of feedback that I had provided as a teacher but to help me provide feedback to teachers as well. On a campus professional development Twitter chat, multiple teachers and staff commented on how they had been providing poor feedback (myself included). However, we have a great deal of hope and confidence that we can feed not only our students but feed each other forward from now on by implementing the 5 steps within the learning cycle:
    1. Focus on the success criteria of the Learning Target
    2. Describe exactly where the student is in relation to the target.
    3. Provide the next-step strategy the student should use to improve.
    4. Provide feedback when the student has the opportunity to use it (immediate).
    5. Deliver it in just the right amount.

  8. Teaching is active...a teacher needs to be up and moving during independent practice. He/she cannot be sitting at their desk waiting for the students to come to them to ask questions (that goes for administrators too)!

    Specific feedback is critical during the learning process. I really liked the example of teaching someone to drive...the instructor is there throughout the entire process, giving specific, timely feedback when necessary. I think the missing piece in giving effective feedback is giving the students the "look fors" ahead of time so they can gauge their own learning and have the vocabulary to understand what the teacher is saying. It's allowing our students to be "active" in their own learning, self assessing where they are and how close to the target they are.

    But this "active" part only comes AFTER the teacher plans for it. We can only give specific feedback on "quality, in-depth, rigorous" work. We have to look at what we are asking our students to do and ask ourselves, "Does this assignment/task move my students learning closer to the target?" (the level of challenge).

    Many of our Problems of Practice throughout the district touches on specific feedback, levels and types of questions we ask our students, writing a more comprehensive response, and the meaningful task we give to students to complete. We need EVERY element of these in our planning to have a successful lesson. Feedback is one main one, but first start with the end in mind...what are we asking our students to do and why.

  9. Mission Possible: This chapter charges the teachers of NISD with carrying out the objective of getting our students future ready through 5 phases of the formative learning cycle. NISD already provides the venues through workshop models and small group learning that are very conducive to this learning cycle. This mission is to help the student’s understand the reason for the lesson, how to self monitor to internalize meaning and use feedback to show growth. The questions in the chapter to guide my lesson planning for each phase were very helpful.