Hewitt News

Redesigning Learning: Valuing and Acting on Feedback
Olivia J. Robbins, Learning and Innovation Program Associate and English Teacher

This installment of our Forging Hewitt’s Future series addresses the benefits of providing students with regular, individualized, and ongoing feedback. To read the other articles in this series, please visit Redesigning Learning: Delivering Effective Feedback and Redesigning Learning: Preparing Students to Address Complex and Systemic Real-World Challenges.

This article includes several terms that may be new to some readers. Please scroll to the bottom of the page for a lexicon providing more information about the language of teaching and learning at Hewitt.

When I think about the places and experiences that have inspired my current teaching practice at Hewitt, I think back to my early days studying dance. While I did not know it at the time, my local rec center — where I started dancing — was where I learned a lot about the power of feedback from my favorite dance teacher, Ms. Mary Anne. Every year, Ms. Mary Anne (who always wore leg-warmers and was rumored to have danced on Broadway in her youth) coordinated a huge May recital in which all students got to showcase their talents. Every cohort of dancers honed its own number for the recital, and the rehearsals and practices leading up to these recitals gave each of us the confidence to shine on stage. 

From September to May, we would prepare dutifully in advance of the big performance. Each week, Ms. Mary Anne would teach us some new steps and a chunk of new choreography, offering comments and guiding adjustments as we practiced these small pieces of new learning. We would take turns watching each other perform the new steps in small groups, and Ms. Mary Anne would compliment and critique our examples, as well as invite us to comment on what we saw. As a student, I thought this rehearsal structure was solely aimed at improving our recital piece. Today, as a teacher, I see how it also supported the progress of each individual dancer. I now have such appreciation for the way in which Ms. Mary Anne structured her practices around those low-stakes opportunities she gave us to demonstrate our learning and the supportive pieces of feedback she gave us about how to improve our form.  

This kind of continuous, timely feedback is a well-established teaching tool called “formative feedback”; it is delivered while students are still learning and thus helps them become self-aware about where and how to improve. For the purposes of this article, I will refer to it as “ongoing feedback.” Because ongoing feedback is not tied to a final grade or the “end point” of a learning experience, it motivates students to learn from their mistakes and employ problem-solving skills in order to master new knowledge and achieve specific goals. Research shows that giving students regular opportunities to process and internalize ongoing feedback helps them approach their work with increased engagement, which in turn leads them to become more independent and self-regulated learners. 

The ongoing feedback I received as a young dancer was designed to help me gain awareness of where and how to improve my skills and included opportunities to practice and iterate as I learned. After the recital — the moment toward which all of the feedback had been building — I received a different kind of feedback, known to educators as “summative feedback,” evaluating the skills and techniques I had learned throughout all of our classes and rehearsals. Summative feedback, which I will simply call “evaluation,” is often delivered as a grade and comments, or in the case of a dance recital, applause. This may be what springs immediately to mind when we think about how a student understands her progress, especially since many of us experienced a K-12 education that was focused intently on traditional evaluation. And while evaluation in the form of grades or comments is important, we know that the true foundation of student growth lies in the experience of receiving ongoing feedback on a developing skill. 

Low-stakes opportunities to demonstrate new learning coupled with meaningful, specific, and ongoing feedback provides space for students to practice new skills and refine their understanding, helping them develop into resilient learners who appreciate the value of, and know how to act on, constructive feedback. In my English classroom, focused free writing exercises, classroom discussions, and drafts are all chances for students to engage in an iterative process that involves receiving, processing, and applying feedback to particular learning goals. My students appreciate the feedback that I give them on these activities because it is designed to help them focus on a skill they might target in a future test or essay but is not itself tied to a specific grade. When providing feedback, I assess each piece of student work using the specific standards, or learning objectives, my students are trying to meet. Students have time and space to apply my feedback, refine their goals, and, eventually, show their learning through a final project.

As I learned first from my time as a dancer, and later from my years as an educator, students can be wonderfully receptive to feedback, especially when they understand it is part of a learning process that best sets them up for meaningful evaluation. When I was in middle school, I remember watching the older students in my ballet and master classes huddle after each class to discuss the notes and corrections they had received from the instructor. I soon learned that in the world of dance, getting a correction during class — a personalized tip, a repositioning of the foot or shoulders, a public comment on one’s form — is seen as a compliment, a gift. Whether in the dance studio or the English classroom, this kind of individualized feedback communicates to a student that their teacher sees them learning, working, and striving, and both affirms and supports the student’s own desire to improve. 

At Hewitt, we know feedback is a cornerstone of meaningful teaching and learning. We are dedicated to providing students with consistent and individualized feedback not only because it ultimately improves their outcomes on essays and exams, but also because the ability to process ongoing feedback and work iteratively toward larger goals will be critical to their success beyond Hewitt. By incorporating routines of regular and frequent feedback into their courses, Hewitt teachers are helping students cultivate the resilience, motivation, and self-awareness they will need to thrive in college and their future careers and encouraging them to develop the habits of life-long learners, leaders, and problem solvers.  

Lexicon for Teaching and Learning at Hewitt

Formative feedback: Formative feedback is continuous and timely; it is delivered while students are still learning and thus helps them gain awareness of where and how to improve toward a stated goal. 

Summative feedback: Typically delivered in the form of a grade and comments at the end of a unit or project, this feedback evaluates what or how much a student has learned.