Hewitt News

Redesigning Learning: Delivering Effective Feedback
Maureen Burgess, Assistant Head of School for Learning and Innovation

In the first piece in our Forging Hewitt’s Future series, Assistant Head of School for Learning and Innovation Dr. Maureen Burgess writes about how Hewitt is implementing research-based strategies for delivering effective feedback. To read the other articles in this series, please visit Redesigning Learning: Valuing and Acting on 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. 

A colleague of mine recently told me a story she learned in her graduate coursework. A teacher had marked up a student’s English paper in red pen, often hastily writing the word “vague” in the margins. The next day, the student stayed behind after class to ask what “vaygoo” meant, because the feedback the teacher had given them was itself vague — or “vaygoo.” This funny anecdote raises serious and necessary questions about effective feedback. In this article, you’ll learn about best practices in terms of delivering effective feedback, and some corresponding feedback strategies we are beginning to implement at Hewitt as an early step in the direction of our centennial vision.

The research on effective feedback strategies shows that specificity — about an action, a result, or an improvement step — is perhaps the most essential quality of feedback. Another key element is how actionable the feedback is — how viable the suggestion or improvement step will be for a given student. Effective feedback should also be sufficiently open-ended so that a student may chart her own course in making the improvement. Feedback that simply tells a learner what to do (such as feedback that corrects all the grammar errors in a draft with a red pen) may lead to a better product for publication but not create a genuine learning experience. If the goal is to publish a polished piece in a collection of essays, then the “corrections” approach makes sense. But if forwarding the process of learning itself is the purpose of a feedback experience, then a teacher must ensure that their feedback guides students’ progress in their knowledge, skills, and application of learning. In this case, feedback needs to create space for students to practice and explore different solutions and strategies so that they can transfer what they have learned to new contexts.

For Hewitt to inspire girls and young women to become game changers and ethical leaders, we must excel at providing frequent, specific, and actionable feedback that teaches our students the habits of mind necessary to respond to feedback with readiness and purpose. We also must ensure that feedback is tied to students’ own goals and delivered with empathy and open-heartedness, for this liberates girls and young women from the persistent cycle of self-judgment and criticism that they experience all too often in this world. Research on feedback has shown that girls and young women have a higher discomfort with feedback, which is complicated by their relationship with perfectionism and threatens their ability to thrive in environments where feedback and evaluation are important. Hewitt’s commitment to teaching girls how to receive, process, and respond to feedback, a commitment that requires faculty to provide useful and specific guidance, is rooted in this research on how many girls are traditionally socialized to please and seek perfection, much to their detriment. 

Over the summer, Hewitt faculty worked to improve how they deliver feedback by designing assessments that explicitly connect to clear learning objectives, or standards. The feedback that students receive on these assessments, both during and after their learning, is less vague (or “vaygoo”), because it is connected to specific learning goals, better enabling students to know how to implement that feedback in the future and to understand why implementing that feedback will help them grow. By moving to standards, teachers are now designing learning experiences around four key questions: 

What do we want students to know?
What do we want students to understand?
What do we want students to do? 
What do we want students to value?

Supported by a K-12 team of learning experience designers, Hewitt faculty continue to build on this foundational work in small teams called professional learning communities, which meet on our professional development days. Together, we are collaboratively building an approach to education that asks us to articulate the core content knowledge students need in order to construct their understanding of a concept. What skills do students need in order to name and solve real-world transdisciplinary challenges? And what will students come to value as they synthesize and apply this learning to new problems and questions, many of their own discovery or choosing? 

This Know, Understand, Do, Value (KUDV) approach will eventually replace the current benchmarks and checklists that appear on report cards so that students and families regularly receive specific and actionable feedback that guides students’ growth over time. As Hewitt faculty continue to evolve the school’s teaching and learning practices in support of our strategic vision, students and families will begin to see more feedback on assessments that refer to specific standards, and more assessments that prepare students to learn and lead in relation to feedback that puts them and their learning journey at the center. 

Lexicon for Teaching and Learning at Hewitt

Standard: A standard is a clear articulation of the smallest unit of learning which can be assessed. A standard reflects not what students know, but instead what students do with what they know. An example of a learning standard a Hewitt student might encounter is: “I can construct a claim, supported by evidence and scientific reasoning, to argue for the role of natural selection in explaining changes among generations in a given population of organisms.”

Understanding: The idea of understanding is distinct from the idea of knowing something. One may know a lot of math facts but not yet understand the underlying concepts. An understanding is a mental construct that helps us make sense of many distinct pieces of knowledge. Understanding is about our ability to transfer what we have learned to new settings.

Transdisciplinary learning (adapted from What is ‘transdisciplinary’? by Jaya Ramchandani): A new discipline transcending the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines (subjects). While interdisciplinary collaborations create new knowledge by connecting two disciplines as separate entities, a transdisciplinary approach integrates multiple disciplines into a coherent whole. Transdisciplinary learning involves students as equal participants in the process to reach a common goal — usually a solution to a real-world problem.

Professional learning community (PLC): A cohort of faculty (clustered by grade level or discipline) who regularly engage in collaborative professional development. PLCs are spaces for deep reflection, peer-to-peer feedback, and conversation to support faculty as they follow a regular cycle of honing their teaching practices to innovate K–12 education. 

Learning Experience Designer (LED): A faculty member who helps develop cross-disciplinary and disciplinary standards in grades K-12, facilitates a professional learning community, and supports other faculty in their curriculum design.