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Professional Development: Provide Opportunities for Students to Self-Reflect and Gain Feedback

By Janet K. Pilcher, Ph.D., and Julie C. Kunselman, Ph.D.

Progression from one learning target to another works best when students receive descriptive feedback to help them improve. Student engagement begins when teachers are able to manage expectations by communicating learning targets, how one day of learning connects with the next, and what success looks like. As teachers do this, students are eager to know what they have done well and what they need to do to hit the learning target. The five teaching actions below focus teachers to provide descriptive feedback to students and coach students to learn.


Provide feedback to recognize good performance. Sometimes teachers express what students do incorrectly, but seldom reward and recognize good performance. Research findings from Gallup’s work on employee engagement underscores a “3 to 1 compliment” principle (Rath, T., 2004), specifically, three compliments to one criticism equals positive behavior, two compliments to one criticism equals neutral behavior, and one compliment to one criticism equals negative behavior. Students are motivated to learn when they know what the end goal is and like to be recognized for jobs well done and also want help when they hit a wall.

Describe specifically how students can improve their performance. Rich description provides much more information for students to use than do statements like “good work” or “needs improvement.” Here’s an example of rich feedback: “Work on making better transitions from one paragraph to another. Think about how each paragraph connects and use language to show that connection.” Feedback using rich description clearly delineates a student’s performance area(s) needing improvement.

Focus on quality of student work accomplished rather than quantity. If we give students a large quantity of work to keep them busy, we are not focused on how well they are learning the target at hand. Students working fewer problems well and with an understood purpose, produce better student learning results than students completing loads of work with a goal of “getting it done.” Consider the following option – instead of assigning students all odd problems, assign them three to five problems to bring to class the next day. Integrate a feedback strategy into the next day’s lesson to re-introduce and refine the previous day’s lesson, and gauge how well students accomplish the learning target.

Focus feedback on the learning task, not personalizing it to the student. Share information that speaks to the specifics about a student’s performance rather than making a judgment about the value of any student. This means providing feedback such as, “Carlos, I noticed that all capitals of these countries in the south were correctly identified. Let’s work on another section of South America and get those correct. Check out this set of northern countries. See if you can get those correct as well.” This feedback recognizes student performance to help them improve.

Provide opportunities for students to express that they understand the feedback and what they need to do to improve. A quality feedback process is as much about students reflecting on the information as it is about them receiving it. As students receive descriptive feedback on clearly defined learning expectations, they begin to take ownership of their learning. They become self-regulated learners. Each step of the way they gain confidence to become better and better learners.


As teachers we must constantly create ways to collect and analyze information to share with students. Feedback can be applied by the teacher, by student peers, or through self-assessments. The underlying importance, however, is that we simply and specifically create ways for students to receive descriptive feedback about their performance.


Rath, T. (2004). “The best ways to recognize employees.” Gallup Management Journal. Available online at:

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