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How to bring "Where to Next?" feedback to life in your institution: Part II

Building off of Dr. John Hattie's extensive research, here are five ways to get educators using “Where to Next?” feedback.

Patti West-Smith
Patti West-Smith
20-year education veteran; Senior Director of Customer Engagement

In my previous post, I spoke to my fellow educational leaders, and I proposed that as we think about areas of improvement and growth, we should be fiercely focused on a strategy that has a demonstrable impact on learning; however, I also acknowledged that there are many ideas competing for our attention. My argument is that by narrowing our focus, we can put all of our energy and resources into a research-based approach that gets us closer to our true objective - student growth. In doing so, though, we must “clear the field” which means also deciding what we will NOT focus on. There is an art to that kind of choice because it means that not everything will get done, not everything will be impacted, and those are hard choices. We have to balance out what can afford to wait and what cannot. It is critical to the success of this initiative too because by deciding for ourselves and communicating those choices to our staff, we set a clear pathway and avoid detours that might take us off course. It forces us to accept that we cannot do everything (at least not well), but it gives us permission to be laser-like focused on a goal. We might be tempted to skip over this step in our planning, but if we do, it will make it harder later when challenges arise.

With those choices made, we turn our attention back to a “Where to Next?” feedback initiative. We know why - demonstrated impact on student learning - but now we have to tackle how.

It’s no easy task to launch any new initiative, even with a talented, dedicated staff who “buy-in” to the new strategy. What, then, can be done to get this new initiative off the ground in our institutions? Have no fear!

Top 5 ways to get your teachers using “Where to Next?” feedback: 5. Start with the research… but don’t stay there too long!

It’s a rare educator who wants to (or has time to) spend precious hours reading endless scholarly research. Those folks are out there, of course, and we can point them in the right direction; however, if what we’re really after is building a foundation around what “Where to Next?” feedback is and why it is so important, spending a lot of time combing through graphs and research jargon might not be helpful or motivating. Instead, focus on the key points that will drive home the essential ideas and build from there. Our team at Turnitin, including two of the co-authors of the recent research published with Dr. Hattie, tried to do just that to save some time. Our whitepaper breaks it down into accessible parts, saving the educational leader time and effort, while still ensuring that the research base is embedded in the initiative.

…but don’t skip it entirely! Just because we leaders have read the research and are ready to jump in, we can’t assume our teachers will be. They need to understand the why behind it all - why spend time on “Where to Next?” feedback? Make sure they understand the data that shows its impact! If really pressed for time, consider having all teachers view one of our webinars about the research and have them complete the poll questions live. This is a great way to introduce the research (as well as some other principles of effective feedback) without requiring a ton of preparation on the part of the person leading the initiative. Here’s a recording from a session for our users in Australia that might be a good place to begin. While we’ve conducted a number of webinars for audiences around the world, this one is special because all four of the Turnitin co-authors shared the stage.

4. Emphasize the importance of a formative feedback loop connected to the rubric.

Our research with Dr. Hattie demonstrates that “Where to Next?” feedback is most effective when delivered between drafts. Why? Students need the opportunity to revise in order to truly put the feedback to work! That means that simply helping instructors understand what “Where to Next?” feedback is won’t be sufficient to make the difference; it needs to be put into the context of a formative loop. Students tell us that when the grade is already on the assignment, it is over for them - think of literally closing a book. For many of them, that work is in the past once it is graded, and it has no bearing on the next task. In order to encourage them to engage with the feedback and make improvements, they have to see it as relevant in the moment, and that means allowing them to USE it to revise.

The other key phrase here is “connected to the rubric.” The rubric serves as a contract of sorts between educator and student - this is what I, the instructor, am evaluating; this is what I expect from you, the student, and in return, this is how I will evaluate your performance. Connecting the feedback concretely to this “contract” helps the student writer see the explicit relationship between their work, their revision, and their final achievement (i.e. the grade). *Pro Tip: Inside Feedback Studio, you can link feedback to rubric criteria to make the connection clear. This handy VidBIT even walks through exactly how to do that inside the system.

3. Make it concrete and explicit.

Simply presenting the whitepaper or research to instructors and then telling them to go do it is not going to work. Educators have millions of ideas running through their minds while they’re trying to make hundreds of decisions a day. If we hope to penetrate that layer of thinking, we must be direct, concrete, and explicit. A vague concept of Where to Next? feedback won’t do that. Instead, show them exactly what it is and what it isn’t (HINT: Examples are embedded in the white paper. Pull those out and give teachers a few highlighters, and they’ll be deconstructing the parts of a “Where to Next?” comment in no time. Another option is to check out this recorded webinar to see Turnitin’s team of veteran educators talk about examples of “Where to Next?” feedback and even watch us conduct an exercise to identify the missing essential elements.)

2. Model it and give them time to practice (collaboratively).

When leading a professional learning initiative, please don’t forget the “learning” part. While adults do not learn in exactly the same ways as younger students, they do need learning activities. Just spitting out information and directives is not going to ensure that they have made sense of the ideas and can apply them independently. Take the time to model the techniques we’ re encouraging, structure activities to encourage them to make meaning, and create opportunities to apply the learning. If we want them to use “Where to Next?” feedback in their work with students, they need to truly understand what it is, what it isn’t, and put it to work. As a “meaning making” activity, consider downloading some of the QuickMark sets built into Feedback Studio (also available on our website) and have teachers analyze the individual comments to determine which ones are “Where to Next?” comments and even highlight the component parts of a comment - issue, relevance, and action.

If leaders can give them the time and space to do this in a supportive environment with their peers, that’s even better (and might just save them time in the long run AND bring more consistency to the efforts). At the very least, give them some real student work (anonymized, of course) and have them practice applying “Where to Next?” feedback aligned to the rubric. To really drive it home, make THAT exercise formative as well. Give them the chance to share with their colleagues, get feedback on their feedback, and revise their comments.

1. Connect it to the tools they’re already using to save them time.

Crafting effective feedback takes time, and we need to acknowledge that we are likely layering this on top of other time-consuming tasks. That makes it all the more important to try to find tools that will make it easier to do the right thing - either by cutting down on the time in the extra responsibility OR offsetting that time with time-saving elsewhere. To make providing “Where to Next?” feedback less time-consuming and easier, have your instructors work together to build shared sets of comments that can be used (or tweaked for use) by more than one person. The power of collaboration is no small thing! If you’re using Feedback Studio, these sets can be built and shared right inside the system which makes delivering them even easier. Even if the teachers find that they need to craft “Where to Next?” feedback in the moment, the time saved from any library of drag-and-drop comments should help to offset the extra time. It has the added benefit of giving them more practice crafting this type of specific feedback and if you have some folks who pick up on it more quickly than others, those can even be shared as exemplars of sorts. *Pro Tip: As an added bonus, Turnitin’s team of veteran educators has also crafted sets of QuickMarks, and we did the hard work of building “Where to Next?” feedback comments in our sets!

Now, I’m not going to pretend that this process is going to be fast or easy. There’s never enough time for professional learning, and it will take time to pull together the materials needed to conduct a session like this, as well as the actual time for the session. I’ve included links to many, many resources we’ve created to try to make all this easier for my fellow instructional leaders out there, and for each resource I’ve linked to directly, there are more to find while exploring.

I can’t, though, give back or add time. At the end of the day, the question each of us must ask ourselves is whether it’s worth it. The nature of our field is that everyone seems to have an “expert” opinion about what educators should do, but when there is real data to demonstrate that a strategy works, that’s when I take notice. If I go back to what my beloved former superintendent said, I know that what I wanted to convey to my teachers, my students, and the community I served is that real learning and growth is where I wanted to spend my precious resources because it is all that really matters.