Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 2012
Vol. 70
No. 1

How Feedback Leads to Engagement

author avatar
The most disengaged students in class are often the ones who receive the least feedback and direction. Three techniques can change that.

Walk into any classroom and within 10 minutes, you'll notice that four or five students disengage. Some students try to hide it, but others simply put their heads down on the desk. I call them the telltale students. A telltale, like the canary in a coal mine or the piece of cloth tied to a sail, is an indicator of the status of a situation or system. Heads down in a classroom signal that the instruction isn't working for those students.
Many teachers with whom I work tell me that, without intending to, they ignore telltale students because they're not disruptive. But if there's a way to engage these unmotivated students, these teachers are willing to give it a try. I often suggest some simple techniques that encourage tuned-out students to seek feedback about their own understandings and their own learning—and to look for sources of feedback other than the classroom teacher. These techniques are rooted in recent findings from neuroscience. I've seen them lead to greater engagement in elementary and secondary classrooms.

So Important, Yet So Hard

Previous learning models, influenced by behaviorism, viewed the student's role in the feedback process as passively waiting to receive feedback from a teacher. Newer neurological research shows that humans biologically anticipate and seek feedback. In a classroom, feedback can be more power-ful when a teacher gives students opportunities to seek and receive feedback. The students' actions, in turn, provide important feedback to the teacher about how to differentiate instruction (Hattie, 2009).
Many teachers are familiar with research showing that feedback is a high-yield strategy. Research by my colleagues and me (Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001) has shown that simply setting objectives and providing feedback has a statistically significant effect on student learning (causing a 23 percentile point gain in learning). Many teachers say that they can't provide more feedback than they already do, however, because of large class sizes and because they're taxed for time to cover the curriculum.
Many teachers also believe that they already give lots of feedback. But researcher John Hattie (2009) found in his meta-analysis of feedback studies that "at best, students receive 'moments' of feedback in a single day" (p. 174). Observations bear this out. When I observe a teacher in action, it may look like she's providing lots of feedback to students. But when I observe individual students, it's clear that many spend whole class periods without receiving any specific academic guidance or suggestions from a teacher.
Traditionally, feedback has been directed from the teacher to the student, usually as grades or as comments on responses to teacher questions. We can challenge this prevailing practice by encouraging students to seek feedback—from peers and relevant resources, in addition to the teacher.
There's a clear connection to engagement here. When we teach disengaged students useful ways to request feedback from peers, teachers, or even themselves, they become more involved in class activities and in their own learning. I've seen classroom teachers transform student disengagement using three simple techniques and resources as basic as a piece of paper, a spiral notebook, and a clipboard.

Technique 1: Goal-Accounting Templates

The goal-accounting template helps students give themselves feedback about their own understanding of an upcoming lesson. Central to this technique is clarifying a lesson's learning target, because meaningful feedback has to tie back to a goal. Goal templates help make that goal explicit and give learners an opportunity to gauge their own performance in approaching it.
Most teachers post a curriculum goal with objectives for the day somewhere in the classroom, but not prominently enough to attract students' attention. Often as the teacher states the goal and objectives, students are arranging their belongings or looking around the room—doing anything but listening intently. With goal sheets, students themselves write down their goals to self-assess and track their performance.
As students enter class or transition from one subject to the next, each learner takes out his or her personal template to copy down the lesson intention. The student also scores himself or herself on two criteria: how much effort the student plans to apply to the lesson and how well that student already understands the content connected to the goal. Some teachers create a rubric for scoring students' understanding, such as (1) I don't understand; (2) I can do this with some help; (3) I can do this by myself; and (4) I can teach someone else. At the lesson's end, students again take out their goal sheets and reevaluate their understandings; they also mark how much productive effort they expended.
Through this 2–3-minute routine, three important changes happen for disengaged students. They focus on the topic of the lesson, they interact personally with the material (actively determining what they know or don't know), and they communicate their learning status to the teacher (who is walking around the room glancing over students' shoulders at their scores). It may be the first time these students have communicated to a teacher where they stand cognitively.
Figure 1 shows the goal template that Trevor Collins, a high school history teacher in Grainger County, Tennessee, uses. Every day, each student fills in the date and the learning objectives Trevor provides. Students score themselves on their understanding of the topic—and their level of effort—both before and after the class. Trevor found that his students didn't pay attention when he simply wrote the day's goals on the board, but with the templates, they truly know their learning objective.

FIGURE 1. Goal-Accounting Template Used in High School History Class

FIGURE 1. Goal-Accounting Template Used in High School History Class

Source: From Improving Student Learning One Teacher at a Time, by Jane Pollock, 2007, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright © 2007 by ASCD.

Teachers sometimes worry that students won't accurately assess themselves. At first, students may inflate their scores, but they usually adjust their scoring when they realize the numbers are used to track their progress and signal their improvement. Comments like, "Everyone should be a 1 or a 2 today because I'm just introducing the topic" help.
I think of such goal sheets as a "neuronal courtesy" that enables learners to ease into the lesson. Teachers are often pleasantly surprised by how quickly students get used to the routine of scoring themselves and how much more focused they become.

Technique 2: Interactive Notebooks

Learning to use interactive notebooks overcomes two drawbacks of traditional note taking: Students receive little feedback on whether they understand the information they're copying down, and struggling students often don't know how to organize notebooks and take good notes.
Have students designate the left-hand pages in a regular spiral notebook as "student" pages and the right-hand pages as the "teacher" side. During class time, notebooks should be open so both sides show. After students note the goal of the day's lesson on their goal-accounting templates, the teacher should provide an evocative cue related to the lesson's content—an anticipatory question, a statement, or a video. For example, 5th grade teacher Jenny Humble showed a short clip of a video she found on YouTube called "Birth to 10 Years" before teaching about how people's characters change over time.
In pairs, students briefly share their thoughts about the cue and the topic, including questions or background knowledge they each have. Each then individually writes a short phrase or draws a sketch about the topic on the student side of the notebook. This brief thought-mining hooks into students' prior knowledge and gives them time for peer feedback and reflection. Every student becomes engaged.
As the teacher segues into the presentation of new material, students take notes more formally on the right side of the notebook. (This is the "teacher" side because the student is recording material the teacher presents.) Some teachers provide partial notes or advance organizers for students. Periodically, the teacher pauses; students then stop taking formal notes and process what they've just heard on the notebook's student side—drawing a diagram, answering a hypothetical question, or summarizing the topic in their own words. They then share what they've written with a partner; exchange ideas and clarifying feedback with that partner (or as a whole class); and resume taking notes on the right side as the teacher continues the instruction.
When note taking was optional in 7th grade English teacher Becky Wegner's class, her telltale students simply didn't take notes—and performed poorly on tests. Once Becky taught students to keep interactive notebooks that they shared with peers and with her, she saw these students transform. Sharing notes with peers increased the overall amount of feedback each student received and the overall productivity of her class. Learners who previously gave up when required to copy notes became engaged. Students' notes became works in progress that deepened their understandings (Pollock, 2011).

Technique 3: Scoring Rosters

The third technique increases teacher-to-student feedback and student-to-teacher feedback. A teacher creates a matrix with a student roster down the left side and the curriculum goals at the top (see fig. 2). During class, as students collaborate on a topic or work independently, the teacher walks around with this roster on a clipboard. The teacher listens, observes, or views work in students' notebooks and jots down a score reflecting how well each student seems to be mastering the standard or goal for that lesson.

FIGURE 2. Teacher Scoring Roster

FIGURE 2. Teacher Scoring Roster

Source: Adapted from Feedback: The Hinge That Joins Teaching and Learning (p. 70), by J. E. Pollock, 2012, Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Copyright © 2012 by Corwin Press. Reprinted with permission.

The teacher might pause to correct student work or to positively acknowledge a student's or group's progress as this "live scoring" unfolds. Because the instructor is walking around and is easily accessible, a disengaged or unsure student may be more likely to ask for attention or help—and thus stay engaged. As the teacher documents how students are doing with this quick scoring formative assessment technique, he or she begins to see patterns in understandings among students, which helps with differentiating lessons.
I once worked with an elementary teacher, Adrienne Braxton, who was great at patiently giving struggling students help but who couldn't learn from the patterns in her feedback because she never recorded any data during class—she only responded to questions and confusions that kept popping up. Once Adrienne started using a scoring roster in class, she began to understand how well every student knew the lesson's goal. She realized what she needed to adjust for the next lesson or for some students.
Through guiding many teachers like Adrienne through the scoring roster technique, I've found the following actions make it successful:
  • Prepare the rosters for the week ahead of time. Leave enough space for scoring daily learning objectives and for an overall score for the broader learning goal.
  • Use a different, color-coded clipboard for each subject area.
  • Never erase. Every data point can inform the trend.
  • Use a simple scale such as 1 to 4. To reduce your amount of writing, make a mental note that you'll consider any student's skill level to be 3 unless he or she gets a score that says otherwise.
  • Share scores with students as a quick way to give and receive feedback.
  • Move around the room two or three times, scoring before interacting with students, to give them a chance to work before you interrupt their independent attempts to perform.

One Last Thing

Using these strategies, teachers in all subject areas, including English as a second language and special education, have increased student achievement. A positive cycle sets in. As students receive more feedback and thus become more engaged in learning activities, their actions and self-assessments provide more feedback to teachers, who, in turn, make better decisions about instruction.
As we usher in a new set of standards, let's remember that a new curriculum alone won't change instruction or increase achievement. It's true that the learning goals we choose are important. As a teacher I worked with once noted, there's no such thing as good feedback to a bad set of goals. But an improved set of learning targets won't bring change unless teachers set up conditions that transform disengaged learners into learners motivated to work toward those targets, such as by using these three tools.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.

Marzano, R. J., Pickering, D., Pollock, J. E. (2001). Classroom instruction that works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Pollock, J. E. (2011). Feedback: The hinge factor that joins teaching and learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Jane Pollock, coauthor of ASCD bestseller Classroom Instruction That Works, works worldwide with teachers, coaches and principals on curriculum, instruction, assessment, and supervision. Her work results in improved student achievement at the classroom and school levels.

A former classroom and ESL teacher, Pollock worked as a district administrator and Senior Researcher for McREL Research Laboratory. She is president of Learning Horizon.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 113032.jpg
Feedback for Learning
Go To Publication