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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

How to Give Professional Feedback

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Feedback should feed teacher learning forward, identifying next steps in a teacher's learning journey.

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People get feedback all the time. When you serve a new dish at supper and your 5-year-old makes a face, that's feedback. When you ask a friend if the outfit you just tried on looks good and she says, "Yes, you should buy it!" that's feedback. When the little league team you coach wins a game and the team takes you to the ice cream store, that's feedback.
We're going to tackle professional feedback here, by which we don't mean a simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down review, but rather the kind of feedback that teaching colleagues, supervisors, or principals give fellow educators to improve instruction and student learning. Feedback of this sort should be done in the context of a collegial conversation and should support—indeed, help cause—professional growth. Our focus is on collegial feedback to teachers in formative situations, meaning situations in which teachers are trying to learn and grow, not situations in which teachers are being evaluated to provide a score for a teacher evaluation system.

Learning—It's Supposed to Be Fun

The purpose for giving formative feedback to teachers is to support their development as effective educators (Marzano, 2012; Mielke & Frontier, 2012). This only makes sense in schools in which a climate of learning and continual improvement holds sway.
Typically in schools, the learning climate that students experience mirrors the learning climate that teachers experience. On one extreme, there's the evaluation or grading-oriented classroom climate, in which students believe their main goal is to be "right" or score well. On the other, there's the learning-focused or mastery-oriented classroom climate, in which students understand that making mistakes is necessary for learning and that learning is their main goal. Most classrooms—and schools—are somewhere in between these two extremes (Brookhart & Moss, 2013).
In schools that focus more on learning, teachers and other educators set professional learning goals. A good way to approach a professional learning goal is to break it down into a trajectory of learning targets—knowledge and skills that can serve as mile markers toward the larger goal but are attainable in shorter periods of time; are smaller in scope; and provide opportunities for focused, descriptive, actionable feedback that will help the teacher hit the target and reach the professional goal (Moss & Brookhart, 2015).
For example, suppose a teacher wanted to expand her use of student self-assessment and peer assessment in her middle school social studies classes. That would be her professional learning goal, which would comprise a trajectory of several learning targets. She might plan, for example, to have students use several different self- and peer assessment methods during a project they're working on in class and ask her principal to observe. After the teacher tries one strategy, the principal might notice that she managed it well by pairing students appropriately, by assigning one color of sticky note for peer comments and a different color for student responses, and by giving students a chance to revise their work. But the principal might also notice that the strategy didn't result in improved student work.
Both observations would form part of the evidence that the principal and teacher might review in a collegial feedback conversation. The principal might suggest that unclear rubrics are part of the problem. This suggestion would be based on evidence, including his or her observation of the students puzzling over a portion of the rubric and of some vague language in the rubric. If the teacher concurs with this suggestion, the next target in her professional learning trajectory might be to improve her rubrics. Then she would try the strategy again before moving on to other strategies. If the teacher doesn't concur with the suggestion, the teacher and principal would discuss alternative explanations for why the peer assessment strategy didn't lead to improved student work.
Professional learning targets provide a focus for professional feedback. That feedback is best delivered in professional conversations between the teacher and the principal. And just as in the example of the teacher whose focus on self- and peer-assessment led to a decision to improve her rubrics, the feedback should feed teacher learning forward, identifying next steps—next targets—in a journey toward the goal the teacher has selected.
This whole process should be a joy, not an affliction. The process should be intentional, systematic, evidence-based, and professional—but it should also be fun. Developing competence is motivating. Working with colleagues to learn something is motivating. Conversely, feeling like someone else is controlling you isn't motivational (Bruner, 1966; Deci & Ryan, 2013). Evaluation should only happen after the learning has taken place, to certify it. Evaluation activities can inhibit the formative process.

Three Ways to Look at Feedback

Feedback can be very effective, but often it isn't. Part of the reason is that researchers often focus on characteristics of the feedback message itself—for example, the wording or the timing—and don't situate feedback in a larger learning context.
You can look at feedback through three lenses. Use a microscope lens to examine the feedback itself to see whether it has the desired characteristics. Use a camera lens to take a snapshot of the feedback episode to see whether it was an episode of learning. Use a telescope lens for the long view, to see whether the feedback resulted in improvement. Here's how these lenses work.

The Micro View: Describe

We can begin by putting the feedback message "under the microscope" to see whether it has the qualities that will maximize its usefulness for learning. Research has shown certain characteristics of feedback to be generally effective (Brookhart, 2008; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Notice that all are characteristics of the feedback message.
Is the feedback descriptive? Descriptive feedback depicts what the observer saw. Here's an example: "Most of your students got busy right away with the peer feedback task. I saw you visit one pair of students who seemed to be struggling." On the other hand, "Your lesson had excellent student engagement" is evaluative. Descriptive feedback contains more concrete information on which to make decisions about how to proceed.
Is the feedback timely? Many people think feedback should be immediate, but that's not always true. Immediate feedback works well for knowledge of facts (like spelling words), but for complex performances like teaching a lesson, it's more useful to give feedback after the teacher has had some time to reflect on the lesson (Shute, 2008). Of course, feedback should still be timely. A professional conversation should occur while both the teacher and the principal remember what happened and are interested in using that information as a springboard for further professional growth.
Does the feedback contain the right amount of information? When feedback wanders over a lot of different topics, it's difficult to focus on the main issues and figure out next steps. Feedback should focus on the major strengths of the observed teaching and on one or two key areas for improvement. For example, if a kindergartner is drawing circles to represent numbers (five circles to show "five"), the teacher might tell him that he has the right number of circles (a strength) and that they might be easier to count if he drew them in a line (a suggestion for improvement). The teacher could say lots of other things, such as comment on the colors he used or the fact that one of his circles was more of an oval, but that would distract the student from understanding where he is now with his number concepts and what he should do next.
Does it compare the work to criteria? People see what they're looking for and miss what they're not looking for, even if those details are right under their noses. That's why it's important to know what you're looking for when you observe. For collegial feedback, it's best to look for something that the teacher and principal agreed on during a pre-observation professional conversation. For example, a high school English teacher might ask the principal to look at the quality of student discussion because she wants to see whether students can really engage with the themes in Shakespeare's Macbeth, not just prove they read the assignment.
Does it focus on the work or the process? Feedback can include looking at finished work (such as student papers) as well as processes (such as how the teacher used questions to help her students interpret the pictures in their storybook). Feedback should not focus on the person. While we were still in the classroom, one of us was observed by an assistant principal whose feedback included the statement, "She wore an attractive outfit." How can one respond to that?
Is the feedback positive and clear? Feedback should name something the teacher did in a particularly skillful, effective, or interesting manner and make at least one suggestion for improvement. Even in the most wonderful classroom, teachers can improve. In fact, when we worked with a group of administrators on formative feedback, their approach to giving feedback to their excellent teachers changed (Brookhart & Moss, 2013; Moss, Brookhart, & Long, 2013). Before, one principal noted that the only thing he could think to say after observing an excellent lesson was to ask whether the teacher would mind if colleagues observed her. After learning about formative feedback, he was able to more clearly describe the strengths he observed and suggest improvements.
Is the feedback specific, but not too specific? Feedback should be specific enough to define a growing edge for learning—for example, "Your groups seemed pretty big. Some students didn't get a chance to talk during the group work." Then the teacher and principal can discuss ways to solve this problem. But feedback shouldn't be so specific that it prevents the teacher from having to actually think about next steps. "Next time you do this activity, use groups of three" leaves nothing for the teacher to consider.
Is its tone collegial, and does it imply that the teacher is a professional? Feedback that sounds like finger wagging or bossing won't be heard or will cause anger and defensiveness rather than improvement. Choose your words carefully, and carry on your feedback conversations professionally and respectfully.

The Snapshot View: Learn

The feedback message can meet all or most of the criteria listed above and still not lead to learning. For the feedback message to land on fertile ground—that is, for it to lead to learning—both the teacher and the supervisor need to listen to each other and value what's said. They need to trust each other and be convinced that they're both acting in the best interests of students.
Perhaps it sounds strange to claim that both the teacher and the principal or supervisor should learn from a feedback episode. But this is important. The principal needs to be the "leading learner" (Brookhart & Moss, 2013; Moss, Brookhart, & Long, 2013), not the dispenser of all education wisdom. Plus, in reality, whenever principals observe instruction going on in their schools, if their eyes and minds are open, they will learn something. Perhaps they'll learn how students in their school respond to certain instructional or assessment moves. Perhaps they'll learn something about principles of teaching and learning. But they should learn something. The teacher shouldn't be the only one edified by feedback.
Here are some questions for principals to consider during a feedback episode. Remember that a good feedback episode includes a pre-observation conversation; an observation (or several); and a post-observation briefing. The post-observation conversation is the part we're used to calling feedback, but good feedback includes knowing what to look for and clarifying relevant evidence.
Principals should ask themselves these questions:
  • What did I learn from the lesson I observed, from both what the teacher was doing and what the students were doing?
  • What did I learn from my conversations with the teacher?
  • What did the teacher learn from his or her conversations with me?
The answers to those questions should be substantive and contain within them the seeds of next steps for both teacher and principal. Teachers should ask themselves the corollary questions: What did I learn? What did my principal learn?

The Long View: Decide on Next Steps

Ultimately, all of this should lead to improvements in instruction and in student learning. At the end of feedback conversations, the teacher should have a clear sense of what to try next, on the basis of joint understandings. Both the teacher and principal should understand the reasons for deciding on these next steps and what they expect to see happen as a result. They should identify what evidence of effectiveness or improvement would be relevant and how they're going to get that evidence. They should follow through and actually do these things.

An Example from Practice

A 9th grade social studies teacher was interested in adding more opportunities for students to use higher-order thinking in his classes. His instructional materials seemed to focus on covering facts and concepts quickly, and the curriculum did a poor job of getting students to learn the why or how of various concepts. He wasn't sure how to proceed. The principal suggested that, together, they look over an example of what he meant and brainstorm some possibilities.
The teacher brought to the conference part of his plan for a unit on westward expansion—specifically, for one or two lessons he intended to devote to the transcontinental railroad. The students were to learn that (1) building a railroad across the United States enabled people to move west, (2) cattle ranching and mining gold were two reasons people in the east wanted to go west, (3) American Indians were removed from lands to make way for the transcontinental railroad, and (4) western land was made available inexpensively or for free to entice people to travel west. Students were expected to be able to recall this information and draw an accurate map of the transcontinental railroad, which entailed mostly copying from the textbook. None of this work included higher-order thinking.
The principal and teacher talked about the kinds of higher-level thinking students should be able to do with this material. They thought that students should be able to envision the effects these aspects of westward expansion would have on the ways western towns and cities developed as well as on the developing concerns of American Indians in the western United States. The teacher considered, and then ultimately rejected, the idea of assigning a project or report specifically on the transcontinental railroad. Instead, he decided that after several units, he would ask students to do a culminating project in which they would state a thesis about the effects of geography and economics on the population of the United States and analyze information from several units, including this one, to support their conclusions.
For the transcontinental railroad lesson, the teacher decided to write some open-ended questions for the students to discuss, such as the following: How is the development of Omaha, Nebraska, related to the development of the transcontinental railroad? What might Omaha be like today if the railroad had been routed from present-day Kansas instead of from Nebraska? On the basis of his conversation with the principal, the teacher set the professional learning goal of developing a larger repertoire of strategies to teach and assess students' use of higher-order thinking. The first professional learning target would be to successfully implement open-ended questions in a formerly didactic lesson.
The principal agreed to observe that lesson. After she did, she had a second professional conversation with the teacher:
  • The micro view: The principal described what she saw in the lesson. Students enjoyed the more challenging discussion questions and were interested in answering them, but some students seemed reticent to express their own thoughts because they weren't sure their answers were "right." Several students who usually raised their hands quickly when it came to more straightforward responses flipped instead through their textbooks to see what they could find. Others answered but sounded tentative, without the confidence they usually exhibited when speaking in class.
  • The snapshot view: After discussion with the principal and reflection on how students typically responded in his class, the teacher came to the conclusion that his students were more focused on correct recall of facts than he had realized. This insight spurred his resolve to help students do more higher-order thinking and confirmed for him that he had chosen a worthwhile goal. The principal learned that some students in her school were focused on "right answers" and wondered whether that evaluative atmosphere pervaded more classes than this one, something she resolved to find out and, if necessary, address schoolwide.
  • The long view: On the basis of this post-observation conversation, the teacher decided to continue to use open-ended questions so students would become used to them. The principal agreed to continue to watch this process, especially focusing on student responses. The teacher also decided to change how he led class discussions so more students responded to one another's comments rather than just responding to him for his approval. He sought more information about how to do that, and his subsequent learning targets focused on improving his skills in this area. Thus, the teacher's first professional learning target—using more open-ended questions—led to two subsequent learning targets: to increase his skills in both helping students respond to those questions and helping students respond to one another and build on one another's ideas.

Enter Teacher Evaluation

Collegial formative feedback is related to teacher evaluation through the professional learning goals that teachers choose to work on. Many teacher evaluation instruments have broad categories of performance into which many professional learning goals can fit. For example, the Framework for Teaching Evaluation Instrument (Danielson, 2011) has a category called "Using Assessment in Instruction." Within that broad category are many possible professional learning goals teachers may want to pursue.
As we've shown, a teacher might work on increasing her skills at using student peer and self-assessment and, in the process, work to increase her skills in using rubrics and helping students understand the criteria for good work. This professional learning goal is just that—it's for the teacher's learning—but improvement in that area is certainly relevant to using assessment in instruction. Formative professional learning goals that lead to improvement should appear in the results of summative teacher evaluation.
Seeing the benefits of professional growth in the results of standards-based accountability can actually be a good thing. Without standards, funny things can happen. Years ago, one of us was working in an inner-city high school. The teachers were required to state a professional learning goal, explain what they would do to achieve it, and describe how they wanted to be evaluated. This teacher-directed evaluation system predated the more complex teacher accountability systems in place today. One teacher selected as his goal "to be more professional." And how would he evaluate his newfound professionalism? By whether he wore a tie four days a week!
Although this is a true story, we hope it's a rare occurrence. It just goes to show that having a set of broad categories that function almost like standards, into which important professional learning goals fit, can be useful for professional development if a school handles the process with care.

Learning Together

What makes feedback collegial is dialogue in the context of a relationship that, ideally, isn't broken down into the separate roles of "supervisor" and "employee," but instead involves joint work in the service of student learning. This joint work should be an episode of learning for both the teacher and principal, leading to improvement in instructional leadership, in teaching, and, ultimately, in student learning.

Brookhart, S. M. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Brookhart, S. M., & Moss, C. M. (2013). Leading by learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(8), 13–17.

Bruner, J. S. (1966). Towards a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Danielson, C. (2011). The framework for teaching evaluation instrument. Princeton, NJ: The Danielson Group.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (Eds.). (2013). Handbook of self-determination research. New York: University of Rochester Press.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Marzano, R. J. (2012). The two purposes of teacher evaluation. Educational Leadership, 70(3), 14–19.

Mielke, P., & Frontier, T. (2012). Keeping improvement in mind. Educational Leadership, 70(3), 10–13.

Moss, C. M., & Brookhart, S. M. (2015). Formative classroom walkthroughs: How principals and teachers collaborate to raise student achievement. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Moss, C. M., Brookhart, S. M., & Long, B. A. (2013). Administrators' roles in helping teachers use formative assessment information. Applied Measurement in Education, 26(3), 205–218.

Shute, V. J. (2008). Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), 153–189.

End Notes

1 For a more complete discussion of these ideas, see our new book Formative Classroom Walkthroughs: How Principals and Teachers Collaborate to Raise Student Achievement (ASCD, 2015).

Susan Brookhart is professor emerita in the School of Education at Duquesne University and an educational consultant at Brookhart Enterprises LLC, working with schools, districts, regional educational service units, universities, and states doing professional development.

She was the 2007–2009 editor of Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, and is author or co-author of 19 books and over 70 articles and book chapters on classroom assessment, teacher professional development, and evaluation. She serves on the editorial boards of several journals.

She has been named the 2014 Jason Millman Scholar by the Consortium for Research on Educational Assessment and Teaching Effectiveness and is the recipient of the 2015 Samuel J. Messick Memorial Lecture Award from ETS/TOEFL.

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