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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

More Than a Checklist- thumbnail

Raise the bar on the quality of student learning by drawing on students' intrinsic interest in one another's work.

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More Than a Checklist- thumbnail
Credit: Copyright(C)2000-2006 Adobe Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Even the best teachers ask themselves how they can motivate students to do well. One potential answer: Engage students in looking at—and learning from—one another's work. In classrooms that adopt these practices, students examine the efforts of their peers, discuss what is good and what needs to be done, and set out to improve their work.
What follows is a look into three such classrooms. In one case, students take part in a public critique of their classmates' work. In the two others, students respond to anonymous efforts in math and writing, but what's important is that the work has been done by students just like them, not drawn from arbitrary examples in a textbook. The point in common: When we capitalize on students' natural interest in their peers' work, we can foster motivated classrooms where they reach for—and meet—high standards.

A First Draft

"Who has the red-flag pencil?" an instructor asks in an engineering class. "Please offer the team a warm, positive comment about their presentation slide" (see fig. 1).

Figure 1. First Draft of Presentation Slide

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A student raises a pencil topped with a red flag and says, "I really like the color scheme. The flame colors go well with the topic of the project, Structure Fire Gas Emissions."
The instructor continues. "Okay, good. Who has the blue-flag pencil? Do you have a cool comment—a suggestion or question—that might help improve the slide?"
The student with the blue-flag pencil chimes in. "Yes, the colors are good, but the slide only has text. If it had some pictures, charts, or something graphic, I think it might be better."
What is going on here? Students in the class are preparing for project presentations. Working in teams of four, they have one slide and four minutes to inform the audience about their project. The rest of the students critique the slide and presentation.
After the warm compliment and cool suggestion are on the floor, the teacher opens the discussion to the whole class, first asking for more compliments.
"The horizontal display of the three parts of the proposal work really well," says one student.
Another adds, "Well, it's just a little thing, but the black spots for the bullet numbers look like coals, like you get from a fire. That's cool."
The audience also offers feedback on the delivery of the four-minute presentation, noting where the team members made good transitions between different parts of the talk and when someone was really articulate about one of the points.
Afterward, the teacher shifts to cool suggestions, reminding students to "be critical, but be nice." Several hands go up.
"I'm not sure, but I thought the team said something about a fifth kind of calculation," one student says. "Your slide says there are four. I'm confused."
"I don't know what the SHPI logo means at the bottom of the slide. Is that your sponsor? Maybe you need to say more about them, or leave out the logo," notes a second student.
The class also offers critiques on the delivery. Among them: "Kristina needs to talk a little louder" and "The introduction was too long and so everyone else didn't have enough time."
Hearing the comment about speaking louder, Kristina looks discouraged. The look on her face conveys that this has long been a struggle for her. But overall the presenting team has been trained to listen and take in the comments. The students stand quietly. One person, with a tablet in hand, notes the class's feedback. There is only so much time in the class, and the point of the exercise is to collect as much feedback as possible. Later, the team can decide what they want to use, modify, or reject.
At the end of about six minutes of feedback, the team retires to a round of applause. They take their seats before the next team make its presentation.

Practice and Repeat

The teams present their talks again one week later. It's evident that they've worked on their slides and delivery; you can even overhear teammates checking with one another about timing, volume, and emphasis. Review and practice have strengthened their presentations, and they're looking forward to showing their classmates what they've accomplished.
It's the Structure Fire Gas Emissions team's turn again. The new slide flashes on the screen, and there are audible "oohs" and "aahs" from the class. The re-designed slide is striking (see fig. 2). With the slide displayed, the team delivers its presentation again.

Figure 2. Revised Presentation Slide

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The feedback routine is the same. First, the teacher asks for the red-flag feedback (the building graphic clarifies the purpose of the project, says a student) and the blue-flag suggestion (the black arrow is too big and out of scale with the buildings and text boxes, says another).
Then the class offers more warm comments, which include "The addition of the aggregate box now makes the five models easier to understand" and "I could hear everyone this time."
Students offer several thoughtful cool suggestions. Among them, one student says, "Last time we thought that maybe the sponsor logo was a problem, but now that it is gone, it seems like it should be put back. It's important that we acknowledge our sponsors and explain why we're doing our projects. I know the logo color scheme clashes with the fire colors, but I still think it should be there."

The Payoff

The following week, the teams make their final presentations for an audience of faculty, family, and friends. The students are professionally dressed, confident, and ready to go. After the six teams give their presentations and answer follow-up questions, the room bursts into applause. It's not gratuitous. The presentations are professional grade.
On the way out of the room, a mother turns to the instructor. "I've never seen my daughter look so confident," she says. "I hid in the back of the room—she told me to—but I could [still] hear her. She's never been able to speak publically like that before. I'm so proud."
Students' reflections about the peer-review process reveal similar insights and revelations. "It works really well when we have to look at one another's presentations and make both positive and negative comments," one student writes. "It helps you learn how to give constructive feedback—and accept it."
"It's the revisions that work so well," another class member says. "Lots of teachers ask for presentations, but you only get to try once, so you never make it better. Here, we got to practice."
A third student offers: "After I made a comment about another team's presentation, I got to thinking I should probably do that [in my presentation], too."

Student Buy-In

The opportunity to look at and provide feedback about other students' work shouldn't be reserved for upper-level students. Elementary students can learn from the process as well.
In her classroom, 3rd grade teacher Kris displays two answers—shown in Figures 3 and 4—to a math problem. The responses, she tells the class, come from two 3rd graders who took the previous year's high-stakes statewide exam.

Figure 3. 3rd Grade Math Response (Score 2 out of 2)

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Figure 4. 3rd Grade Math Response (Score 1 out of 2)

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Kris highlights the prompt at the top of the box, tells students to look at the problems for a minute or two, and then asks, "What do you notice?"
Some students pick up on small details. One member of the class says that the questions in the first answer are circled. Another points out that the number sentences are formatted differently in the two responses—one says 2/8 < 2/3 and the other says 2/3 > 2/8. When Kris asks the student if he thinks that matters, he puzzles for a moment before realizing that both are acceptable as long as the inequality symbols are positioned correctly.
Next, the class dives into the model drawing, which includes this exchange:
STUDENT: The pictures in the first answer are better.KRIS: How is that?STUDENT: Well, the pieces of the pies are the same size.KRIS: Really? They look different to me.STUDENT: No, in the pie with three pieces in the first answer, the three pieces are the same size. And the pie with eight pieces has the same sizes.KRIS: And that's not the case for the second student?STUDENT: No, the pieces [in each] of the pies are different sizes.KRIS: Oh, I see what you mean, but why is that important?STUDENT: Because it doesn't [correctly] show the sizes of the fractions.KRIS: Right. The better drawing shows that the pieces in each pie must be the same size so you can see the fractions clearly.
Kris moves the lesson along by asking students to write some rules for themselves that will help them answer questions like the one on display.
Her students offer multiple ideas: Circle the important parts of the question; make the parts of the pie equal; draw carefully; and make sure the inequality symbol points in the correct direction.
Afterward, Kris presents the class with a similar math question—one that calls for them to compare two fractions in a mathematical sentence and to complete a pie chart model. She uses the time to review the concepts behind fraction size, simple math sentences, and graph models of fractions. Kris tells the students that when they understand math this well, it will be easy to get the full score for this test item, just like in the first student's work they studied.
Later in the day, Kris talks with another teacher about her lesson.
"Sounds like what we all do," says her colleague. "We show the kids an example, point out the important parts, and let them try it on their own."
Kris agrees, but argues that there is a difference.
When I start by showing the students what other students have done, it's intrinsically more interesting than just an example from the book or worksheet. The kids always watch one another, so an example from them uses their natural desire to compare with everybody else. Also, because the answer comes from an exam setting, it's real. People are always interested about other people in "high-risk" situations. I don't think kids are different. And, well, I think letting them try a similar kind of question right away gets them to follow the model.

Revise and Rewrite

The same concept holds true in writing. Students who look at the writing of their peers learn a lot about what differentiates strong writing from weak writing. And why shouldn't they? Professional writers attend workshops where they listen to others' narratives, read examples, write, and learn from the instructor and peer critique.
With young students, it is especially helpful to provide a strong example and a weak example side by side. This makes it easier for the students to identify differences.
For example, Kay, a 4th grade teacher, posts two pieces of writing for her students to study (see figs. 5 and 6 (PDF)).

Figure 5. 4th Grader's Story (score 1 out of 6)

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Student writing example courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Education, MCAS English Language Arts Composition,Grade 4, 2014.

Figure 6. 4th Grader's Story (score 3 out of 6)

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Student writing example courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Education, MCAS English Language ArtsComposition, Grade 4, 2014.
She tells her class that other 4th graders wrote these stories for an important test. Here is the prompt:
You are finally old enough to babysit, and your first job is this afternoon! You will be spending the entire afternoon with a one-year-old. When you open the door you realize that instead of watching a one-year-old child, you will be watching a one-year-old elephant! Write a story about spending your afternoon with a baby elephant. Give enough details to show readers what your afternoon is like babysitting the elephant.
Kay reads the two compositions aloud. At the end she asks, "Well, what do you think? The stories are clearly different, but how?"
One student says that the second sample is better. "There [are] more things in the story, like what happens," he says. Kay prompts the student to say more, ultimately eliciting that there are more details and that the author uses dialogue to help tell the story.
"It's more interesting," adds another student. "Sometimes you don't know what is happening, then you learn it."
Kay asks for an example.
"When she screams, you wonder, what's wrong? Then she tells you: it's an elephant," the student responds.
"Very good," affirms Kay. "Authors help us like their stories by making us wonder what is going to happen next."
And then there's the realist in the group. "I don't like the stories," counters one boy. When Kay asks why, he says matter-of-factly, "Nobody babysits an elephant."
But in Kay's mind, there's a point to be made about literature. "You're right in a way. When we read a story, it's important that we believe it's real. Think about fantasy or space travel stories. Well-written stories make us believe, even if they're pretend. But if pretend stories are badly written, they bother us. This story bothers at least one of us."
Kay then turns the class's attention to the first story, asking students to improve it. She instructs students to add dialogue and adjectives—perhaps describing the house in which the elephant lives.
Kay likes the idea of asking the students to improve an existing story that was started by someone else. That way, the students aren't invested in telling "their story," an investment that is often hard to set aside when changes must be made. With someone else's story, it's easier to see what might be done, and the students love the idea of helping another student writer, even if they don't know who the student is. Later on, it's easier to show students how to rewrite and do similar editing on their own compositions.

The Challenge of Good Work

Teachers like Kay know that there are more effective and less effective ways to teach writing. She believes that showing students other students' work, critiquing it, and trying to make improvements is powerful because it aligns with the way that most people learn.
Students are naturally inclined to watch their peers, to make suggestions and support them, to avoid mistakes, to copy what works and modify what doesn't, and to learn from one another. By building on the authentic desire to do well, teachers tap into a deep-seated motivation and elicit remarkably well-formed, high-quality ideas. It makes the challenge and achievement of good work much more manageable and attainable for kids—and a whole lot more enjoyable to teach.

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