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Know When To Shut Up, Part I

This post is a part of the series Design Challenges and Opportunities in Peer Learning.

In the opening post for this blog series, we focused on the importance of assigning enough of the right practice at the right time, and we cited Don Murray whose advice about how to motivate students through a process begins “[shut] up” (3). But, this isn’t just another diatribe against lecturing. Instead, it’s an argument for performing the instructor’s role during peer learning in a particular (if not new) way.

In Part 1, we contrast the work instructors do in giving expert feedback with the work they do to coach peer learning. In Part 2, we share the strategies we use to listen more than we talk. Both parts underscore how important and costly it is for instructors to give feedback, and we offer practical advice about how to make sure students get enough high-quality feedback to improve.

Part 1: Do you want to lift a single draft or elevate the whole conversation?

We advocate for reducing instructor commenting and increasing time spent coaching peer feedback. By listening to students give each other feedback, instructors see learning. When they see learning happening, instructors are better able to discern when to speak up and when to shut up.

Design Challenge: Instructors have a habit of doing the heavy lifting for students.

Instructors often unintentionally undermine peer learning because our strategies for being “good instructors” fix problems rather than guide students through them. We rush to rescue rather than to make the struggle productive. After a few hundred times of hearing from students, “Just tell me what I need to do to get a better grade,” it’s easy to provide that recipe and get on with the rest of our responsibilities. Better grades, however, are not better learning. The difference, as Murray pointed out, is focusing on the process, not the product.

In his Educational Leadership article The Secret of Effective Feedback,” Dylan William outlines a series of strategies faculty can use to be sure that their feedback is

changing the student rather than changing the work. . . . Such practices ensure that students, the recipients of feedback, do as much work as the instructor who provides the feedback.

Now, there’s a standard! Imagine students matching (or exceeding) the 10, 20, or 30 minutes of work we put into giving them feedback.

Instructors are no doubt the most powerful provider of feedback. We can tell students things they can’t tell each other. Commenting on student work is the most labor intensive, high-cost aspect of teaching. It’s where we most often do the heavy lifting to guide individual students through a meaningful learning experience.

Our feedback can have high impact, but it often doesn’t. Nancy Sommers’ Beyond The Red Ink makes that point clearly as students describe how hard they find it to understand their instructors’ comments scribbled in the margins, and in Responding to Student Writers, Sommers offers instructors practical advice for writing better comments. Similarly, Rich Haswell, author of “Minimal Marking,” summarizes the extensive literature on teacher response in his article “The Complexities of Responding to Student Writing; or, Looking for Shortcuts via the Road of Excess,” but he poses the essential question:

Do response shortcuts really produce more effect with less effort?

The work of offering thoughtful feedback feels like due diligence, so instructors work hard at doing it well and fast. We know we get one shot at offering students expert feedback. After our comments, students are unlikely to hear anything else, so we shut down a valuable feedback stream. Given the benefits for students and the costs for us, it makes sense to be diligent in commenting on students’ drafts. Haswell’s point underscores that efficiencies in our work might help us with the heavy lifting we are doing, but those same efficiencies might prevent students from doing the work of learning.

High impact instructor comments weigh three factors:

  1. Time: when writers have run out of revisions they can make alone
  2. Manner: within students’ zone of proximal of development
  3. Place: where the feedback can guide more thinking than editing

Comments that come when writers are ready, in words they understand, and in a way that doesn’t lead only to proofreading are much more likely to change the writer as well as the writing. When we keep those three factors in mind, our comments can be a lever helping students revise.

A long lever does heavier lifting than a short one. Instructor commenting will always be a short lever—high-impact, high-cost. Making peer feedback routine and powerful, however, gives us a longer lever—still high-impact, but lower costs.

Design Opportunity: Step back, shut up, and study students’ practice.

Peer feedback gives instructors a longer lever to impact learning. In peer learning, instructors step back so that students can work through the assignment. That assignment helps students recognize excellent performance so that they can match it next time. In peer learning, students talk, and instructors listen. As we listen, we study students’ practice. We figure out what they can do and what they can’t;  where they are struggling and where they are succeeding. Instead of being close to drafts like we are when we provide feedback, we position ourselves between learners who are talking about a draft. With this longer lever, we let students do more of the heavy lifting; from this distance, we can elevate the whole conversation with less effort.

In our own teaching, this longer lever has changed the Eli team’s habits of commenting on students’ drafts in time, manner, and place. Since we’ve made peer feedback a routine part of our classrooms, we are more aware that

  • Students can do more without us than we thought. A light-touch early and a substantive conversation in the middle is enough.
  • We can learn a lot about how to comment more effectively by studying the comment digest of what peers say to each other, which helps us get closer to language students understand.
  • The strongest cue about whether revision or editing is needed comes from the marks we put on the page. To drive revision, we usually leave out the “red ink” proofreading.

We use peer learning to figure out when all students and individual students need just-in-time support. We use what they tell each other to help us talk with them. We work more on the thinking between drafts than we do on the words of a draft.

Our work as instructors is different because we don’t make our comments on drafts our primary intervention. We don’t do the heavy lifting there. We invest more of our time and energy in designing effective reviews and understanding what students’ practice tells us about learning. We practice the arts of restraint.

Continue on to Know When to Shut Up, Part II: The Art of Restraint.

Photo credit: Bill Smith of Byzantium Books on Flickr

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The post Know When To Shut Up, Part I was published to the Eli Review Blog in the category Pedagogy.

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