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Helping kids manage digital feedback

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“Increasing the amount of feedback in order to have a positive effect on student achievement requires a change in the conception of what it means to be a teacher.” — John Hattie in Visible Learning

In today’s digital environments, feedback is everywhere and everyone is a teacher. Our students are constantly bombarded with blog comments, retweets, +1s, and e-mails about their life, ideas and work. (The Pew Report found that 86% of teens over the age of 14 actually sleep with their cell phones.) The feedback students receive may come from multiple sources, including people they know well and people they’ve never met. It is often a blessing to have instant access to an unlimited number of perspectives. However, it can become difficult to balance the time spent honing one’s craft with the time spent considering digital feedback. Managing digital feedback appropriately is a key element of productive digital citizenship, and we must teach it explicitly.

Benefiting from diverse forms of digital feedback takes skill, finesse and even self-control. In his book, “Net Smart,” Howard Rheingold reminds us that humans are hard-wired to become addicted to digital feedback. In the text, he cites a recent research study stating “Paul J. Zak of Claremont Graduate University, a pioneer in the emerging neuroeconomics field, discovered that a spike in oxytocin occurred after using Twitter for ten minutes.” Oxytocin is the chemical that makes us feel connected to others. In short, it makes us feel good.

If learners are only tuning into our digital feedback outlets to “feel good,” then they are probably missing many educational opportunities enabled by these tools. Educators need to be intentional about helping learners understand the advantages and limits that exist.

Importantly, digital feedback can greatly augment the learning process when used thoughtfully. Personally, I know that I am a better writer and thinker due to the digital feedback I’ve received on Twitter and my blog. However, using this information well has taken time, effort and experimentation. Learners must be taught to use feedback wisely as it relates to their personal goals and challenges. Teachers must serve as guides for their students, helping them to navigate all of the information available to them about their performance. As Hattie reminds us in the quote that inspired this post, we must change what it means to be a teacher for feedback to be used effectively.

Here are three instructional strategies that can ensure that students maximize the benefits of digital feedback about academic work:

  1. Have students write a learning goal before they publish anything in digital spaces. Ask the student, “What were you trying to learn/improve upon with this work?” Refer to this goal alongside students as they examine feedback. (A recent goal I set with a student was: “My goal is to tell a story that makes people feel angry about unfairness of the policy.”) If the feedback isn’t related to the learning goal, ignore it. (You can always return to it later if it becomes relevant.)
  2. Have students set aside specific times to consider digital feedback. Although mobile devices make access to feedback instantaneous, shifting attention every time a phone pings or an e-mail chimes can be counterproductive. Having students close their e-mail, IM, or Twitter until they’re ready to consider conversation and feedback. Try the free Tomatoist App from the Chrome Store which is based on the Pomodoro Technique. It commits the learner to 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes to consider social media feedback and e-mail. This can balance production and conversation.
  3. Have students regularly reflect on how their thinking or performance has changed in light of feedback. It’s really important for students to “think about their thinking” which is also known as metacognition. How has digital feedback changed their performance? What will they do differently next time? What feedback are they prepared to discard? Which audiences are most helpful and engaged? If students can self monitor their use of digital feedback, they are more likely to continue these positive habits in other settings with novel tasks.

People who are effectively able to use digital channels as a source of feedback will thrive as digital citizens. Helping students to amplify and refine learning through the intentional use of digital feedback is a critical aspect of networked teaching.

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader and teacher. She is a consultant for Authentic Education and an Edcamp organizer. Swanson is also a Google Certified Teacher, a Twitter teacher and an Edublog Award nominee.