Making Meaning of Feedback, Grades, and Self-Reflections

We tell students they need to pay attention to results besides just their grades and that there are other, even more important goals to keep track of as a student. They have heard this enough that it does not always sink in. It’s also true that, especially to an early teenager’s ear, all those “other important goals” are too abstract and nuanced to focus on, especially when there are such simplified, easy to understand goals like letter grades to use. The result is that students are highly motivated by their letter grades and seem less motivated by characteristics like curiosity, resilience, time management, and organization.

We know the habits of mind that a student is learning, and practicing, in Middle School are more influential to their long term success than their grades in a Middle School course are. This is why, for example, our feedback is not as simple as just one letter grade. In the report cards we published, each student received in each course a letter grade for achievement, a grade for effort and for citizenship, and narrative feedback from the teacher. The entire package of feedback is more important than any single part. Inside the comment, for example, are often the recommendations from the faculty member about what each student should focus on next in their academic journey. This is the kind of coaching that students can overlook in their rush to only consider the letter grade.

This is also why we as a Middle School team slow students down at this time of the year. During the month of December each student sits for six writing activities. Most of these activities take place for 15 minutes at the start of the day. The advisor teams write questions that are meant to make each student reflect on who he or she is as a student and how they are doing on some of those loftier goals that we have for them. The reflection questions cover practical skills that teachers see as essential to success and also mindsets that teachers know are required to be highly successful later on in life. Here are a few of the questions that students have been writing about this month:

  • How do I plan my homework each evening when I get home from school?
  • How can I check over my work to make sure it is good quality?
  • How do I contribute my own perspectives or points of view instead of repeating facts?
  • How do I take risks in the classroom?
  • What do I do to move forward when the outcome of my efforts is not what I had hoped?
  • Over the last six months, when was I the most motivated or inspired and what was I doing?

With their answers to these questions, and more, students will assess themselves in advance of their January conferences. Along the way, they get help from their advisors and their teachers to examine their answers. One way we do this is by giving students the “teacher’s suggested answers” to these questions, after students have written their own self-reflections. Students often greatly appreciate hearing what these answers are, because it keeps them from having to guess what their teacher’s expectations are!

This also helps students understand what we mean when we say things such as “Remember, when you go into Senior School you won’t be taking your grades with you, but you will be taking your habits.”