Helen Wilson teaches PreAP Chemistry and Scientific Research & Design at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA). She also serves as LASA’s Campus Innovation Connector.
At LASA, I teach an elective course called Project-Based Research. It’s lovingly called the “Wicked Problem Project.” Students have all year in that class to implement an innovative solution to a many-tentacled societal problem that draws upon their own talents and interests. As they implement that solution, students run into many “wicked” problems along the way. So, understandably, they lean on me to get advice and feedback.
I’ve never had trouble with giving students that feedback, myself, but I resolved this year to improve both the volume and quality of feedback that they get. And that meant I had to really teach my students how to give high quality feedback to others. After all, the teacher is only one person. Getting feedback from multiple people, including from (and especially from?) their peers, would be incredibly powerful and impactful and draw from multiple perspectives and experiences – not just the teacher’s.
Not wanting to start *all* over, I went back through my notes and decided to start with previous activities. Pre-pandemic, I’ve done this “seminar” where students present gallery walk artifacts to other students, soliciting feedback along the way. That was great. Students always comment on how much they enjoy hearing about other people’s projects. It was wonderful to hear them be so supportive of each other. Often, that advice ended up feeling vague or unhelpful even while their intentions were so good; so I searched around for some strategies that might help. Now, faced with the necessity of running this online, I ended up mashing Zoom with the new structure I now present to you in the hopes it will help you enrich the feedback students give and receive in your class.
Many websites describe the Critical Friends protocol. During class before the first seminar, we went over the protocol in a straightforward way. Then, I invited each student to create some notes where they described their “wicked problem,” their project, and a problem they were currently facing in the course of their project.
On the day of that seminar, I flipped the script and invited the students, whole-group, to give examples of *bad* feedback to the photographer of this amazing Jonas Brothers photo – the one with the ferrets. They had to imagine the photographer feels this is quality work – but they know it isn’t. We processed what makes feedback *bad* and *good.* We do this with different prompts every time we hold “seminar,” so we can recapture what we need to do – to be truthful, but at the same time, be supportive of the effort that person has put into the work. It’s also a great way to break the ice and make the kids laugh.
Since then, in subsequent seminars, we’ve broken the ice using bad fanfiction, bad art, bad music – but trust me, you really can’t go wrong with that photo. We still talk about it, actually.
We then do a collaborative Google Jamboard where the kids practice giving quality feedback to an imaginary person who needs project help. The kids get a choice of either prompt, but they’re all drawn from past years’ projects. Here’s a screenshot of one of them:
At this point in the year the kids are great at giving specific, actionable feedback that strives to be both positive and constructive. I run this seminar process at least once every six weeks, so right now they are very adept at it.
We debrief the Jamboard and then move into Zoom breakout rooms of three to four students. Each student presents their seminar notes on a shared screen while the other students engage in Critical Friends. Sometimes I group them deliberately by topic – for example, projects about education, projects about the environment, etc. – and other times it’s random. This usually lasts about fifteen minutes or so. I do just one round of breakout rooms, to limit their class screen time; if we were in person, I’d definitely have them do this in two rounds, changing up the groups so kids can get even more feedback.
An alternative to Zoom breakout rooms would be a BLEND group discussion. While this has merits – for example, the kids could go back to that discussion and read the comments in case they forgot something that was said – I deliberately choose breakouts. I wanted the kids to see and talk to each other, even if it was just on a Zoom screen. I think this piece of the process helps reinforce the kids’ connection to their classmates and to our school.
We close out our synchronous seminar by a last round of feedback. I invite students, whole-group, to give me feedback on that day’s seminar structure using the language of “I like” and “I wonder.” This could equally be done in a BLEND classic or new quiz, if needs be, but the best case scenario is to do this live. That feeling of immediacy is really important. I want to gather their impressions quickly, right after they do that activity. And I also want to make it very obvious that their voices are, and will always be, the centerpiece of their class.
I really love this new way of doing “seminar.” It’s organized, it’s just changeable enough to keep it fresh, and it’s energizing. Kids still hear about other kids’ work, but now, they’re getting stronger feedback that they can act on. I feel that it has also grown us into a network of passionate individuals who innovate and work for change – together. It’s honestly the biggest highlight of this teaching year for me. My challenge for the next school year will now be to bring this back into the in-person classroom. I hope you consider using a variation of this in your classroom to grow an amazing community of your own!