Teacher to teacher: How I taught my students to give praise and other feedback

When I started to think about praise and other types of feedback in my classroom, I found myself asking, “Why am I the only one giving the praise?” I came to the conclusion that I don’t and shouldn’t control all the praise in my room. I know from experience that praise from a student’s peer can be even more powerful than praise from a teacher. Whether I teach students who are just learning to read or learning to drive, I want my students to be leaders who intentionally look for the good in others and build on each other's strengths.

Here are a few things I’ve learned to encourage discussion, collaboration, and students seeing the best in each other. These actions, when performed together, have helped build a culture of praise in my classroom.

Stop talking...

Students can’t praise each other if you’re talking all the time. How can you change that? I learned a simple but powerful acronym during my fellowship with Harvard Project Zero: Why Am I Talking (WAIT). The acronym causes me to pause before contributing to the conversation and has led me to talk less.

When I became a fifth-grade teacher, I felt like I needed to explain everything. Everything.

Turns out, that was an awful idea.

Three months into the school year, I realized something needed to change. We were months behind in math and were also getting two new students. I had a dilemma: How could I make sure we had the time to welcome the new students and make gains in our math content?

I decided to talk less and ask my students to do more. With our math goals in mind, I challenged the class to design and build a table to accommodate our new students. I observed my students problem-solving together, negotiating, and debating about math as they collaborated. After a while, the message was clear: I had made the right choice to talk less.

After that, my students participated in group discussions at least twice a day. We had morning and afternoon meetings to discuss the day’s work and think about next steps. During the meetings, we formed a circle in the back of the room to create a shared space for bouncing around ideas. These meetings gave students a chance to reflect, make choices, praise each other, and offer other feedback.

Knowing that not all of the students wanted to share ideas face-to-face, we also used tech tools like Canvas and Flipgrid during discussions. These tools allowed students to capture their thoughts and share them digitally. I reviewed the comments, and students could flag if they didn’t want theirs shared aloud. Eventually, most of my students felt comfortable sharing their thoughts with the whole class.

These structured meetings were a good start, but casual conversations take place all the time in the classroom, especially during group work. After implementing my “talk less” policy, I discovered that the way students delivered praise and constructive input in these casual conversations wasn’t always going well.

In the absence of my voice, I realized that students needed to learn how to talk to each other. 

...but provide coaching

After talking with my students, I learned they were not always feeling heard or valued during group work. They were getting turned off by their peers’ replies to their ideas.

When comments started with “That doesn’t make any sense because...,” students felt their ideas were less important. The students giving the feedback didn’t realize that by leading with a personal opinion, they were putting themselves above the group. These comments required me to swoop in and reassure students, and I wanted to stop having to do that.

We needed to find statements that allowed students to communicate their thoughts — both praise and constructive feedback — without turning away their peers. We needed ways for students to question, support, and share ideas effectively and respectfully. So, we added some sentence starters to build on each other’s statements without taking away from anyone else:

  • What would it look like if ________?
  • I love what _____ said, and I would like to add on. Is that OK?

Understood tip for students who learn and think differently Some students may need more time to process their thoughts, so they may not have praise or other input to offer right away. Give students extra time to think by providing them with specific questions ahead of time. You can also allow students to capture their feedback in writing and share it over the course of a day, such as by writing feedback on a sticky note or asking for rolling feedback in a Google Doc.

After implementing these new sentence starters, students reported feeling heard, wanting to hear more from others, and being more willing to stay in the conversation. They began sharing and praising each other’s work, and it made a huge difference in the culture of our classroom.

With these changes, the biggest takeaway for me wasn’t about catching up in math, completing successful projects, or talking less. It was about empowering students to lead their own learning by giving them the space and support they needed to praise and give feedback to each other.

About the author

About the author

Eric Crouch, MEd is an Understood Teacher Fellow and fifth-grade general education teacher in Columbus, Georgia.