One of the things I love about homeschooling is that we don’t have to slap a grade on everything—it’s empowering to operate outside a system that’s interested only in whether you got the right answer, not in what you’re actually learning or why you got a not-right answer or what’s interesting about questions that don’t come with a right answer. Not having grades opens you up to being wrong in a way that’s really healthy: A lot of learning happens in the spaces where we don’t get the right answer, and not stamping a grade on everything takes the stigma out of being wrong and puts the possibility back in.
But while grades as a sole measure of academic achievement are problematic, most people work harder and feel better about their work when they get a little feedback. Scheduling regular check-in sessions with your student can make a big difference in your student’s motivation and productivity—which, in turn, can help you feel like you’ve got things under control. So if you’re not giving grades, how do you give feedback?
* Set a specific time. (If you can put it on the schedule as regular thing—say, the first Monday of each month—even better.) It’s not that kids can’t respond to feedback any time, it’s just that people absorb feedback better when they know it’s coming. Scheduling a time also gives you and your child a chance to gather your thoughts and think about what you want to say.
- Two positives, one negative. Criticism gets a bad name because people tend to associate it with being negative, but real criticism digs into what’s good, too. My husband jokes about my “sandwich criticism” (one negative sandwiched between two positives), but research backs me up: If you team up negative and positive feedback, your listener is more likely to act on the feedback you are giving.
- Be specific. If you say, “You’re being kind of careless,” your student may not totally get what you’re trying to say. Instead, say, “I notice that you’re missing questions in math that you would probably catch if you went back and checked your work—I think you could really rock those questions if you committed to being more careful.” Another benefit of this is that you’re tying your criticism to a behavior and not to your child’s personality.
- Leave room for a response. Feedback shouldn’t be a one-way street, so leave space for your child to weigh in. Maybe he’s racing through math worksheets because they are so boring, or he may have missed a math concept so that he misses problems even when he goes back and checks them. It’s important to understand how your child feels about the feedback you’re giving—the good and the not-so-good.
- Leave it with something concrete. Try to come up with a specific plan of action to address challenges: Maybe your student will agree to double check five problems per lesson or to set a timer so that he’s spending at least five minutes per problem. It should be something that you can both agree on—if you want your student to change a behavior, it’s much easier when you have his buy-in. Take his opinion into account, too: If he says one reminder to check his work is fine but more feels like nagging, give his way a try.