Improving Supervisor Written Feedback: Exploring the What and Why of Feedback Provided to Pre-Service Teachers

Fall 2019

Source: Issues in Teacher Education - Fall 2019

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

To better gauge how we can prepare supervisors to better perform their role, the authors explore the content (i.e., pedagogical skill) and the purpose (i.e., identifying an area of strength [praise] or area of improvement [growth] in observed teaching) of supervisors’ written feedback.
Additionally, in order to better support supervisors in providing the type of quality feedback that enhances PST development and growth within clinical practice, they further identify and examine what influences the feedback process.
In this study, the authors focus on two dimensions of feedback quality: content and purpose (the balance of praise with suggestions for growth).
Given that prospective teachers need proficiency across a variety of skills that span activities as diverse as management, lesson planning, instruction, assessment, and reflection, it follows that they should receive both formative and summative written feedback on all of these skills.
The provision of written feedback assures pre-service teachers (PSTs) are presented with a record of their progress, as well as a means to measure and reflect upon that progress throughout the clinical experience, and into the profession.
This study addresses the lack of research around supervisor written feedback and investigates the value of using written feedback data for both PST instruction and teacher education program improvement.
In order to better understand how well university supervisor feedback in their programs aligns with their definitions, they proposed the following research questions:
1. What is the focus of supervisor written feedback, and how consistent is it with research-based definitions of quality written feedback?
2. Which factors influence a supervisor’s ability to provide quality feedback?


Participants & Supervision Observation Tool
This study occurred in a yearlong post-baccalaureate teacher education program and involved elementary and secondary supervisors working with PSTs who were in the part- and full-time quarters of the clinical experience.
Four elementary and four secondary supervisors (for a total of eight) were conveniently sampled (Gall, Borg, & Gall, 1996) from the university pool of supervisors.
All eight were former K-12 teachers and/or administrators, and two were current lecturers in the authors’ teacher education program.
To evaluate PSTs in clinical practice, the supervisors used a common observation tool and protocol that aligns skills with program coursework.
Supervisors attended quarterly workshops to receive guidance on the use of the observation tool, including tool norming.
Focusing on four domains (planning, classroom environment, instruction, and reflection) and 17 prioritized skills (e.g., communicating with students), the observational tool also included space for noting evidence, as well as for identifying two or three areas of strength and growth (lesson plans were reviewed and evaluated prior to observations).
Supervisor observations occurred four times during the ten-week quarter, and typically lasted 50 minutes in length (including a debriefing in which the PST reflected on the lesson).
Within 24 hours of the observation, completed observation tools were emailed to the PST and cooperating teacher.

Observation reports – The authors coded a sample of observation reports for each supervisor that were representative of between two and five PSTs.
In all, a total of eight observations were coded for each supervisor.
Semi-structured interviews – the authors additionally selected four of the eight supervisors for semi-structured interviews (two elementary and two secondary).
Data analysis informed their selection of interviewees; they wanted to meet with those who varied in the type of feedback provided.
Individual, 30-minute interviews occurred at the conclusion of the academic year.

Findings and discussion
Even though the supervisors were asked to numerically evaluate the PSTs on all prioritized skills identified in the observation tool, qualitative comments still privileged particular content, with some prioritized skills receiving greater emphasis than others.
Interviews revealed that the development level of the PST also influenced which prioritized skills were emphasized in feedback, as supervisors felt PSTs needed more feedback on classroom management at the beginning of their clinical experience and less later on in the program when they were more adept at managing student behavior.
Similarly, interview data revealed that the confidence level of supervisors regarding their content knowledge might cause them to over- or de-emphasize certain prioritized skills.
This supports findings from Lindahl and Baecher (2016) who identify the feelings of “unpreparedness” supervisors attest to when providing evaluative observations on certain content.
Interview data further revealed that this is often because of evolving or unfamiliar pedagogical practices that have come to the forefront in recent years.
In order to build supervisor content knowledge, teacher preparation programs would do well to provide a professional development series on supporting diverse learners, in addition to providing supervisors access to teacher preparation coursework.
The authors’ findings also revealed that the eight supervisors provided significantly more praise than suggestions for growth in their feedback.
This is not entirely surprising given research that speaks to the difficulties supervisors have providing comments that might be perceived as critical (Haggerty, 1995; Stanulis & Russell, 2000). Ironically, however, research shows that PSTs do want to grow and improve by hearing constructive suggestions for growth to assure they are well prepared and informed (Chaffin & Manfredo, 2009; Chesley & Jordan, 2012; Ibrahim, 2013; Yildirim, 2013).
The authors posit, moreover, that an essential component of being better prepared and informed is receiving feedback on areas for growth in a positive and safe environment.
Thus, an essential part in training to provide quality feedback should be an emphasis on constructive suggestions and how to leverage learning-focused supervisory stances (Lipton & Wells, 2013).
The above findings demonstrate the importance of providing professional development to supervisors on the scope and quality of written feedback.
The supervisors interviewed appreciated the opportunity to critically examine their data, identify misalignments between their feedback and quality feedback, and determine next steps for their practice.
Teacher educators have long espoused the value in closely examining discourse used in teaching and learning scenarios (Cazden, 1988), and examining written feedback is another way for teacher educators to study discourse that shapes teaching and learning.
Furthermore, clearly communicating programmatic expectations could potentially make the written observations more helpful, instructive, and developmentally sound (Ediger, 2009; Levine, 2011; Slick 1998).
An essential part of this process is the creation of a research-based definition of quality written feedback and explicit training on what constitutes such feedback.
Illustrating how observations align with a definition of high-quality feedback can provide an opportunity for supervisors to set goals for improving not only their feedback, but their support of PSTs as well.
The authors’ findings suggest that supervisors need scaffolded support in defining quality feedback, increased buy-in on the importance of written feedback, and targeted workshops on key content (e.g., supporting emergent bilinguals).
The provision of effective feedback training activities—as defined above by key researchers—has the potential to improve the content and quality of the feedback provided to PSTs.

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Chaffin, C., & Manfredo, J. (2009). Perceptions of preservice teachers regarding feedback and guided reflection in an instrumental early field experience. Journal of Music Teacher Education, 19(2), 57-72
Chesley, G. M., & Jordan, J. (2012). What’s missing from teacher prep. Educational Leadership, 69(8), 41-45.
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Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Educational research: An introduction. White Plains, NY: Longman.
Haggerty, L. (1995). The use of content analysis to explore conversations between school teacher mentors and student teachers. British Educational Research Journal, 21(2), 183-197.
Ibrahim, A. S. (2013). Approaches to supervision of student teachers in one UAE teacher education program. Teaching and Teacher Education, 34, 38-45.
Lindahl, K., & Baecher, L. (2016). Teacher language awareness in supervisory feedback cycles. ELT Journal, 70(1), 28-38.
Levine, T. H. (2011). Features and strategies of supervisor professional community as a means of improving the supervision of preservice teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(5), 930-941.
Lipton, L., & Wellman, B. (2013). Learning-focused supervision: Developing professional expertise in standards-driven systems. Charlotte, VT: MiraVia
Slick, S. (1998). Assessing versus assisting: The supervisor’s roles in the complex dynamics of the student teaching triad. Teaching and Teacher Education, 13, 713-726.
Stanulis, R. & Russell, D. (2000). “Jumping in”: Trust and communication in mentoring student teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 16(1), 65-80.
Yildirim, A. (2013). Student teachers’ perceptions about their education supervisors’ role. Educational Research and Reviews, 8(3), 112-120. 

Updated: Nov. 07, 2021


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