Stars and Stairs

You may have seen this video where I talk about using stars and stairs, an awesome feedback strategy that I picked up from Jan Chappuis and company at the Assessment Training Institute in Portland, OR. I love it so much, I sometimes fear I overuse it.

Here is what my students say about using stars and stairs to give and receive feedback from their peers:

  • "It helps us out a lot because you know what you need to improve on." –Drew, sixth grader
  • "I like stars and stairs because it encourages us to write more of what we've done right, and it tells us to go back and use the mistakes we did make." –Ruby, sixth grader
  • "I think they really help me edit my work and it helps you become a better writer because the people can tell you what you're doing wrong, and things you're also doing right." –Regan, sixth grader

To be honest, when I started using stairs and stars for students to give one another feedback, it was painful. Kids would give one another general feedback that sounded like this: "Interesting topic!" or "I love your essay!" You get the point. I felt like I was wasting precious instructional time and that it would be faster if I could just do it all myself. Except I teach almost 70 kids and that's impossible. Also, I want to encourage ownership of their work and improvement. When the teacher gives feedback, the students sometimes don't hear it. They don't get it. Sometimes we give too much, in the name of helping. Peers might even be better positioned to give honest, real, understandable feedback that can be implemented, if we train them how to, of course.

I do try (and succeed most of the time) to have a writing conference with each student at least once during each big writing piece that we do (narrative, informative, and argumentative), and I give formative feedback then. But what about during the writing process? That's when I use stars and stairs for students to give one another formative feedback. And it works beautifully.

I've been doing this all year throughout different projects and essays, and the slow and steady approach has finally paid off. A few weeks back, as children were polishing their final informative essays, I floated around as they gave one another feedback using stars and stairs. Here is what I heard and saw written on their papers:

Stars (Success Feedback):

  • "I really like your ending or conclusion and I could tell what each was about!"
  • "I liked your thesis."
  • "Great vocabulary."

Stairs (Intervention Feedback)

  • "Try to add transition words in between the sentences."
  • "I know what syringe means, but others might not. Trying defining that word in a sentence."
  • "More transitions needed."
  • "Your conclusion paragraph needs to have at least five sentences."
  • "Your thesis doesn't make sense to me."

Isn't this amazing? I think I teared up a little, actually. I'm so proud of them. How did they get here? How on earth can sixth graders talk and write like this? Here are a few tips that have helped me make the use of formative feedback a success in my classroom:

1. Management: There are some great resources out there to help with implementing stars and stairs. I've created a half sheet that I use in my classroom. I make 200 copies at a time, have kids cut each in half, and store them on a shelf that's available at all times. Sometimes I plan for a day of stars and stairs. Other times, if kids are ahead, I will direct them to that shelf to get feedback at their own pace during the writing process. Their homework that night is always to incorporate the feedback into their next draft. At the beginning of the year I had them attach these sheets and all of their drafts to their final projects/writing pieces to see the whole process, but at the end of the year I don't feel this is necessary.

2. Modeling: At the beginning of the year, we spent some time as a group talking about helpful and unhelpful feedback. I modeled for my students good and bad examples of feedback. I walked around the room as students gave it a try, encouraging students to use the language of the rubric for whatever we were working on and to be as specific as possible. I had each pair bring me their stars and stairs sheets and reviewed the quality of feedback with them before they incorporated the feedback into their essay.

3. Choice:  Who gives them feedback? How do I choose peer pairings? These are questions that plagued me when I started to incorporate more formative instructional practices into my teaching. Here’s a neat trick I use: about three times a year I have my students choose Clock Partners, Canadian Collaborators (a map of Canada filled in with names of friends), and Latin American buddies (blank map again). Then, when we do partner work, I can direct them to one of those partners. Since the partners are self-selected they are folks the students feel comfortable sharing their work with, and it also (but not always) provides some natural differentiation.

4. No Grading Involved: This exercise is just for the purpose of improving their writing and for learning: No grading involved. I do check and guide, but nothing goes in my grade book. Ever.

5. Time: I give students lots of time to do stars and stairs. My directions are: find your partner, sit down, trade essays, and read them silently. Then, write down specific feedback using the rubric. Discuss each piece of feedback, and it's ok (and welcome!) to make comments and edits on the actual essays. For example, many students used a "T" to mark places where essays needed better transitions, if their stair feedback had been "Try to add transition words in between the sentences."

6. Practice: I use stars and stairs all the time. The kids know the system, and they're comfortable using it. For example, this week my students are presenting their final, interactive research presentations. I have an oral/visual rubric that I use to score them as they present, and I use the stars and stairs symbol on that sheet to indicate what they're doing well and what they need to improve upon. I write descriptive written feedback next to the symbols most of the time, but not always.

I've tried a lot of things throughout my teaching career but this is one strategy I use time and time again.