Mary Harding was frustrated by the tortoise-like progress of her high school dance students at Perpich Center for Arts Education in Golden Valley, Minnesota. She gave them feedback on their choreography, pointers on what to fix during rehearsals, but sometimes she felt like nothing sank in. Then one day she had an idea: Maybe students would learn better if they were the ones doing the teaching.“I wondered what would happen if it wasn’t just my voice all the time,” she says.
To find out, Harding set up a research study to determine whether students have a deeper learning experience when they give direct feedback to each other. Her study was published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Dance Education.
Harding divided her class of juniors and seniors into pairs. For six weeks the partners took turns watching and giving feedback. After each assignment, students filled out evaluations stating what fears they had about the process, what was the most valuable feedback they received, what they planned to revise as a result and how the feedback they gave was received.
The results were remarkable—the students became more confident and cohesive as a group, improved their ability to talk about dance and, most importantly, became better dancers.
Why can feedback from peers sometimes be more powerful than feedback from teachers? Harding’s hunch is that when students coach, they learn to watch with a critical eye, and that helps them improve. “As they struggled with the role of teacher, they started to see their own technical and analytical needs more clearly,” Harding says.
Deborah Brockus of the Idyllwild Arts Academy in Idyllwild, California, who also finds peer coaching a valuable teaching tool, starts each semester by pairing up students and having them take turns walking toward the mirror and back while their partners watch. She instructs the observing dancers to look for alignment issues—whether or not a foot circles out with each step, whether knees are in line with the feet. Then each partner tells the other what she sees.
Starting with a simple movement like walking is useful, Brockus says, because it’s something everyone feels comfortable commenting on. The exercise also helps students start to see movement in a technical way. “They learn to think about the small, common movements and to see how deviations there affect the big dance moves,” she says.
Despite the value, peer coaching can be dangerous without strict ground rules. Students must be taught how to give comments that are positive and constructive, not put-downs.
Harding addressed this by focusing on communication skills. She had students make up skits to illustrate a best- and worst-case scenario of receiving feedback, to set the tone for a class in which everyone treated each other with respect.
Valerie Nesby of F.M. Black Middle School in Houston, Texas, instructs her students to point out in each comment one thing their classmate does well and one thing they need to improve on.
To avoid getting generic “good/bad” comments, it helps to explain exactly what students should be looking for. Harding’s students, for example, were asked to consider five elements of every performance: musicality, energy or dynamic range, performance quality, accuracy and spatial clarity.
Nesby’s middle-schoolers fill out a worksheet for each peer evaluation, checking off whether or not their partners fulfilled various elements. The list includes: “Counts the music while dancing,” “Spots on turns” and “Misses cues.” Students also have room to write comments on the form.
Another way to elicit constructive criticism from students is to set up clear goals for each dance assignment. Diana Domoracki-Kisto of William A. Morris IS 61 in Staten Island, New York, gives her middle school students movement “problems,” such as creating a dance that looks like a weather pattern, and then asks the students watching to decide if their peers achieved the goal.
When assigning partners, Harding paired students of different expertise levels, and those with similar amounts of training, and found positives and negatives for both. She also found it useful to assign new partners after three weeks so students could get a new perspective.
Whether students were dancing or observing, Harding found that peer coaching deepened their engagement. As performers, students put in more effort when they knew someone was watching. And as coaches, they watched closely to see if their partner took their corrections.
The value of the process continues far beyond the studio. Michael Anthony Kerr of New Voices School of Academic & Creative Arts in Brooklyn, NY, says that when students learn how to analyze dance, they also become better dance patrons. “It becomes more than just movement, more than just arms and legs,” Kerr says. “You’re teaching students how to look at dance.” DT
Lauren Heist is a former dance critic for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. She is now a freelance writer in Evanston, IL.
Photo of students at the Perpich Center For Arts Education, by Dan Markworth, courtesy of Perpich Center For Arts Education.