Thinking About Feedback

As I rounded essay number 45 or so and headed for third base today, my eyes were dry and I had the familiar essay ache that doubtless plagued my students at the end of their timed write. I enjoy reading student writing, and actually look forward to assessments like timed essays because it gives me data, information on what kids have learned, improved upon, missed completely, or ignored outright. I write a lot of feedback on student writing, and I push myself to be specific every time. I also try to focus on no more than three areas of growth, tied to our writing rubric, for each kid each time. There are many balls to keep in the air, including goals from previous writing assessments, but I dig it and enjoy the interactive nature of reading student writing and providing specific, targeted feedback.

So I read, I write, and I give students back their writing. They flip to the grade, roll their eyes, give high-fives, gasp in delight or horror, and ignore everything else. In the past, I had students who were much less grade driven and/or had classes with very few students, in which we could all sit down individually and discuss each student’s performance at length. I’ve made some minor changes to providing feedback, asking students to write metacognitive responses prior to seeing feedback or grades, but in larger (but by no means large) classes, I haven’t found the magic trick that will move students past simply looking at grades and shutting down or throwing up defensive walls. Of course, the same thing that works every time takes a long time to establish: a mutually respectful, open, and honest collegial relationship.

So, I have some ideas about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to feedback and focusing students on feedback. What doesn’t work:

  • Grade Centrism – Grades just get in the way. In a perfect situation in which any rubrics handed down from upon high are very valid, used with and by students regularly, and common across curriculum areas, grades become measures of performance. In less than perfect situations, grades quickly turn into arbitrary judgements of the good and the bad, the smart and the not-smart, or whatever the teenaged mind might read into the ambiguity between performance and grades. Not good, feedback doesn’t get through here.
  • Competitive Academic Environments – Collegiality counts. If you are an obstacle to my success, if this is a zero-sum situation, we’re in trouble. Related to the above.
  • Shifting Language – As a writing teacher, it’s a little crazy to me how many terms teachers have for the word “thesis.” It’s equally crazy how many different ideas teachers have for what a thesis should be. If I laud a student’s voice, and another teacher applauds that student’s style, and another teacher cheers that student’s tone (but without meaning tone, as I define it, as the speaker’s relationship to the subject), the student will think she is doing three things well. If one of us gives negative feedback on voice/style/tone/etc, how will she fix the problem? This even happens in math, I think, when kids learn different terms for operations at different levels. We have to know this means learning the same thing differently, time and again. Getting our language aligned can streamline learning and certainly make feedback laser focused.
  • Vague Feedback – I learned this from Grant Wiggins. “Good job!” Every time I write “Yes!” or “Great!” it’s a clarion call to keep writing: “Yes – sensible identification of tone in narration and effect on the theme of confusion in the text!” or “Great use of a signal verb to introduce a detail from the text!”
  • Dropping It Like It’s Hot – Got, got, got to go metacognitive, ideally before they see my feedback at all. This can be tough sometimes, but it must be done. This can go hand in hand with portfolio assessments, which is why I say we’ve got, got, got to be doing e-portfolios, but that is for another day.

There are more things that don’t work. What works reads like a flipped list:

  • Performance Feedback, not Grades – Sure, grades, I get it. It’s the way we do things. Sweet. Still, let’s change school cultures to focus on performance, through authentic performance tasks for assessment. Let’s show kids what great is, how to create great, and then assess the result with lots of specific feedback.
  • Cooperative Academic Environments – Nobody is an obstacle to your success – they are either an asset utilized or ignored. It’s a paradigm for mutual success. If this is working, everybody can provide constructive, specific feedback at any level in any direction and everybody learns, including instructors and administrators.
  • Aligned Language – Make the language match across the disciplines. Wow, does this take a lot of work. It’s worth it, though. Ancillary benefits are clearer expectations and a greater conversation around big ideas like differentiated instruction and assessment, what that means, what non-negotiable performance benchmarks might be. I don’t know what bad outcomes of this slow process can be.
  • Specific Feedback – Specific and aligned to expectations shared in advance of, as part of, or through instruction. Language must be non-judgmental, but also clear in terms of what has been done well, what hasn’t, the implications, and the path forward.
  • Spending Time with Feedback – Here’s a great opportunity for metacognitive response, conferencing (portfolios!), revision, peer discussions, and so much more. My action research for my MAT focused on student-created rubrics from model work or exemplars – it wasn’t all perfect, so perhaps model could be a misleading term for some. Students can create powerful assessment tools and, through so doing, truly internalize the expectations and produce amazing products as a result. It’s like a feedback loop inside a feedback loop.

Anyway, here’s a quick breakdown of what works from Grant Wiggins, as published by New Horizons.org:

Elements of a an educative assessment system:

1. Standards

· specifications (e.g. 80 wpm w/ 0 mistakes)
· models (exemplars of each point on the scale – e.g. anchor papers)
· criteria: conditions to be met to achieve goals – e.g. “persuasive and clear” writing

2. Feedback

· Facts: what events/behavior happened, related to goal
· Impact: a description of the effects of the facts (results and/or reactions)
· Commentary: the facts and impact explained in the context of the goal; an explanation of all confirmation and disconfirmation concerning the results

3. Elements of evaluation

· Evaluation: value judgments made about the facts and their impact
· Praise / Blame: appraisal of individual’s performance in light of expectations for that performer

4. Elements of Guidance

· Advice about what to do in light of the feedback
· Re-direction of current practice in light of results

There is more outstanding information at the Wiggins article linked above and here regarding how to create a feedback cycle. It’s genius in its simplicity and power. At any rate, as I read, wrote, and reflected, I wondered what makes me effective as a writing teacher. As I consider all of the things I’m doing differently now from last year, it’s the commonality of my feedback on student writing that helps students learn and improve more than any one thing. At least, that’s my thought for this busy Sunday, and it’s what led to the reflections herein. I wonder what works for other people in terms of providing feedback for student learning.

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