Be Better: Using Class Time to Give Better Feedback

27 Jan

How often should you give feedback? This is a question I’ve wrestled with for a decade.

As a high-school English teacher, I try my best to write thoughtful comments on all my students’ summative assessments, but the volume in my particular field is soul-crushing. It’s not uncommon for me to have 50 three-page essays to grade any one week (on top of quizzes, homework checks, etc.), and trying to do them all justice, on top of the prepping, reading, and photocopying for the rest of my classes, sometimes seems Herculean.

I used to take those 50 papers home each week and I’d spend many hours on my couch scribbling notes in the margins, notes like, “awk” and “B.S.” (which means “be specific,” not the other thing you were thinking of), and then writing long comments at the end of each essay.

But then I had two children in under two years, and my grand plan ground to a halt. I can’t bring that much work home anymore — I’d never see my own children. Not to mention that I’m so exhausted by my children that I can’t stay awake late at night to grade anymore.

So I had to shift my thinking and my energy.

This year, desperate for more sleep and down time with my family, I devised a way to give feedback that has helped me find some balance outside of the school day and, paradoxically, seems to be a far better and more effective way to give students feedback.

Most days, my students have a reading assignment and a journal entry due (more on how I do dialectical and textual journals another day). Eventually, the journals will be revised, self-assessed by the student, and submitted for a summative grade. But instead of waiting to collect the journals after we finish a unit (something I can’t manage time-wise anymore, since the journals at the upper grades can be as long as twelve pages), I now read the entries every day — right in class.

How this works: at the beginning of each class, students come in, sit down at the desks, which are arranged in a circle, and take out their journals from the previous night. I ask them to turn their journals around to face the inside of the circle, and everyone walks around and reads everyone else’s journal. While the kids do this, I spend several minutes reading each student’s entry and writing feedback, often with a formative (non-counting) grade next to it (which I will record in my book as well to track progress, but it never affects their grade average.) Inevitably, the students finish reading before I do. In a class of twenty students, I may need 20 or so minutes to give some feedback to everyone, so if they are finished and I’m only halfway through, I’ll set them up with another activity, a SPIDER Web discussion, or even just let them spend five or ten minutes chatting, catching up, or getting settled.

I was always afraid to use class time this way when I was younger, but watching a colleague of mine a few years ago with his rowdy sixth-grade class taught me the value of allowing space and time for students to pause from academics now and then, even in the middle of class. And it’s not for no reason; after those twenty minutes or so are up, I have assessed every student’s level of engagement, accuracy, and effort for the task, given him pointers on how to improve, and a “grade” that represents what his work currently measures against the rubric. Not bad for twenty minutes.

This year, my juniors, a group of students I’d never taught or known before, seemed really thrown by this daily feedback. The first few days, several of the students had blown off the assignment altogether and had to face the embarrassing prospect of being “that kid” without his journal on his desk. Once they realized I was going to continue this feedback nearly every day, they all began completing them, but to varying degrees of effort and depth. Once I started adding (non-counting) grades to the comment next to their entry, most students started to give more attention to their journals. No one wanted a D or F next to their entry while others were walking around reading them. After a few weeks of this, I was walking around, reading and giving my feedback, when Tobias, interrupted me and asked, “Ms. Wiggins, why do you read our stuff every day? Doesn’t it get boring?”

“No,” I replied. “I love to see what you write and how you respond to the text. I love to see what’s on your mind as you read.” It was true — I love the feeling of hope I have each morning as I start my round of feedback, bright with the sensation that today some kids are really going to “get it” and I’ll see evidence in their journals of that lightbulb going off. But Tobias’s face at my reply was priceless — genuine surprise (shock?), a kind of skeptical awe that a teacher might actually enjoy reading something he wrote and continue to read it every day like this. It reminded me again of how poor a job we do as educators at communicating why any given task should be done at all (usually it’s done because we ask it to be done, not because the student inherently finds any meaning in it.) It revealed an unexpected benefit of this kind of feedback: showing students that their diurnal work matters enough that we give it a thoughtful response; in essence, it shows we care.

Over the course of the fist semester, the quality of the journals increased exponentially — mostly with my strongest and weakest students. I found the average students moved a little bit higher, but the greatest improvements overall were in the top and bottom students in each class. I’m still not sure why, or what to do with that information, but I’m glad for it either way. Overall, I’d say 99% of the students improved more this way than previously. And why wouldn’t they? I had gone from giving virtually no feedback throughout the journal process until the summative assessment to near-daily formative feedback. Not to mention that I myself was getting valuable insights into their misconceptions and pitfalls as a whole class. So within a day (not two months) I might see how students completely missed the religious symbolism of the story of the pomegranate tree in The Kiterunner and do something to correct it.

I’m lucky to have 80 – 90 minute blocks within which to do this kind of feedback easily, but if I had half that, I might try to rotate my feedback (e.g. assess five students a day). And this doesn’t work solely for journal writing; I’ve shifted my students’ writing and project assignments so there is more work done in stages, with my giving feedback in class to each student at all stages of the planning and writing process.

But the best part is when that final, summative journal (or essay, project, etc.) is submitted at the end of the unit — complete with all my comments and formative grades. I can review my notes in a matter of minutes and instantly remember the journal in detail and see its progress over the months. The summative grading now takes me far less time than it used to as a result — five or ten minutes a journal, rather than close to 30. Near-daily feedback for students? Check. Near-daily assessment of student understanding? Check. More formative assessment? Check. Easier summative assessment at the unit’s end? Check. Mostly done in class and not over my weekends? Check. I’d say win-win. This tired mom is glad to have discovered a new approach, one that I think is better not only for me, but for my students as well.


One Response to “Be Better: Using Class Time to Give Better Feedback”

  1. Janet Abercrombie January 28, 2013 at 9:35 am #

    Wow. That is really inspiring.

    From an upper elementary teacher perspective, the closest I’ve gotten to daily feedback is individual conferencing using a writing workshop model. Students have 30-40 minutes to write every day (following a 5-10 minute mini-lesson). During the writing time, I meet with 5-10 students. Each of these meetings includes a compliment, a clarifying question, and a teaching point.

    When doing more specific writing assignments (essays or narratives), I have students find and highlight or self-assess one thing before turning in a current draft. Then, I’d look over the papers and just check for that one thing. The “thing” might be topic sentences that match a thesis or a description of setting. I’d mark on a checklist whether a student demonstrated knowledge or needed reteaching. At the end, I’d pick five papers to read carefully, making notes for conferences I’d have during the next workshop time.

    Google doc comments are a great way to have students give feedback to one another. Most make really insightful comments that I hadn’t thought about.

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