How to give students better feedback without working nights and weekends

Teachers make feedback too hard. I’m convinced it can be easier. Over this four-part post, I’ll outline a process in-progress for easier feedback.

Step 1: Set clear objective for each class | Step 2: Use daily self-assessments | Step 3 Teach students how to give each other feedback (two methods that actually work) | Step 4: Find your *imperfect* system for teacher feedback

To get this process right, we have to know what feedback is and what it is not.  This concept confused me when I first thought about it.

To put it in simplest terms: we say we’re giving feedback, but we’re giving advice and judgementGrant Wiggins taught me this.

Advice is when we tell students what to do. We do this too much.  Students can figure it out on their own. We need to tell them when they’re on the right track.
 
Judgement is when we tell students their work is “good” or “bad.”  We don’t give a measuring stick, but instead, a label.
 
Imagine a doctor who says, “You’re somewhat healthy, kinda chubby, but failing fast in a few areas. I’d say you’re at 62%. Try more next time.”
 
This is terrible! Doctors give feedback based on standards. “You’re weight is in the slightly above-average range. Your vision is 20/60 but 20/20 with your lenses. You’re showing symptoms of chronic allergies.” 
Then, she gets into the advice. Keep up your prescribed diet we discussed. This should help with weight control and your allergies.”
Teachers can give feedback like doctors. Specific, based on standards, and with the patients (the students) there in the room.
 
As it stands from my experience students need…
 

…lots of feedback.
 
…some advice.
 
…a little, strategically-placed judgement.
comments-graph

Data Source: a very unscientific study titled, “This Feels About Right” by Gerard Dawson

 
The next question is: but how do we make this happen? I need to make copies, grade the quiz, go to the faculty meeting, get home to heat up dinner, and bring the kids to practice.

Less managing, more feedback

The process for more feedback, less grading, and better learning is already part of our day. It’s the time we have in class. This is the best time for feedback, either student to self, student to student, and student to teacher.
 
The shift is when we identify the “managing” that we do. This is when teachers circulate the room or watch students work. It’s when we’re not instructing a group or individual. Doug Fischer and Nancy Frey explain this in Better Learning Through Structured Teaching. I explained my lessons from that book here.
 
When we manage instead of teach:
 
  • We stress. We’re waiting for kids to act up.
  • We’re not in meaningful conversations with students.
  • We’re bored because we’re watching students work.
When teachers manage, the solution is to do the activity in groups, outside of class, or in stations.  Never manage, always teach is a reminder to myself.
 
“We have to manage some classes,” you say, “they’re out of control.” Well, fine. But, management does not lead to learning, it leads to compliance.  That’s an important difference.
 
I want to stop managing and use that time for feedback. This makes class about setting goals, working towards them, and measuring progress. A cycle of learning, driven by feedback.

A practice-changing book

This leads me to lessons from a book I recently read. The title is Feedback: The Hinge That Joins Teaching and Learning by Jane Pollock.  This short book kept my attention with teacher anecdotes and useful ideas.  I read it in the cafeteria during parent-teacher conferences in about an hour. This was thanks to some advice on How to Read Professional Books.
feedback-book
 
In the book, Pollock outlines three types of feedback:
 
Student-self feedback promotes independent learning and self-efficacy. It is one of the best indicators in our classroom for success outside of it. Self-awareness is powerful.
 
Student-student feedback helps learners to develop independence. They clarify misunderstandings and measure their performance by hearing from others.
 
Teacher-student feedback then becomes a “status update” about how the student is doing. These can become short, frequent conversations instead of margin comments that students ignore.

Step 1: set clear objectives for each class period.

If you’re thinking that my section heading is not a new idea, then you’re right. However, to have a feedback system that works, teachers and students need goals. Let’s say the goal is “to read and discuss ‘Harrison Bergeron.'” We can tell if students know the story. We can hear the students talking. But otherwise, how do we give useful feedback about that goal? On the other hand, if the goal is “use evidence to determine two themes that emerge from Harrison Bergeron” then we can observe student work and provide useful feedback toward that more specific goal.
 
[A note here: that all being said, I’d rather lean towards a goal that is too direct, too few words, and too simple than towards one that is complex.  Utility is the goal, not perfection.] 
 
Sometimes, I place my fingers on the keyboard, try to write a clear and simple goal, and I’m stumped. Complexity is easy. Simplicity is hard.
 
Here’s is my revision process from a Common Core standard —-> to a student-friendly goal.
 
Recently, my students used reciprocal teaching for a reading of “Harrison Bergeron.” The goal was to literally understand the story, clarify misunderstandings, and notice the themes. The standard for this says: “Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.”
 
First, I made that more concise: Use details from the text to develop a literal and thematic understanding of the reading.
 
Next, more refined: “Successfully read at a literal and thematic level.”
 
Now put the activity in: “Use collaborative discussion to read at a literal and thematic level.”
 
Lastly, more student-friendly: “Make meaning of a text by talking about it.”
 
Yes, you’re right, this is an oversimplification. But, when students get the goal, I can tell the students how I saw them meet that goal, or I didn’t. Also, students can tell themselves if they reached the goal or didn’t.
 
This is step 1 of the process. What’s next? After we set the goals, we get students to pay attention to them.

Teach the life skill of self-awareness

 
I mentioned that teachers give advice and judgement too often. We don’t give feedback, which is when we tell students what they’ve accomplished. But, what if we took it a step further and said that students can do most of that part on their own, too? Here’s my claim:
 
Students can give themselves feedback.
 
And even if students can’t give themselves feedback at first, we can teach this skill to students. This is teaching self-awareness, which is a useful life skill.
 
Consider that…
 
…meditation
 
…therapy
 
 
…counseling
 
…prayer
 
…are all about cultivating self-awareness. It’s a skill that leads to a good life.

Step 2: Use daily self-assessments

 
The second step of this process is daily self-assessments. It’s asking students to check their own work every day against the stated goal.
 
[Spoiler alert: self-assessment doesn’t come easy for anyone.]
 
Teachers must do front-loading work to teach self-assessment. It’s hard at first. We have to show examples of quality work. We have to discuss the criteria of quality work. We have to give demonstrations of struggling and succeeding at a skill. And we have to talk to the kids who rate themselves as stellar but actually kinda stink at something.
 
This process of teaching self-assessment has had a benefit for my teaching, too. Why? Because the students can’t self-assess if they don’t know what they’re learning. This means that I have to display the goal for each class, right there on the board.
 
Do you ever begin class with an article, a story, a question or activity that students will encounter for the day?
 
But, if you had to write it as a goal, you would struggle?
 
Those classes often don’t go well. But this practice of daily self-assessment requires me to decide on the goal and display it.
 
The great part? The students begin to develop the habit. Two students made comments this week that led me to believe that daily self-assessment is now a habit:
 
At the end of class on Tuesday, I said, “Before you clean up, fill out the after and effort sections of your goal sheet.” (Explained below.) Ben said, “I did it already.” This was music to my ears.
 
On Monday, I was in a fog. I forgot to display a goal. Jeremy said, “Hey we didn’t do that thing in our notebooks today.” He reminded me that we didn’t have a goal for that day. I had a clear one the next day.

Ask these three questions everyday

 
How well can you do this before the lesson? This gets students to consider the goal for the day. They may not understand it. “Synthesize multiple sources to create a thesis.” What? There may be some terms to review.  Students may think back to work from earlier in the year or last year. Either way, their brains start working.
 
How well can you do this after the lesson?  Students have a short-term plan: make this number higher than the first number.  At the end of class, students reflect on their knowledge and skills. Did they go up? Down? Neither?
 
How hard did you try today?  This is an important part of the process. The idea is that students will notice patterns between effort and outcome.
 

You may notice 4 benefits to daily self-assessment:

 
  1. The students acknowledge the goal of the day by writing it down. Point to all the anchor charts you want. Reading, hearing, writing, then reviewing a goal helps students remember it.
  2. It creates a natural opening and closing for the day (Here’s what you should be able to do today…How well can you do it now? How well can you do it at the end of the period? How hard did you try?)
  3. Formative assessment happens as I walk around. I can also stop and compare students’ ratings to my observations.
  4. This takes no technology or extra supplies. Technology can help us give better feedback. Kaizena is great. But a notebook, a clear goal, and a few minutes at the beginning and ending of class are effective, too. Below is example of a students goal sheet. The columns are, from left: the date, the goal, a rating about effort for the day, a pre-assessment, and a post-assessment.
self-accounting-template

Sahi’s goal accounting template, using a page from her notebook.

How to begin using daily self-assessments

 
If you’re interested in trying this, but don’t want to jump into a daily commit, here’s one simple step.
At the end of class tomorrow, say this:
 
“On a scale of 1-5, how hard did you try today? 1 means you didn’t try at all. 5 means you tried your hardest.  Put your heads down everyone. Now, put up the number of fingers that show hard you tried.”
 
Students will be honest with you.
 
If you want to get more information and notice patterns, then do this everyday for a week.
Next try something different. Give students a copy of the rubric on the day that they hand in their next assignment. Ask them to circle the boxes that are appropriate for their work.  If that process goes well, have students create the rubric for their next writing assignment. Read this post.
Soon, it may become clear that there are ways to integrate self-assessment into all activities we do. And self-assessment makes these activities more meaningful for students.
 
I have added more and more self-assessment into my teaching every year over the past six years. Lots of it might have seemed like a bad use of time at first, but it was all a process of learning.
 
We know that grades don’t help learning. They hurt learning. Feedback helps learning. Daily self-assessment ensures that students receive three pieces of feedback every day. They pre-assess, they post-assess, and they rate their effort. That’s a great start.
 
Next, we build on that by adding teacher-student feedback and student-student feedback.

Two peer feedback strategies that make students care

Two years ago, my summer vacation was a time of change.  My wife and I were figuring out how to be parents to our newborn son.  My body was figuring out how to live without its appendix (emergency surgery).  And, relevant to readers here, I was deciding how to arrange the new room that my principal had assigned me.

This all relates to giving students better feedback, I promise…

For this new room, the plan was simple: ditch the desks. Bring in tables and chairs.  Achieve collaboration utopia. Is that how you envision a plan when you’re excited, too?

By making three trips to the school, I found 6 tables and 25 chairs.

This has paid off in a few ways. Students have built-in groups and discussion partners.  There is less time moving between individual and group work.  For smaller classes, there are more options for students to find the best spot in the room to learn.  And easier to use peer feedback strategies.

Have desks? Fear not. Many desk arrangements work for small-group collaboration. It’s all about planning for these in-class feedback situations.

Step 3: Teach students how to give each other feedback

Starting here? A quick summary for you: teachers give advice and judgement, not feedback.

Further, we often lack clear instructional objectives on which to give the feedback. So, responding to student work is random, tiring, and time-consuming.

Additionally, we put the onus on us to give the feedback. We have 15-30 helpers who we are trying to empower to be better readers and writers. They can help each other out with feedback. They’ll learn more by doing this then they will by not doing this. 

Below, I’ll outline two lessons that happen after students draft an essay. Each takes a full 56-minute period for me. This includes the direct instruction, the instructions, the activity, and the reflection.

3a. No fear peer feedback

Students have lives outside of our classroom.  Don’t forget, I tell myself. Yes, we can make our classrooms safe spaces for communicating with each other. People misuse that phrase today, but it is an important one for teachers. Even if we create an accepting classroom, some students are uncomfortable sharing.  We may never know about the why behind this. It could be a rivalry that goes back to the fourth grade. Then, teachers make it worse by asking students to share their writing with these peers.

Think about it: Go to your next faculty meeting. Choose 15 people, circle them up, and exchange your personal writing.  It’ll sound like this…

“Before you read it, just so you know, I finished that like five minutes before this, so”

“I didn’t get a chance to proofread, so there’s probably mistakes everywhere”

“Don’t read that part, I didn’t mean to leave that in”

[Reaches across lap of person to point to paragraph 2]”For this part, I meant to say ‘forgets’ not ‘forgives’”

Writing is vulnerability.  That’s the guiding truth of the following peer feedback lessons.

To help students deal with the fear of criticism, I use the “No fear peer feedback” system. Here’s the basic idea:

  1. Students view examples from this article by Grant Wiggins.  They turn and talk to discuss the difference between advice, judgement, and feedback.
  2. Students form small groups or pairs. Either arrangement works. They exchange papers.
  3. Students read their partner’s paper several times. Each time through, they examine one part of the rubric or one part of the expectations for the assignment.
  4. Next, students write a comment explaining how one part of the writing affected them. This is the one type of comment permitted. That’s it. Examples:
    • The anecdote in your introduction engaged me right away. What was the connection to your thesis, though?
    • Your evidence in paragraph four was the most convincing for me.
    • I got lost in the middle of paragraph three because of your wording there.

So, there’s no opportunity for students to point out grammar mistakes the wrong way. There’s no chance for students to give undue criticism. Nothing but an honest reaction from one reader that the writer can use to revise.

Variations on this: Put students into groups and have them rotate the papers for each part of the rubric.

The last step is where students get the chance to develop their autonomy as writers. They use the feedback to write their revision plans. See the template and example below: (Images blurry? View them here.)

revision-plan-template

3b. Use Read Around Groups to Teach Students to Think Like Writers

It’s almost easier to show what read around groups look like then to tell about what they are. See the image below the instructions and I think you’ll get it.

In short, students read anonymous drafts of their classmate’s writing. Instead of their names, students write code names on their papers. They love this. After doing this activity for several years, here are the parameters I’ve come up with for the names:

  1. They must be appropriate to read over the loudspeaker with your name attached to it.
  2. They must be appropriate to share with your parents.
  3. They must not be another student’s’ name or something similar to it.
  4. They must not be an obviously identifying feature of you or another student.
  5. They must not be so long that Mr. Dawson’s hand hurts when he writes it on the board.

This list began with the first one but kids are creative. Back to the instructions…

Sitting in groups, they read four or five papers in a time period set by the teacher. I usually do 1-2 minutes per paper. Students won’t read the whole thing. This is OK.

Then, students vote for the paper that they feel is strongest. Sometimes, I ask students to focus on a specific part of the writing and sometimes it is just the vague task of choose the best one. Both situations have worked well.

The learning happens now. Students discuss with their partners to argue for why one paper is stronger than others. I walk around, listen to the discussion, and interrupt to emphasize when students are offering clear explanations about why one paper is stronger than others.

After each group has chosen a paper, I tally up the votes. Students collect their bunch of papers and pass them clockwise to another group. This continues until students have read all papers except the ones that their group wrote.

At the end, we have a handful of papers that have been voted as the best by the class. I’ve rarely disagreed with students selections, but I’ve often been surprised at the student who raises their hand when we ask something like “Whose code name is chocolatebunniez? Would you like to claim your victory?” It’s not always the students who I expect. This shows an ancillary benefit to the activity: It shakes up my biases.

At this point, you might be thinking that there hasn’t been any feedback yet. And you’re right. All along, though, students are often commenting on how certain writers do things that they have or have not done in their paper. At the end of the lesson, we read aloud excerpts from the winning papers. Then, if time allows, the next day I distribute copies of the winning papers to students and ask them to reflect on this question:

What did the writer do well in his/her paper that you might be able to emulate?

Students take back their papers to revise again. They are almost always better.

read-around-groups

This idea comes from Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher. That book is filled with great ideas. I don’t hear it mentioned as often as Mr. Gallagher’s other book. I recommend it.

Anyway, there are a few points that must be emphasized to students when using Read Around Groups:

  • Students may get distracted by trying to guess each other’s codenames. I explicitly model this by acting it out. I walk over to an empty chair or desk, grab a paper, hold it with two hands and shake it in the air, while saying “THIS IS JOEY’S! JOEY THIS IS YOURS I KNOW IT!” Students laugh, and most of them get the message.  The purpose is to read the papers anonymously.
  • Students may trend towards talking very critically about the papers in their group. It is important to remind students to argue why certain papers are especially strong, instead of just criticizing all of the papers. This is a small shift that seems to help.

So, to recap everything so far:

  • Try daily self-assessments based on the day’s objective
  • Give students the rubric for a writing assignment and have them self-assess
  • Conduct read around groups for peer evaluation
  • Teach lessons on feedback vs. judgement vs. advice with carefully monitored activities on peer feedback (yes, it can work)

These are four processes that have caused an observable increase in autonomy for student writers. Yet, none of them require hours of writing comments that are never used.  

The last step is about maximizing teacher-student feedback.

Step 4: Find your *imperfect* system for teacher feedback

We need a system for grading papers. We can’t rely on sheer force. When we sacrifice our nights and weekends, we are not doing favors. We’re entering the paper-grading black hole.

The paper-grading black hole meets four criteria:

  1. We look for every writing issue
  2. We set no time constraint
  3. We grade and give feedback simultaneously (nearly worthless)
  4. We leave comments without a template to follow

When we enter the paper-grading black hole, it feels like the hard work of teaching writing.  It’s like a martyrdom of literacy: How much time did you spend on those essays? The whole weekend. Until 11 last night. The last few on the sidelines of my kid’s softball game.

How sustainable is that?

Author Tim Ferriss said, “People tend to abandon the good system they’ll follow in search of the perfect system they’ll quit.”

As you read the following ideas for how to give teacher-student feedback, notice when you are proving Tim’s idea. You may have objections to some or all of these methods, and those objections are probably valid. But here’s the point: the perfect system for feedback is when the teacher addresses every issue on every essay, and students correct it all. And that “perfect system” is one we will eventually quit…if we don’t pass out from exhaustion first.

Each of the following, respectfully, is an “imperfect system” that allows us to provide teacher-student feedback in a focused, effective, and sustainable way. We need all three.

In the comments, tell me which of these systems you will try.

When you want students to revisit prior learning…

Use SE2R by Mark Barnes.

What it is: SE2R stands for summarize, explain, redirect, and resubmit. This is a format teachers can follow when leaving feedback on student work (not just essays). Here’s a breakdown:

Summarize: Summarize exactly what the student has done

Explain: Explain anything that needs clarification or improvement

Redirect: Redirect the student to prior learning, assignments, or resources

Resubmit: Invite the student to resubmit their work after improving

Why it works: This is a great system to follow for the format of feedback comments, and it works well with both of the other systems presented below. It meets the criteria of providing actual feedback because we summarize and explain the student’s work objectively before giving advice and suggestions. Also, it works whether we are writing a comment in Google Docs, leaving a note on an exit ticket, or holding a conference with a student. It is a great foundation on which to build our feedback approach.

When your rubric is a “hot mess”…

Use the single-point rubric by Jennifer Gonzales of Cult of Pedagogy.

What is it: It’s a rubric that eliminates questions like, “How exactly do I describe an advanced proficient use of evidence? How does it differ from just proficient?”  The single-point rubric helps to address that situation by having one center column (the single point) where the criteria for the assignment are described. To the left is a column labeled concerns where the teacher can address areas in need of improvement. To the right is a column labeled advanced where the teacher can describe how the student is excelling.

Why it works: It eliminates a lot of the guesswork and unnecessary decision-making involved in creating rubrics. And, it changes the rubric from a grading instrument to a feedback tool.

When you see the same few issues, over and over…

Use the letter to the class by Todd Finley.  This exercise makes reading student writing and responding to it fun. Don’t call me a liar before you try it.

What it is: The idea behind the letter to the class is that teachers can write one report back to all students, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of a set of papers. Then, students can identify the parts that are relevant and revise.

Why it works; This helps us avoid the essay-grading black hole because it puts the focus on patterns of errors and issues, instead of noticing every little thing.  As we read the first five papers, then the first ten, we begin to notice the parts of our instruction that students have internalized and the parts that they are yet to master. So, not only does this reduce repetitive work, it also encourages reflection on our writing instruction.

Now, it’s time for feedback for you

Take a few minutes to reflect on your feedback and grading process, answering these questions:

  1. What’s working? (the good stuff)
  2. What’s not working? (the bad stuff)
  3. What next? (the changes you’d like to make)

Teaching, like writing, is a process. Each class is a first draft. Learning is your mini-lesson. Reflection is your feedback, and tomorrow the assignment is due again.

Thanks for reading! In the comments, tell me which of these systems you will try.

10 thoughts on “How to give students better feedback without working nights and weekends

  1. I’m intrigued, Gerard. I saw this pop up in my mail while I was giving feedback to 20 students using Screencasting. My goal: to get students to give each other more effective feedback. I need a LOT of time IN class for this to happen. Looking forward to the next few posts!

    • Thanks for your comment, Joy. Your Screencasting feedback is so impressive. That takes the level of personalization and connection up a notch. While it takes a lot of modeling and patience to get students to give each other effective feedback, it has been worth it for me this year. Looking forward to exchanging more ideas.

  2. Great food for thought. I like how you took the vague thing we always hear about (“formative feedback”) and made it practical, concrete, and actionable. I will implement this system next year.

  3. I use the single point rubric and will be trying SE2R among other things. I appreciate the series of 4 articles and look forward to adding a few things to my repertoire. Thank you for posting!

  4. Great read, Gerard. My good news is, I already have a lot of this in place. My bad news is, I’m not using it as productively as you outline here. I’ve been doing an inexact form of SE2R in the comments section of our online grade book for a couple years (last year without grades, this year with), and I modified the single-point rubric this year for nearly all of my assignments. But I’m still overworking myself. What I’ve learned from this is to get back to more student self-assessment. I thought I was, but realize now I’ve slipped away from it. I will use more effective peer-to-peer feedback (love the ideas you have) as we learn and practice, and limit the detailed rubric for the summative assignments.
    My concerns are that I have four different classes and next year will have five. I advise newspaper and yearbook and teach intro to journalism and some other related electives. That’s a lot of objectives to put on the board daily (maybe weekly?). Also, since we’ve been using Google Classroom, my students rarely have paper – or pencils. However, I think the actual notebook would work better than a Google doc for the self-assessment. I’ll have to think on these things.
    Great work here, and I appreciate you sharing it.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, here. And great site, by the way. You make a great point about the objectives across multiple classes–having a weekly objective feels right for a lot of my classes, too. The daily aspect of it is mostly to build the habit. I’m sure it could be repeated on a weekly basis. Feel free to stop by again after you’ve tried some of these out! Thanks again.

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