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Teaching Strategies: The Essentials of Giving Feedback

Jordan Catapano

As an English teacher, I spend hours each day grading student work. I realized a while back that there’s actually two teaching strategies I could use to grade: The quick way or the long way. The quick way is to read through the students’ writing and assign a grade to it immediately. The long way is to read through the students’ writing, pour over the details of their ideas and their articulation, provide targeted feedback in writing, and then assign a grade carefully based on a rubric or other set of prescribed criteria.

I choose the long way.

I have calculated that grading the quick way would take me less than a quarter of the time that I spend on the longer method. But I firmly believe that part of my job as an educator is to make sure I have a solid pulse on the production and quality of my students’ work, and that I offer feedback to them so they can continually improve.

But here’s the problem: Is it worth the time? If we devote so much time to giving feedback to students in any subject, does it actually deliver any kind of value to their learning? We have to use distinct teaching strategies to make sure that we’re aware of the types of feedback that we’re giving and that we are training our students to make the most of our advice.

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Teaching Strategies: Summative vs. Formative Feedback

If we arbitrarily approach grading an assignment, we might be providing the wrong kind of feedback that fails to benefit students in the way we imagine.  Think about the two general forms of feedback we might give: Summative and formative.

Summative feedback is the kind of feedback given to a piece of work that is considered an “end.” This might normally come at the end of a unit, end of a semester, or end of the year. Summative feedback generally justifies a grade or compares performance to standards. If a student receives a “B,” for example, then the feedback is designed to provide information related to the forming of that grade. Areas students performed well in are pointed out. Areas of weakness are commented on. However, the feedback is mostly informative by nature, and not designed to provide students with “Next time you should … ” kinds of formative suggestions. It is more of a report than a tool.

Formative feedback’s objective is to point out areas of weakness or strength, and to encourage a focus on future improvement. The feedback shows students important areas to learn from and treats the feedback as a tool that should be utilized on students’ next opportunity.

The danger arises when we provide summative feedback on formative work. The question to ask ourselves when providing feedback is, “What do I expect students to do with this information I give them?” If the answer is “To see why they got that grade,” then you want to give summative feedback. If the answer is “So they can improve for next time,” then formative feedback is required.

Several Forms of Feedback

Much of the feedback I give students comes in the form of comments in the margins of their writing. But there are many ways we can give feedback to students. Here are a few pros and cons to the most common ways we consider giving feedback.

Margin Comments. We often squeeze feedback into the margins of student work. This can be perfect for targeting specific portions of their work. It can also limit what we say if there’s very little room for anything to be written down. Also, students might not necessarily keep physical copies of work for as long as might benefit them – and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

Grades and Grade Books. Grades themselves are a form of feedback; they’re a direct statement on how well students achieved a degree of mastery in relation to a standard. But how clear are the messages grades give? A letter, by itself, doesn’t say much unless students have been clearly trained to identify what they mean. Also, grades might be the only thing parents see or students keep. If you have an electronic grade book, consider what features might be useful for communicating more about the assignment and outcomes.

Conferences. Instead of relying on written comments, sometimes thorough, personalized feedback can best be provided in a conference setting. Here, you and another student sit together, review their work, and have a conversation about the outcome. This stands the chance at being much more thorough than other feedback forms, but how much students actually remember may vary. Plus, this takes lots of time to give to an entire class.

Rubrics/Standards. Rubrics are the classic grading tool for showing students the range of standards and where exactly their work falls on the scale. Rubrics can be excellent for making sure students are graded on an identical standard and for communicating those standards, but they can lack personalized, specific information that can help individual students.

Public Examples. Sometimes it’s worth it to hold up a piece of student work and tell the class it’s awesome. But teachers can also create generic examples – not ones that any student wrote – and comment on them. Then students can compare the public example to their own work and ascertain for themselves how well they believe they did.

While we’re talking about feedback, consider what tools might be available for providing digital feedback. It’s a shame if we spend hours producing feedback only to have it lost by students. But if you have a digital forum for communicating back to students, then that feedback could be permanently stored and accessed for future reference.

Training Students to Use Feedback

But here’s the really important part. So far we’ve only talked about what the teacher does. That’s secondary. What’s more important is how students respond to the feedback they receive.

To make sure students respond in the best way possible, there are two critical elements that we must train our students on: Reflection and goal-setting. And we must give them time in class to do them.

Student Reflection. First, students must be given time in class to review the feedback they receive. Encourage students to review their own work in addition to looking at the feedback provided. Encourage students to look at the grade, the rubric, and the standards all together so they get a clear sense themselves of how the performed. It may be helpful to have students respond to the feedback by writing down self-perceived areas of strength or weakness, or even composing a short paragraph where they self-assess their overall performance. Perhaps even provide students an opportunity to look at other previous assignments as well so they get a more comprehensive view of their progress.

Student Goal-setting. On formative work, it is essential that students take the feedback they receive and leverage it for their improvement. In addition to just reflection, have the students each set a small, reasonable goal for their next opportunity. This will allow students to respond to their feedback by identifying one particular area they would like to incrementally improve on for next time. After a year’s worth of doing this, they will doubtlessly understand their work and progress better. And once they receive feedback on their next assignment, part of their reflection could be on how well they performed on their goal area, too.

How to Make Grading and Feedback Faster (and Better)

Effective feedback does not mean that we comment on every single aspect of their work. Trying to provide too much feedback takes too much time for teachers and overwhelms students. Instead, here are a few simple tricks to make feedback more effective:

  • Always find at least one positive thing to say about a student’s work.
  • Focus on just one to three key areas of performance to help you and students stay focused on the most significant aspects.
  • Longer and fewer pieces of feedback are better than shorter and more.
  • Don’t just point out weaknesses, but give “Do this instead … ” kinds of formative advice.
  • Return feedback as quickly as possible – timeliness better ensures students remember doing their work and the feedback makes more sense.
  • Always offer an opportunity to speak directly with students if they have any further questions about their work. Or invite them to speak with you with a friendly little “See Me.”

Help Them to Accept Feedback in the Long Term

Learning how to effectively use feedback to better oneself is a critical, lifelong skill. When we take the time to provide appropriate feedback and train students to regularly meditate on it, then students learn how to improve themselves in much more than just your class.

As you move forward with your year, make sure to regularly consider what kind of feedback is necessary, what forms your feedback might come in, and how you might allot class time to train students how to use it. After all, if students are spending hours on homework and you’re spending hours grading it, somebody better learn something, right?

What do you do to make sure feedback is maximized in your classroom? Tell us your tricks in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.

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