Have you ever accidentally landed in a group for professional development that you were certain you didn’t sign up for, only to discover a vast body of research and knowledge that could improve student performance and maybe even save you time? Here I was, a reluctant learner in the assessment PD group, a technology wannabe, reading an article about assessment that would disturb and challenge me to revise my feedback to my students to make them better writers.
Like other writing teachers, I have given feedback often to my sixth and seventh grade writers. My feedback encouraged them, asked them thoughtful questions about their writing, and helped them interpret the scoring guide. Toward the end of the quarter, students turned in their papers that I graded according to the scoring guide. The grade included mostly positive comments and advice on how they could improve their piece. Students then revised again with the feedback before we moved on to the next writing piece. Although always ready to find ways to help my students, I was basically pretty satisfied with my system until I read Grant Wiggins’ "7 Keys to Effective Feedback." Now I am hooked on exploring ways I can make my feedback more effective for my writing students through the wording of my written and verbal comments.
Wiggins defines feedback as “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.” Effective feedback, according to Wiggins, is not advice, judgment, or praise. After mulling over his disclaimers about feedback, I had to ask myself this question: Did my students understand the learning goal of their writing project--what I was hoping they would learn from their writing? Yes, they had a scoring guide, but did they really understand why they needed to stay focused on the topic, add supporting details, etc.? Could a few written or spoken comments tied to the learning goal be helpful to their understanding of the writing process in addition to the scoring guide?
I decided to make some changes in my feedback. This year every writing project grade includes a comment from me about the writing that is tied to the learning goal. I am writing more on their papers than I have before, but I’m also thinking more about each piece of writing that I grade as I try to give one piece of feedback connected to the learning goal. Here are some examples of teacher feedback I used before and after reading the article:
Before : Work on sentence structure.
After: Reading the piece aloud will help you improve meaning in your sentences.
Learning goal: Improved sentence structure
Before: Stay on the topic.
After: Adding details about your topic will deepen meaning for your reader.
Learning goal: Paragraph unity, organization
Before: Add a conclusion.
After: Summing up your ideas on your topic will satisfy your reader.
Learning goal: Summarizing
Was revising my feedback difficult and time-consuming for me? Yes. I had to think about the learning goals of the writing and of the writer while the comments seemed to get wordier and wordier. Was I consistent in my feedback from student to student? I found myself wanting to revert back to “Good start” and “Keep writing!” comments because they were easy and fit everyone’s writing. I noticed sometimes my feedback wasn’t really about learning goals or may have sounded like advice but if my feedback was tied to the learning goal, I considered it an improvement over my one-size-fits-many comments accompanied by a specific letter grade.
I was curious to see how my students would respond to my revised feedback when I returned their first quarter writing projects. As usual, they were excited to get their grades and to read my comments. Walking around the room, I interpreted my handwriting for some, asked others if they understood my comments, and answered some questions about the grade. But actually, there was a quietude in the air--the quietude of thinking and tapping computer keys--the quietude of learning. Later I would ask my students what helped them revise their writing. Fourteen of twenty-eight students anonymously told me in a survey that the written comments were very helpful for them.
Do I still need to work on my feedback? Oh my, yes! Giving feedback tied to the learning goals helps my students and forces me to clarify learning goals to myself so I can express them to my students. I am continuously searching for the best words in my feedback.
Have I noticed reduced time spent on paper-grading? Yes and no. Papers are papers and they still take time to grade. Yet when I focus on the learning goals in the paper, I’m more purposeful as a grader. In the writing lab my students are more on task because they can get started on their own faster. I have time to conference with individuals more easily and hopefully give more effective feedback in those conferences.
Here are more ideas for reflection for me from the article: “less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning.” “. . . helpful feedback is goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable, user-friendly (specific and personalized); timely; ongoing; and consistent.” The timely part is a rough one for all of us in the writing department.
Some goals I have to increase effective feedback to my writers:
- Simplify my language and connect the feedback to the individual learning goal for that particular student
- Develop feedback for the good writer who has achieved the learning goal but needs to work on the next step in his or her writing
- Increase positive comments connected to the learning goal as well as feedback for improvement in the writing
- Increase verbal feedback tied to the learning goal.
I graded the second quarter’s writing projects with feedback connected to the learning goal much faster than I did the first quarter’s papers. Is it my imagination or is there less complaining this year about the grade and more acceptance of the feedback because students are not so defensive if I am referring to learning goals?
Wiggins was very interested in feedback from readers of his article. Needless to say, I too am interested in any feedback from the ideas presented in this blog. What language have you found gives effective feedback for your students?
Download the article about 7 Keys to Effective Feedback referenced above here