Last week, I had to do a presentation to my department on “descriptive feedback” and most of my colleagues came feeling that they give lots of it. After all, we English teachers are masters of the pen, especially the red one. Our pens–regardless of colour– circle, highlight, underline and scribble notes in margins like: Use stronger verbs, Needs more detail, Lacks focus. These are all valid observations about a piece of writing, but what if students don’t know how to focus or add more detail? What if they don’t know the difference between a strong and a weak verb? We know –we’re the supposed experts. But our students are not. Yes, we taught the lessons. Yes, they have handouts in their binders. Yes, they should know that stuff by now.
What we need to do is give our students feedback that actually feeds forward, information that gives them next steps and/or where to go for help. For example, if I have a student who passed in an essay with a weak introduction, I could write “weak lead” or “weak thesis”. That comment may justify why she got a poor mark for that part of the assignment, but if she doesn’t know how to write a good lead and thesis, it isn’t effective feedback. Instead, I could tell her:
These statements give very focused information that the student can use to improve her skills and also provides guidance on where to go for help.
I know what you’re thinking: who’s got time for that? Feedback like this would take forever, and we’re already overwhelmed when it comes to assessment. So very true. However, there are some strategies that you can use to make feedback easier for you to give and for your students to use.
STRATEGIES THAT HELP YOU FEED FORWARD:
1. Use Checklists
Create some checklists that include the feedback you would normally give to your students for particular assignments. (Think about those phrases you write over and over again in the margins) Make sure the comments are short and in “student” language, not educational lingo. Those long, carefully crafted rubrics are wonderful, but let’s face it: very few students actually read them.
Creating checklists will take time up front, but once you have a bank of comments ready to go, you can quickly tweak checklists for various assignments. You will have to write a lot fewer comments on student writing, and you’ll find the marking process so much faster. If you’d like to use some ready made – and editable ones – click here.
2. Grade Digitally:
It took me a while to get used to grading online, but now that I’m used to it, I’ll never go back. We use Google Drive, and now I can quickly type quality feedback in the comments – the process is faster and I give the students more direction than I could with a pen in my hand. It has also allowed us to use other feedback strategies that you can read about below. (2022 UPDATE: read this post on using the rubrics in Google Classroom)
This youtube video is an excellent tutorial on how you can provide feedback electronically, using Google Docs and Forms:
3. Provide Opportunity for Kids to Use the Feedback
Regardless of the method you use to provide good, descriptive feedback, the whole process is a total waste if the kids don’t read it. Unfortunately most are only interested in the mark at the top. If you want them to use your advice to improve, there are several things you can do to aid that process:
1. Record the mark in your files but don’t put it on top of the assignment. Then, require students to do a short written reflection on your feedback before you show them their grade. You can ask them to pass in a bulleted list of “things I do well” and “things I need to improve”, making it easier for you to quickly assess whether they’ve understood your feedback or not.
2. Let students do more of the work — and the thinking. I wrote about this method before and I like it so much it bears repeating: highlight areas of strength in one colour and areas that need work in another. Give back the assignment and then have students explain (in writing or during a quick conference) why one area is a strength and why another is something to work on.
This works best when it’s a short assignment or you are focusing on one or two skills. For example, I once asked my students to write a response on a Google Doc to something we’d discussed in class. I told them I would only assess their idea development. They had to highlight two places where they felt they had effectively developed an idea, and explain in a comment why they chose each passage. This made it very easy for me to assess the skill we were working on – and put the onus on them to show it to me, rather than me hunting and pecking for it.
I read each response and gave them a grade for how well they developed their ideas, but I also highlighted one place where they could have improved. I did not leave a comment, and after I sent the assignment back to the students, they had to respond with a comment that explained why they thought the section was highlighted. It worked beautifully! It was very quick for me to do, and almost all of them responded with the perfect fix for their issue.
3. Have students evaluate themselves.
Ultimately, they need to know how to revise and edit their work. If they don’t reflect on their progress, our feedback is just empty words. This week I had assignments coming in from one class and going back to another. The students who were passing in a lit essay on Macbeth passed in a short reflection that you can see below. They were pretty accurate! As you can see I added comments to the reflection — because I don’t have a checklist done for this assignment yet.
After my other class got their essays back, I gave them the sheets below. Their homework that night was to fill in the reflection. That way I know that they actually read my feedback. The sheet has room for future assignments, too, so they can keep an ongoing record throughout the semester.