Explode These Feedback Myths and Get Your Life Back

When asked what recommendations they would give teachers to improve feedback…students claimed to want more, and more useful, responses to their writing. A wide majority — 87% — rated as “important” or “very important” the advice that teachers give more detailed feedback on papers.

— Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing

That’ll do, Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, that’ll do.

I don’t know what you saw in that quote, but all I saw were the words more, more, and more. And while I would love to provide students — Harvard undergraduates included — the feedback they crave, what I don’t love is the towering pile of papers, the endless succession of assignments waiting to be assessed.

In years past, that reality manifested as an actual pile, one that sat on my lap for hours or glowered at me from a nearby shelf. In more recent years, it has taken a virtual form, one that awaits me whenever I open up my Chromebook and start clicking through Classroom.

Too often, the task of providing feedback on papers and other assessments has pushed me to the breaking point as an English teacher. Combined with planning, designing activities and assessments, updating records, and communicating with families, I haven’t had enough hours in the day.

For a stretch of too many years, I was getting 4–5 hours of sleep a night, sometimes passing out with a Chromebook or pile of papers on my lap, waking up before dawn to prepare materials for the coming day. Arriving home, I’d collapse on the couch and sleep through most of the hours my wife and children were awake. Something between their unconditional support and my love of teaching buoyed me through those dark years.

But it’s still a blur, a parade of days beginning and ending in darkness, and vague sense that my life was slipping through my hands.

It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

— Henry David Thoreau

Each year I’m faced with the dilemma: do I assign more writing, confining my life to the 8-1/2 x 11 page or 1366 x 768 screen? Or do I scale things back, then fret about whether kids are getting the feedback they need to succeed?

Complicating matters is the ethos implied in the literature we read. It was lines like Thoreau’s “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” that led me to choose teaching in the first place. Dead Poets Society came out when I was in high school, sealing the deal. And while I found that teaching could indeed provide that ready-made inspirational vista, the grinding load of papers, papers, papers left me feeling submerged in silent desperation.

I didn’t sign up to live a life of quiet desperation. I wanted to stand on desks. Dead Poets Society’s flawed vision notwithstanding, I still believe that teachers — especially literature teachers — have an obligation to model a life worth living.

But what about the kids? Having them stand on desks or march around the courtyard in offbeat ways isn’t enough to fill a whole year. Plus, they have to learn how to write and stuff.

The only reason many of us will stop pushing ourselves to the breaking point is if it turns out that it’s not only bad for us, it’s also bad for students. As it turns out, that actually seems to be the case.

Ironically, the kind of feedback we provide often does more harm than good. And showing them that adult life is a minefield fraught with overwork and burnout does them little good either. To what extent does the example of adults contribute to teens’ soaring rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide?

How can we shatter these myths, providing better feedback while modeling a life worth living? Here are the myths phrased as four “shoulds”:

  1. Feedback should be immediate
  2. Feedback should come from the teacher alone
  3. Feedback should be individualized
  4. Feedback should include a grade

Myth #1: Feedback should be immediate

Every language arts teacher has felt the guilt building, the consensus voices from every study whispering: “Feedback is timely.”

So what you’re telling me is, not only do I still have to bang through that 2-week-old pile of papers, but the feedback I give won’t be as effective as if I had done it overnight? That’s disheartening, especially since I find myself in that situation more often than I’d like. It almost makes you want to assign problem sets or worksheets like they do in other subjects. Makes you yearn for the quiet of Keating’s quasi-monastic cell, so unlike my home with its constant cacophony of voices.

See if you can find all 7

Turns out it’s not that simple. Val Shute (2007), in her survey of research on delayed vs. immediate feedback, found that immediate feedback is good for lower-achieving students learning both lower-order and higher-order tasks, but that delayed feedback is better for high-achievement levels, especially with higher-order, complex tasks. That seems right: I can picture students who benefit from that close one-on-one attention, checking in frequently as they practice small increments of a given skill. Whenever possible that would likely happen on the spot in the classroom, not at home. But many others may actually benefit from a more prolonged feedback loop.

As formative assessment expert Dylan Wiliam commented on a recent article, “Feedback that comes too quickly scaffolds the learning too tightly, so that, again, students do not have to think for themselves.” What’s more important is that the feedback gets used. Perhaps the most timely option is to provide feedback just in time for the next attempt, giving students a chance to process the feedback and put it into practice immediately.

Myth #2: Feedback should come from the teacher alone

Another favorite quote from Dylan Wiliam: “Feedback should be more work for the student than it is for the teacher.” As enticing as that sounds, most teachers, myself included, have fallen far short of this lofty goal. But why is this the case? Why should feedback be more work for the student than it is for the teacher?

Because the one who does the work is the one who does the learning.

I can attest to the fact that, after years of providing feedback for hundreds of students, I am truly an expert in these writing standards. The question is did my students gain that same expertise? I certainly saw plenty of examples of students who, from September to June, continued committing the same writing errors. How is this possible after all the detailed, frequent feedback I gave? How is this possible, Harvard Study of Undergraduate Writing, how?

Learning results from what the student does and thinks, and only from what the student does and thinks.

— Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize in Economics, 1978

The answer is that I never gave students the same opportunity I gave myself — over and over again. The best way to understand a standard is by continually using it to assess writing. According to John Hattie (2012), student self-assessment and self-grading tops the list of educational interventions with the highest effect size (Hattie’s list is summarized here by the late Grant Wiggins). Which means we should be doing it. Here’s a method that involves both self and peer assessment from the Teaching Channel.

Teaching self-assessment is a whole topic unto itself. Suffice it to say that you will need to build students’ capacity to self assess, empowering them to become what Hattie calls “self-regulated learners.” The reason students never develop these traits is that our total monopoly on assessment, feedback, and grading has trained them to adopt an attitude of total passivity in the learning process.

As Rick Stiggins puts it:

If you want to appear accountable, test your students.
If you want to improve schools, teach teachers to assess their students.
If you want to maximize learning, teach students to assess themselves.

Myth #3: Feedback should be individualized

Feedback shouldn’t always be individualized because, again, it misses an opportunity for students to consider how general performance criteria are either present or not present in their own work and the work of others.

One of my favorite methods for providing this type of feedback is Dr. Todd Finley’s “Letter to Class” method. I’ve simplified Dr. Finley’s method somewhat to suit my own style and purposes. Essentially, I begin by looking over student work, jotting down strengths in one column and weaknesses in another. Additionally, I either take pictures or copy and paste sections that exhibit those strengths and weakness. Once I have a critical mass of strengths and weaknesses, I stop reading student submissions and start work on my letter, listing each strength and weakness followed by examples illustrating it. Here’s an example I gave on engaged note-taking strategies.

Upon receiving their unmarked assignments back, students examine their work for the any of the strengths and weaknesses I pointed out in the letter. Occasionally they see their own work used as an example. In any case, they evaluate their work, identifying a strength, a weakness, and setting a purpose — either to revise and resubmit or to improve on a subsequent attempt. All in all, I usually end up reading around a third of assessments and spending no time making comments.

Myth#4: Feedback needs to include a grade

Even as a teacher who has long embraced standards-based grading and learning, I still spent far too much time grading and maintaining both a paper-and-pencil and online gradebook. Having deprived myself of the usual carrots and sticks (late penalties, zeroes, one-shot assessments), the gradebook was my last way of spurring students on extrinsically. Updating my standards-based gradebook, often with multiple scores for each assessment, was especially burdensome.

I had long known of Ruth Butler’s work (cited in Wiliam, 2015) on the 3 types of feedback: grades alone, grades and comments, and comments alone. Butler found that pairing grades with comments actually short-circuited the feedback cycle, making it less likely that students would read, process, or benefit from the comments teachers provide. Considering the amount of time we teachers spend on feedback, this finding is particularly disturbing.

This year, inspired by the example of courageous teachers like Joy Kirr and Starr Sackstein, I decided to use feedback and revisions only, without entering a letter grade until the end of each term. At the end of each term, students point to evidence supporting the grade they believe they deserve. Students have the option of doing this through a hyperlinked letter, video screencast, or face-to-face conference.

This also means no updates to the gradebook. Students submit their writing, receive video feedback, then revise and resubmit. The focus is on growth, not grades. And as mentioned before, students are more than capable of managing their own growth and learning. Using a portfolio application like Seesaw, students keep track of their ongoing growth, organizing work by standard. And I am free to do what I do best, building relationships with my students and providing ongoing, personalized feedback.

Conclusion

Implied in many such myths is the idea that feedback should be objective, able to be quantified, scored, or rated by an outside observer. But in spite of our online gradebooks — which arrogantly assert achievement can be calculated to the hundredth place (implying 10,001 levels of performance!)— assessment and grading remain a fundamentally subjective endeavor. Perhaps this is because, as the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre insisted, human beings can never be “made into an object.” Grades, as well as ancillary tools like rubrics and scoring guides, attempt to objectify students and their work into something that can be measured, evaluated, quantified with precision.

All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object — that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone.

— Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism

Feedback attempts no such thing. Inasmuch as there may be relevant standards to be addressed, we address them together, dialogically. Students — and student writers in particular — must always be allowed to retain their subjectivity, their ownership of their own work and learning. According to Simone de Beauvoir, education should be an “apprenticeship in freedom” not an arrogation of student responsibility and authorship.

As we let go of our agendas and cede our primacy of place to students, perhaps teaching becomes, in the words Paulo Freire, “an act of love.”

Ultimately, when you know your students and your students trust you, you can ignore all the ‘rules’ of feedback. Without that relationship, all the research in the world won’t matter. 

 Dylan Wiliam

Arthur Chiaravalli has taught high school English Language Arts, mathematics, technology, and TV productions. Find more of his writing on Medium.

5 thoughts on “Explode These Feedback Myths and Get Your Life Back

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