Sampling: improving feedback, cutting workload

Feedback isn’t good feedback unless it is acted on and makes a genuine change to the quality of someone’s work. That isn’t to say that there’s a magic panacea: a piece of feedback that will take a student’s low-grade, formulaic essay to a sparkling example of intellectual pursuit. But over time, feedback that is regular, targeted and acted on will make a tremendous difference.

Many teachers argue that writing in a student’s book is important for morale and relationships – it’s a signal to the student that we are looking and investing the time. For me, the time it takes teachers to give individual written comments in students’ English books outweighs the positive impact. And what do the students do with the written comments? How can you ensure that they are specific enough that the student can ‘action’ them independently? ‘Use more sophisticated terminology’ or ‘be less vague’ is not going to help the student who, if they knew how to do that, would have done it in the first place. It’s like telling a teacher to just get better at teaching. For many of our students, writing is a struggle with so many moving parts; it’s impossible for them to pinpoint their own weaknesses.

So, what makes good feedback?

  1. Frequent*
  2. Specific
  3. Actionable
  4. Acted on

Whole-class feedback

I’m a huge advocate of whole-class feedback for two reasons: I believe it benefits students more than personalised feedback and it benefits teachers because it slashes workload. This is how I have approached whole-class feedback so far. It might be useful; it might be useless. If you have any other ideas on how to do this, I’d love to hear them. 

Sampling

Firstly, I only read a sample of books each week or fortnight. So, for a class of thirty, I might read the last piece of written work from ten students and ensure that I am mixing my sample every time. For me, this cuts workload while increasing the frequency of feedback: I’m seeing the most common mistakes more often and working to solve them quickly and responsively.

do this for two reasons: firstly, so far, it seems that the most common mistakes are being made throughout the class and are unlikely to be isolated examples. Secondly, this gives me far more time to think about the type of beneficial, specific feedback I can give to ensure I’m closing the feedback loop. I also make use of the time in lessons. During silent student practice, I circulate and read students’ work, offering support and guidance where necessary and noting anything interesting under my headings (more below). I would not note down something that only one student is getting wrong – this is something to be addressed individually either during the lesson or afterwards. 

Compilation

I have an exercise book with the following headings on each page: written accuracy, spellings, misconceptions, vocabulary and examples. I keep one book per class because I like to flick back and see how they’ve improved. It also reminds me of what they were struggling with last time we looked at poetry, for instance. I don’t want to lose loose sheets of paper.

Written accuracy

This is where I note down anything to do with grammar – are lots of students writing fragments? Are lots of them misusing commas? Are many of them neglecting those all-important capital letters?

Spellings

Shakespear, anyone? Here, I’ll note down the most common (and most important) spellings that need to be taught and tested to automaticity. 

Content misconceptions

Are they persistently writing that Juliet is a Montague? That Oliver was born in 1812? It might be more general: are they all forgetting to tie in context to their essays? Here is the place to note down common problems. 

Vocabulary

You can read more of my thoughts on vocabulary here. If I see a word being misused in a few students’ work, I’ll know that their grasp on it is shaky and I need to do some more work on how to use it. At the moment, I’m trying to get to the bottom of why all of my year 11s misuse the word ‘diction’, for example.

Examples

A place to collate some excellent examples to share with the class, and some good examples of a mistake in action to present to the class to demonstrate where we’re going wrong. Obviously you can tweak and anonymise these if necessary.

How to feedback

By the end of the week, I’ll have one page with notes underneath my 5 headings. Whatever is written there will inform my teaching the next week and beyond. It is a good way of collecting regular and useful information about the class.

At my school, we build in a recap of important content for the first ten minutes of every lesson. This is a good place to include quizzing that’s informed by your notes. For example, if there are 5 spellings that most of my students are often getting wrong (Shakespear, anyone?) I will make sure I give my students a catchy way to remember them and I’ll test them on those words right at the beginning of lessons until the students are getting them right. If everyone is wrongly writing that Juliet is a Montague, I’ll re-teach who’s who and make sure I’m quizzing them on it verbally and during written recaps.

There might be an issue that’s harder to solve than consistent quizzing during recaps. For example, you might need to spend a chunk of time teaching the idea of appositives in a sentence. E.g. Oliver, the vulnerable orphan, is treated unfairly by everyone he encounters.

Perhaps you taught it once, and 80% of your students are getting it wrong. Their bracketing commas are missing, their appositives have verbs aplenty: they haven’t got it as you hoped they would. Here, I might invest a bit of time planning an activity in which I re-explain what they are, show them examples, show them non-examples, and get them to write some. I might ask them to match the character with the appositive first, then to write them into full sentences, then to create their own.

All this will ultimately benefit everyone – even the 20% who were always getting it right, because over-learning to automaticity is what we’re aiming for. Yes, this takes a bit of time to plan. But I would prefer to spend planning time on an activity that I know will be of benefit than writing endless comments on their work.

 

*Caveat: as David Didau points out, feedback needs to be less scaffolded over time so that students don’t come to rely too heavily on teacher input and learn to struggle through their subject’s challenges independently. He notes that, ‘If teachers give too much feedback too quickly and don’t encourage their students to struggle, it hardly surprising that students would avoid taking the trouble to memorise procedures and processes.’ This is a good point, and one to keep in mind. However, the benefit of whole-class teaching of misconceptions over personalised feedback is that students don’t perhaps feel the sense of being propped up as they otherwise might.

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