Providing effective assessment and feedback can be simultaneously the most rewarding and the most time-consuming part of the job. Amongst the many benefits of feedback, we find improved student outcomes, greater understanding, even stronger relationships with students. But providing feedback can also become a burden on teachers already pressed for time with classroom, administrative, and other responsibilities. This post explores one way of managing assessment and feedback which frees up the teacher’s time and has the bonus of being much more effective than a few corrections made in red pen.
The pitfalls of ‘correction’
Picture this: A middle school writing class, let’s say 27 students in Year 10. The class has been studying a text (any, as long as it’s not To Kill a Mockingbird, thanks) and is ready to produce a written response. The teacher, following time-worn patterns of the English classroom, sets the writing task during a lesson, to be completed at home. At the start of the next lesson, the essays (and the attendant excuses) are collected, and the students prepare to move on with their lives. The teacher leaves the classroom with a pile of exercises books, a sheaf of scruffy loose leaf, a stuffed shared drive, or the glaring and accusatory ‘0% marked’ upload section of an LMS.
Cut to the next scene. The teacher, stooped over a laptop or poised with red pen in hand, begins to correct the pile. Inline comments fly. Words are crossed out, suggestions scratched into cheap paper margins. A helpful, and sometimes extensive, comment is left at the end. A numerical or alpha grade is scrawled across the bottom of the essay or entered into the assessment and reporting system of choice. An hour or two later – this is an experienced teacher we’re talking about here – the teacher sits back, cracks a few cricks out of their neck, and shuffles the pile ready to hand back to students who’ve already moved on to the next topic, and who, whilst eager to compare final grades, will likely gloss over the actual feedback. That’s if they can read the teacher’s handwriting, which by the 27th essay resembles the trail left by a spider dipped in ink.
I probably don’t need to point out the issues here, and I’m almost certainly being a bit glib, but despite the obvious flaws in the set-collect-correct feedback process, it’s a mainstay of teachers, English and otherwise.
I’m going to make a few points as clearly as possible before I move on:
- Most feedback should be in-person
- Final work doesn’t need to be corrected
- Student autonomy should always be the goal
Feedback – even formative feedback, which by its nature should be ongoing and should help develop the student while they are working on a task – is often seen as something which is done outside of class, because after all, class time is for teaching. I’d like to challenge that by stating that class time is for learning, and that feedback, as an essential part of the learning process, should happen during class time.
In order to provide time to give feedback in class, the teacher must first commit to restructuring the lessons. I use the model from Cris Tovani, outlined in her book So, What Do they Really Know?. It’s also explained in brief here.
The workshop/conferencing model of lesson is perfectly suited for providing live feedback. After students have submitted a piece of work – whether it’s a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole essay – I’ll commit to the next one to four lessons using this structure. Here’s an example from Year 12 English:
- Opening/Mini lesson: Overview of ‘tutorials’ available for comparison texts. These tutes were created in the 2020 lockdowns and include an essay and discussion from each of the Y12 teachers on an idea from the text. These resources could also be sourced from study guides, YouTube, or anywhere else suitable. As long as it is work that students can complete under their own steam, it’s fine.
- Work time: Students, individually or in groups, watch the tutorial videos, take their own notes, annotate the sample essays, read the books.
- Conferencing: During the work time, I’ll sit at the front of the room or move from student to student, depending on how long I’ll need to speak to them for. If it’s feedback on a couple of sentences – like a contention, or an outline – I’ll go from desk to desk. If it’s feedback on a full practice essay, I’ll call them up one at a time. I provide my feedback verbally. This is generally the first time I’m reading their work – remember, this is about effectively using my time as well as providing good feedback, so I’m not spending hours out of class hunched over writing feedback and then just reading it to them. It’s live, which has the added benefit that my feedback must be concise, and to focus on only one or two key areas for improvement. The students make their own notes on what I’m saying. I never touch the red pen.
- Catch and release: Occasionally I’ll pop my head up to see how the class is going, ask if there are any questions about the task at hand, and so on.
- Debrief: A quick, 5 minute discussion at the end of the lesson to check in on the main points of the tutes.
Like I said, for a longer piece of work I’ll commit to up to four lessons in this structure. I have twenty-something students in the class, so if I sit with each for ten minutes, there’s my 4 x 50-minute periods. That’s OK. I’m comfortable giving up four periods of everyone’s time to go through this process, and after a few rounds, so are the students.
This conferencing process happens several times per unit. As often as possible really, as I believe the more time spent working one-on-one with students the better, and this is the best way to do that in the time constraints. When the final piece of work is submitted it goes straight to comment/grade feedback, with no corrective annotation. This summative feedback does not serve the purpose of improving the next piece of work, which is generally on a totally different topic. I’m not going to kill myself providing feedback that won’t get used.
The goal throughout this process is on constantly developing student autonomy. It achieves this in a few ways. Firstly, the students know not to rely on me as a crutch during the conferencing lessons. If you don’t know an answer, Google it. If you’re stuck, ask a friend. If you don’t have the intrinsic motivation to get on with the task, that’s on you – don’t distract the people around you, and we’ll try to find something you can focus on next time. Next, getting the students to write down the feedback, and to reflect on it themselves and develop their own goals for next time, is much more effective that corrective written feedback. Finally, I’ve noticed that students are much more open to asking for specific help and advice after a few rounds of this process – it helps build trust, and trust is a prerequisite for asking for, receiving, and responding to feedback.
Next time you’re tempted to reach for the red pen or feeling exhausted at the mere thought of the pile of marking sitting on your desk, consider whether you can give up a few lessons of chalk-and-talk to try out the conferencing model of feedback. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes, for you and the students.
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