Feedback: It’s emotional

it’s emotional (Jeanne Moreau in Elevator to the Gallows)

The red pen is symbolic of marking. It’s viscous crimson ink, staining crisp white pages, is bedded in the history of giving feedback on written work. It stands out from blue or black writing, allowing corrections to be seen. That’s probably why the default colour for Microsoft Word tracked changes is red. It’s bold, noticeable, stark.

The red pen has also been at the centre of controversy. In 2008, 2013, and as recently as 2016, there were international articles arguing that marks made by red pens on student work were threatening and confrontational for students, and that teachers should stop marking with them. In 2010 Rutchick, Slepian, and Ferris found that teachers using red pens to correct essays marked more errors and awarded lower grades than teachers using blue pens. A 2013 study by Dukes and Albanesi was central to renewed furore, arguing that marking with red pens can upset students and lead to weakened teacher-student relationships. Some educators retorted that the whole idea was silly and continued to wield their red pens. Some schools responded with ‘rainbow marking’ policies in which teachers armed themselves with red-free sets of highlighters and pens. Yellow! Pink! Purple! Green! Blue!

This week a student asked me to look over a practice exam response he had done in his own time. I was sitting next to him and asked if he had a pen I could use to give him feedback on it. His immediate response: “Do you want a red one?”

Pat Thomson yesterday published this post about the ‘bleeding thesis’, explaining that doctoral students can feel like the pages are bleeding when they receive red scrawling annotations and red tracked changes on their drafts. I have heard high school students complain similarly about the ‘bleeding pages’ of their marked work. “Oh, my essay looks like it’s bleeding!”

When I was editing my PhD thesis I had a swag of Artline finline pens. My personal favourites were green, purple, and dark pink. When I was in a self-flaggelatory mood, I would use red. It felt like punishment, a dark culling of my words, permission to be ruthless with my writing.

Yesterday a colleague emailed me a draft paper and asked me to ‘scribble on it’, so I annotated it with my reactions, thoughts, and suggestions. Part of their email response to my annotations was “I feel like I am getting your feedback on a Lit essay I’ve handed in, and admit to feeling a certain amount of pride at the ticks and double ticks!” Yes, I ticked those parts of the paper that resonated with me or I felt were important (a hard English teacher habit to break). I know my students scour their marked work, counting the ticks. They often call out “I got a double tick!” And now that I think about it, I annotated my colleague’s draft in green pen.

Of course, it’s not really the pen that is important. It’s the quality of the feedback that matters. A tick can be meaningless (but nonetheless emotion-inducing) praise, unless there is an understanding of why it’s there. This 1984 study by Semke found that teacher-written corrections do not increase writing accuracy, writing fluency, or general language proficiency, and they may have a negative effect on student attitudes. Dylan Wiliam points out that feedback can help or hinder learning, and that the feedback-giver/feedback-receiver relationship is key to feedback’s effectiveness.

It is neither possible nor desirable to give great quantities of feedback. As an English teacher, I have to constantly navigate the balance between giving meaningful feedback to help students move forward, and balancing my marking workload. Over my career I’ve developed a suite of varied strategies to ensure students are constantly engaging in feedback over their work, without me constantly collecting and correcting workbooks or homework. I’ve found I can give every student some brief, immediate feedback verbally if I check homework in a lesson once students are working. I can set peer and self assessments designed to engage students with the task and the work so that they are empowered to give themselves and each other relevant feedback. I can work with individuals and small tutorial groups to give targeted feedback. I constantly ask myself: Who is doing the mental work? It is the student who needs to be thinking and working to improve; my correcting errors ad nauseum is going to have little impact.

But feedback, written and otherwise, is emotional. Sometimes feedback can feel collaborative and inspiring and propulsive and nurturing (a thank you shout out to my co-authors on various projects, and some generous reviewers!). Sometimes it can feel brutal and visceral and dismissive and unforgiving. Sometimes it’s a warm embrace and sometimes it’s a swift kick in the guts.

The harshest feedback I’ve seen hasn’t been from the ink of a red pen, but from anonymous peer reviewers for academic journals. This Twitter account might give you an idea of the kinds of feedback some academics receive about their work. It cites reviewer comments like, “You have put in a lot of effort answering a question that should have never been asked” and “The biggest problem with this manuscript, which has nearly sucked the will to live out of me, is the terrible writing style.”

We need to be ok with failure, as suggested by this post on self-esteem that a friend shared with me this week, and as I explain in this post, in which I share some harsh verbal feedback from one of my PhD supervisors. As I said in this post, receiving peer reviewed feedback can feel like simultaneously getting a high five and a punch in the face. One thing that doing a PhD, receiving feedback during the journal double-blind peer review process, and being a reviewer myself, have taught me, is that we need to train ourselves (and our students) to be resilient and interested receivers of feedback. By ‘interested’, I mean we need to be curious about what we might learn and open to listening to even that feedback which might hurt at first. If I find that a reviewer or colleague ‘just doesn’t get it’, I need to be able to take that as a sign that I could make my intention clearer.

As marketing consultant Jay Baer would say, when it comes to feedback we need to hug our haters. Or as a colleague of mine says, we learn most when we welcome complaints. It is through seeing our work through the eyes of others, and by being open to criticism, that we can figure out how to push our work forward, improve it incrementally, take it in a new direction, or defend it more vigorously.

No grades? No marks? No worries.

We need to ensure that feedback causes a cognitive rather than an emotional reaction – in other words, feedback should cause thinking. … it should be more work for the recipient than the donor. Indeed, the whole purpose of feedback should be to increase the extent to which students are owners of their own learning. ~ Dylan William

Is there a joyful feedback loop?

Is there a joyful feedback loop?

I remember from my own experience as a school student what feedback can feel like, especially in those subjects at which I did not excel. A harsh or critical word, a page bleeding with red pen, or a mark – that number always so final and inflexible – can be crushing, humiliating or incomprehensible to a child or adolescent.

An approach to feedback

As a high school teacher, I never mark in red. I try to build into units of work multiple formative opportunities which allow students to try things, reflect upon their learning, and try again.

I encourage students to see a mark, not as an endpoint, but as a formative learning opportunity. I explicitly tell students that a mark is one number attached to one moment in time, not a judgement of them and their worth. That even summative assessments are really learning opportunities, to reflect on areas of strength, realisations of learning and areas for development.

I implement a post-test feedback process in order to facilitate this cognitive rather than emotional reaction to the result achieved for a piece of work, in an attempt to ignite, rather than shut down, students’ thinking.

My usual process after a test or assessment is this:

  1. I provide whole-class oral and white-boarded feedback based on the assessment rubric and patterns in student responses.
  2. Students write a quick prediction and reflection based on that oral feedback and their understanding of their preparation for that assessment and how they think they went.
  3. I give the assessment back, on which is written individual feedback in relation to the rubric. Students do not receive a mark or grade (yet).
  4. Each student silently writes a reflection on their work (including areas of strength, areas for development and strategies for future growth) and has a consequent individual conversation with me about their reflection. Sometimes this step also involves identifying a part of the assessment to re-do for their own growth.
  5. Students receive their mark and are then able to re-reflect or make a time to see me to discuss how they went, why, and how they might approach future work.

While many of them initially find this process excruciating (‘Just give me the mark!’), I hope that it helps them to develop skills for using their experiences, successes and disappointments as moments for reflection and growth, rather than emotive reaction and cognitive shutdown.

All this seems to have a lot of what ‘I’ the teacher am doing, but really the focus in on how best to facilitate the thinking of the students, and propel their understanding of assessments as data for growth, as opportunities for micro-transformation.

‘No marks, no grades’ in action

One of my classes is currently finishing up a term unit which has had no marks and no grades. Nada. Zip. Zilch.

That is, for this term, every student in Year 10 was able to choose a unit from a series of choices offered by the Faculty which would be run as a project-based and unmarked unit.

I was sceptical about this approach. While I endeavour to lead students away from their marks and towards their learning, I wondered if they would continue to work if there was no mark at the end. Would they apply themselves when they realised that there were no marks up for grabs, no traditional scoring of their efforts, no numerical way to compare themselves against their peers? What would happen when students realised that the work didn’t ‘count’, in the traditional school sense, towards a mark or grade?

To my surprise and delight, I have reached the last week of what has been a term of focused, engaged, passionate and diligent work by my students. My instincts about the pleasing way the students have worked, and the good (at times inspired, origial, creative or prolific) work they have produced, tell me that some combination of the following factors may have facilitated this.

  1. Students had ownership. They chose the unit, thereby placing themselves in the class, declaring an interest in the content and a desire to be there.
  2. Students and teacher were liberated from marks and grades. In a class with a very diverse range of abilities, I was able to work with students at their level and stage. I could help weaker students to move their work forward without having to disappoint them with a low mark after submission. I was able to extend and encourage more gifted students beyond what might have been considered mainstream curriculum.
  3. There have been other non-mark non-grade measures of success along the way. For each minor task I chose the top student responses and awarded small prizes to those who had produced the best work. I also offered opportunities for the class to off-campus mini-excursions, if work was completed, motivators which helped to keep students on track with milestones along the way.
  4. Student passion and purpose was harnessed through a passion-based project-based approach to tasks. As teacher I was guide, facilitator, collaborator and mentor to their work.
  5. Authenticity of audience. We organised an end-of-term showcase of student work, a kind of walk-through exhibition in which student work was displayed and celebrated. Students took responsibility for selecting and displaying work, and were able to share this work with community. We also kept class blogs which were creative, collaborative, organic explorations of ideas.

It turns out I should have remembered Dan Pink’s assertion that carrots and sticks (a mark or grade can be either), squash motivation and crush creativity. That people are intrinsically motivated by a desire for purposeful self-authorship. This recent un-marked un-graded unit was an example of students working with a sense of personal pride, personal voice and personal purpose.