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.


Teacher workload vs. student learning

As teachers, our jobs are about supporting students in their learning and development. Teachers are constantly in service of their students, their students’ families, and their school community. But we are also human beings who have bodies, families, and relationships.

On Friday I missed my self-imposed weekly blogging deadline because I was up past my eyeballs in English exam papers. As I marked, I was wrestling with a dilemma: increasing my marking  workload with a view to student learning, or protecting my wellbeing by streamlining the marking process.

When you have 120 papers to mark in a short time, the easiest way to do that is to put a mark only on each paper, and publish a markers’ report that synthesises comments and feedback to the group. The long, hard way to do it is to annotate and write a comment on every paper. My dilemma was that, while a marker’s report is useful for students, I believe that annotations and comments on papers will help students to understand why they got the mark they did and how to improve for next time. That annotating and commenting on every paper takes much longer and results in more time and more pressure, while taking time away from other work streams and from my family. The other nagging feeling I had was that many students may not engage with the comments I was taking so long to formulate, making the whole lengthy exercise a waste of time. My experience with handing back exam papers, however, tells me that students can’t often make the connections between their work and a marker’s report; the annotations and comments can help them make sense of where they can improve.

In the end, I couldn’t stop myself from annotating and commenting. I decided to carve out more time (day, evening, and weekend) so that I could provide students with information they could use to help them do better next time. Students will have a number of assessments, plus their end of year exams and their tertiary entrance exams, still to come. As a teacher, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do what I hoped would be helpful for students in preparing them for the learning that comes next.

But it has meant that I’ve spent less time with my kids, less time looking after myself (I tend to find less time to make meals for myself and to exercise while under a heavy marking deadline), my neck has seized up (probably thanks to hours spent cocking my head as I read and write on papers), and have come down with a cold (it’s winter here so perhaps that is coincidence rather than evidence of compromised immunity).

While exams are a summative assessment, when my students receive their exams back, they will be led through a formative process of reflection, action, conferencing with me, and target setting. This process is based on the UK’s Assessment Reform Group’s summary of the characteristics of assessment that promotes learning. According to the ARG, assessment that promotes learning:

  • is embedded in a view of teaching and learning of which it is an essential part;
  • involves sharing learning goals with students;
  • aims to help students to know and to recognise the standards they are aiming for;
  • involves students in self-assessment;
  • provides feedback which leads to students recognising their next steps and how to take them;
  • is underpinned by confidence that every student can improve; and
  • involves both teacher and students reviewing and reflecting on assessment data.

Student engagement with their own work, its feedback, the marker’s report, and subsequent setting of next steps and how to take them, can help summative assessments like exams become learning opportunities. My students will be required to act on the feedback, as recommended by much feedback literature. My annotations and comments on students’ papers will form part of this process of engagement, reflection, and action.

As teachers, we often find it impossible to compromise our desire to help students, even if it means sacrificing our own time and wellbeing to do so. It’s why we need to make good decisions about where to expend our efforts. We also need to carve out time for self-care when we can, and find ways to nourish ourselves during the peaks of our workload. I’m looking forward to an overseas family holiday in the next holidays!

Is formative assessment overvalued?

Call me late to the party, but last night I was surprised to see this tweet from Alfie Kohn stating that formative assessment is overvalued. I agree with his latter comment that data to see if students are improving, or have improved, are worthless until we’ve asked ‘improved at what?’, but I don’t understand the connection between the two parts of the tweet. My hunch is that my understanding of formative assessment in practice is different to Kohn’s. In this post I’ll explain my own take on formative assessment.

(Disclaimer – I understand that a tweet is limited in its 140 character form. I’m using my understanding of the tweet as a jumping off point for this post.)

From the seminal 1998 paper of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, ‘Inside the black box’, to subsequent work by these authors, and others, formative assessment as an evidence-based, rigorous feedback process is well-established.

Feedback can be defined as information provided by an agent regarding aspects of performance or understanding (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Wiliam (2016) notes that anyone (teacher, learner, peer, parent) can be an agent of feedback, and that the most powerful agent of feedback is likely to be the student who takes responsibility for their own learning.

The purpose of feedback, according to Hattie and Timperley (2007) is to reduce the discrepancy between current and desired understanding. Information is used by students or teachers for improvement in an interactive dialogue between teacher and learners so that learners can become more expert and more responsible in guiding and furthering their own learning (Black & Wiliam, 2010). The interactivity, and the activity, are important. Teachers use feedback to make adjustments to planning and instruction. Students become active, empowered agents of their own learning as they self-assess, receive feedback, and act on it. Formative assessment is based in a belief that every learner can improve.

Feedback can have a significant positive influence on student learning and achievement (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009; Wiliam, 2011a, 2011b, 2016), but it is linked to emotions, relationships and environment; it can be accepted, modified, or rejected; and it can have positive or negative effects on performance (see Kluger & DeNisi, 1996).

Formative assessment involves feedback that is continuous; specific to goal, standards and task; descriptive rather than numerical or via grades; occuring within a learning context; and acted on by the learner (such as through self-assessment, re-doing the task, or outlining next steps).

It is information and interpretations from assessments, not numbers or grades, that matter (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Numerical marks and grades operate as judgements, not aids to learning, and so students ignore comments where a mark is provided (Black, 2014; Black et al., 2004). Alfie Kohn argues against grades in this 2011 paper. Ruth Butler (1987, 1988) found that grades had no effect on achievement. Written comments based on the task, on the other hand, resulted in high levels of task involvement. Comments should identify what has been done well and what still needs improvement, and give guidance on how to make that improvement (Black et al., 2004; Wiliam, 2011b).

Feedback should not involve judgement of the person, positively or negatively. Butler’s research (1987, 1988) found that written praise had no effect on achievement, and Costa and Garmston (2003) note that learning cannot occur if a person feels threatened. While receiving feedback can be emotional, it should be designed to evoke cognition over emotion.

At a grass-roots level, teachers such as Starr Sackstein (2015, 2017) and Mark Barnes (2013, 2015) have been advocating for teachers to ‘throw out grades’, focusing instead on feedback practices such as conferencing, peer assessment, and self-assessment.

This previous blog post outlines some of my own practices around summative assessments, as well as a term I spent teaching Year 10 English without any marks or grades. I have recently developed my summative assessment feedback practices to ensure that students engage with their work more deeply before it is assessed, and then again once I have written comments, but before receiving their mark. In my classroom, formative assessment practices are a constant. They include myself and my students constantly engaging with their work, curriculum standards, syllabus points, rubrics, clear criteria for success, and setting of specific targets. These practices are entwined within a relational classroom environment of trust and challenge. Anecdotally, some of the best a-ha moments for my students come when they assess their own work against clear criteria, and come to their own realisations about how to improve. Over time, self-assessment becomes part of expected and lived practice for students in my classroom. This is not to say that I am a formative assessment expert; building formative opportunities takes ongoing teacher reflection, deliberate planning, and careful constant reading of the students.

Perhaps I have been embedding formative feedback practices into my teaching for so long that it seems obvious, but my thought on first seeing Kohn’s tweet was: of course we cannot look at data that might indicate improvement of learning without asking ‘improvement at what?’ Specific goals, standards, and comments on how and on what to improve, are part and parcel of the suite of practices of formative assessment.

Is formative assessment overvalued? I don’t think so. It is a fundamental way to improve learning, and also to build the capacity of the learner themselves.


Barnes, M. (2013) Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centred classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Barnes, M. (2015). Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Black, P. J. (2014). Assessment and the aims of the curriculum: An explorer’s journey. Prospects, 44, 487-501.

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 8-21.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139-48.

Black, P. J., & Wiliam, D. (2010). A pleasant surprise. Phi Delta Kappan, 92(1), 47.

Butler, R. (1987). Task-involving and ego-involving properties of evaluation: Effects of different feedback conditions on motivational perceptions, interest, and performance. Journal of educational psychology79(4), 474-482.

Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: The effects of task‐involving and ego‐involving evaluation on interest and performance. British journal of educational psychology, 58(1), 1-14.

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (2003). Cognitive coaching in retrospect: Why it persists.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77(1), 81-112.

Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

Sackstein, S. (2015). Hacking assessment: 10 ways to go gradeless in a traditional grade school. Cleveland, OH: Hack Learning.

Sackstein, S. (2017). Peer Feedback in the classroom: Empowering students to be experts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Stiggins, R., & DuFour, R. (2009). Maximizing the power of formative assessments. Phi Delta Kappan, 90(9), 640-644.

Wiliam, D. (2011a). Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Wiliam, D. (2011b) What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation37(1), 3-14.

Wiliam, D. (2016). Leadership for teacher learning: Creating a culture where all teachers improve so that all students succeed. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

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.