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.

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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!