Feedback to maximise student progress and minimise teacher workload

Source: pixabay @Darkmoon_Art

Giving meaningful feedback to students is a key lever for improving student progress, and also a primary draw on teacher time. On the latest episode of my podcast, The Edu Salon, I discuss feedback with Professor Dylan Wiliam, including what feedback is most likely to be effective for student learning, and how feedback practices can address issues of teacher workload. Dylan reminds us that feedback is not to improve the work, but to improve the learner. It should not be a post-mortem dissection of past work, but rather provide understandable information about, and incite action towards, how to improve next time. For feedback to be effective, the student needs to engage with it, reflect on it, seek to understand it, and act on it.

Teachers employ a range of feedback strategies such as: marking and annotating student work; whole-class feedback through markers’ reports unpacking trends and patterns; marking keys showing what correct or good answers include; rubrics that describe what students can do and the next level of achievement; exemplars of student work to illustrate what good responses looks like; and videos of student practical or performed work for students to reflect upon. Teachers work towards provision and processes of feedback that allow students to do the thinking around feedback, rather than merely emotively reacting to a mark. This might be by protecting time for students to process and act on feedback, withholding marks until the student has acted on feedback, or providing opportunities for students to re-do tasks.

This week, I returned the marked mid-year examination to my Year 12 Literature class. This is a deliberately slow and intentional process that takes at least one lesson. First, I explain to students that what I am least interested in is the mark they received, and what I am most interested in is what they can learn in order to make improvements between now and their next exam. Then, the students receive the written reflection proforma, exam paper, and markers’ report (outlining the marking key and the whole-cohort feedback). Then, students reflect in writing about what they learned through their experience of revising, preparing for, and sitting the exam. For instance, was the exam paper what they expected? Were they adequately prepared? Were they familiar with the terminology and concepts of the questions? Did their exam strategy and time management work well, or would these benefit from adjustments? Next, students receive their annotated papers and build on their reflection. What were their strengths? On what could they improve? What could they do and what will they do between now and the next exam?

Once students have reflected as much as possible, shown me their reflection, and we have had a one-on-one conversation about their learnings and planned actions, they receive the rubrics that include their marks, as well as indicating where they went well and less well in addressing the criteria. They then complete their written reflection and upload a summary of what they did well, and what action they will take to improve. In the lessons following (and/or between lessons at other scheduled times), I make time to speak to each individual student about their understanding of the feedback, what they have done well, and how to best invest their time to improve. Students often re-write their least successful response, or set a plan for practising responses to questions and revising content.

Giving feedback, as important as it is, should be manageable for the teacher. In Western Australia, the curriculum authority is moving towards a rule of no more than eight assessments across the year (including examinations) for Year 11 and 12 courses. The move to fewer summative assessments is encouraging teachers to assess less, find alternate ways of gauging student understanding, and teach explicit revision strategies to support students being assessed on multiple topics studied over time, rather than topic by topic as they are taught and learned. (Also listen to the podcast episode for discussion of how to leverage students’ cognitive architecture to make the most of long term and working memory.) A bonus is that teachers and students feel less like they are hurtling from assessment to assessment, and more like time is spent learning, revisiting, and reflecting.

Fewer assessments for students to complete means fewer assessments to mark, and potentially more time for students to engage with feedback. Spending time on students working to understand feedback is crucial for student progress and also means that all the hard work teachers put into providing feedback is understood and utilised by the learner. In the podcast episode, Dylan discusses his suggestion that teachers do ‘four quarters marking’: about 25% marking in detail, 25% skim marking to inform teaching, 25% teacher-monitored student self-assessment, and 25% peer assessment. (You can read more about this approach in Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson’s 2019 book What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?) This is likely to be an approach that challenges traditional practices and expectations of students, parents, teachers, and school leaders. It is, however, a provocation that reminds us to consider how our feedback practices engage the student as self-regulated learner committed to continuous improvement. As Dylan says in the podcast episode: “Good feedback works towards its own redundancy.”

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.