Grading Hacks: Giving Effective Teacher Feedback

Welcome, grading warrior!  This is the third post in my Grading Hacks for English Teachers series.  Check out the first two posts HERE and HERE.

Today, I was all set to write a blog post about types of teacher feedback.  I became distracted, though, as I looked through quotations about giving effective feedback. A lot of the quotations I was coming across came not from education world but business world.  So, I began to wonder what educators can take from the business world and apply to their own feedback practices?  And how similar are these two worlds?

First, I want to ask you to fill in the blanks:

“Teacher feedback is…but/and…”

Write it down.  I double-dog-dare you. 

We’ll return to this at the end of this post.

Dislike Teacher Feedback? Managers Do, Too!Effective Teacher Feedback in the ELA Classroom

Harvard business review has a few succinct and helpful articles on how managers can provide feedback to their employees. Managers are encouraged to give ongoing feedback vs. formal and high-stakes performance reviews.  I found it interesting that feedback can be tricky for managers as well as teachers. In fact, “most managers say they dislike giving feedback and don’t think it’s as effective as it could be. Those on the receiving end say they don’t get enough feedback they can actually use.”  Hmm.  Sound familiar?

We’re not alone!

An article by Fast Company attempts to explain the reluctance on the part of managers to give feedback by claiming “the real truth is that giving feedback has always been fraught with emotions such as fear, avoidance, and fight-or-flight stress that is triggered in the brain. In addition, personality tendencies such as the need to be liked or reluctance to trigger others’ emotional responses play a role.”

mmmhmm.  Hold your hand up if you’ve experienced all the emotions when it comes to grading? A Forbes article by a leadership coach and author Kristi Hedges cites the fear of hurt feelings as the top reason for poor managerial feedback. I’ve realized that this can be a huge time-waster and cause me to overthink grades, delay grades, take too much time crafting “just the right response” that I’m not able to provide timely feedback.  Of course, this is because I’m an “analyzer” when it comes to my feedback mindset (see resource links below to determine your mindset).

Teacher Takeaways:  

  1. People are hungry for usable, helpful feedback.
  2. Don’t be afraid to give feedback; it’s actually a good and welcome experience if done in an ongoing, focused, truthful, straightforward way.
  3. Get in the habit of providing regular feedback, both positive and constructive.
  4. Don’t let emotions get in the way of grading.  Maybe you want to try removing student names from the grade so that you can be truly objective.  Maybe you want to try a different type of conversation-based feedback.
  5. Feedback can be quick and actually save time in the long-run. Keep any kind of feedback between 30 seconds (a quick check-in) to 5 minutes (a student-led conference) and it will save you time in the long run.
  6. Spend you time giving feedback in bite-sized chunks during the formative learning process vs. spending your time marking up a final summative assessment. The more you are able to build time for feedback (not just from you!) into your classroom routine, the more you can create a feedback culture and lessen the high-stakes nature of your feedback. Also, you teach students that feedback is an ongoing and valuable process.  

What is your teacher feedback mindset?

Are you an empathizer, analyzer, motivator, or charger?  Check out this blog post by feedback expert Anna Carroll to determine your “feedback zone.”

Effective Teacher Feedback is a Two-Way Street

Another common trend I’ve noticed is that experts suggest managers treat feedback as two-way “conversation.”  A manger’s role is to ask questions, make specific observations that are tied to a specific business goal, and to keep the conversation moving. This way the focus is on problem-solving and growth, emphasizing partnership between the manager and employee rather than a me vs. you, performance-based critical mentality. This turns feedback from a one-way street into a transaction, a dialogical process.

“The two words ‘information’ and ‘communication’ are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things. Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” – Sydney J. Harris

So, let me ask you, is your feedback information or communication?

Tips & Questions for Conversational Teacher Feedback

Build in reflection to your feedback loop.  Ask students questions.  Listen to their responses.

  • How have you demonstrated our target skill(s)?
  • What skills are you improving/have you improved?
  • What are you most proud of about your work?
  • What are your most important takeaways from this assignment/experience?
  • Where do you think I can be most helpful?
  • What questions do you have?

Focus on problem-solving vs. criticizing/judging.

  • How might you approach this task/assignment differently next time?
  • What are your next steps?
  • What was frustrating about this process?  What does this teach you about yourself?
  • With more time for revision, what would you continue to work on and why?
  • How are you going to approach this?  revise this?  improve in this area?

Create a Feedback Culture.

The business world is all about increasing employee performance, and the best feedback is ongoing and consistent as well as goal-based and actionable.  I found myself asking whether I have truly built a feedback culture in my classroom.

  • Do I set clear expectations and learning targets for my students?
  • Do I provide models for student work?
  • Do I build opportunities for frequent formative feedback into my daily/weekly classroom routine?
  • Do I help my students to set and meet learning goals?
  • Do I use different feedback modes (written, verbal, demonstrative)?
  • Do I encourage self and peer assessment or teach students to rely solely on my feedback?
  • Do I use both individual and group feedback?
  • Do I provide feedback students can access and understand?
  • Do I encourage an ongoing dialogue about learning?

Pshew…I can’t say that I can give a clear “yes!” to every question above, and I know that there is opportunity for continued growth.  Interestingly enough, Grant Wiggins, in his article “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, suggests that more feedback (rather than more teaching) = greater learning. 

“…research shows that less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning. And there are numerous ways—through technology, peers, and other teachers—that students can get the feedback they need.”

Effective Teacher Feedback is Accessible & Actionable

Notice that Wiggins, in the quote above, talked about feedback that students “need.”  He could have said deserve, earn, or any other performance-based word, but chose instead to use need. 

  • We could say that this carries connotations of Maslow, making feedback a basic need that must be fulfilled before students can achieve more complex goals such as independence and self-actualization in their learning.
  • We could say that need shows the importance of effective feedback. 
  • We could say that this is a subtle attempt to show the importance of non-evaluative feedback (an idea that Wiggins emphasizes strongly). 
  • We could say this shows a teacher’s responsibility to personalize feedback based on individual student learning.  

All of the above are intriguing, but let’s take the simplest route. I think that this simple word choice draws a distinction between student needs and teacher needs. 

Ask yourself:  Do I give feedback based on my own needs as a teacher: to justify a grade, to save time, etc.?  Or do I give feedback based on student needs?  And what kind of feedback do students truly need, anyway? 

Well, feedback students (and employees, too!) need is accessible (clear and easy-to-understand) and actionable (specific and descriptive). Wiggins makes a great point that when a teacher is engaging in evaluation or critique, s/he is not allowing the student to take action. A closed feedback loop is created, rather than an open feedback loop. 

Let’s break it down: 

  • To make teacher feedback accessible, teachers should make sure to write in a student-friendly way.
  • To make teacher feedback actionable, make sure that it points to a skill-based goal and encourages self-reflection.

Ineffective Examples of Accessible & Actionable Teacher Feedback

  1. Your tone is confusing and jumps around.
  2. Great work! I really like this idea.
  3. This paragraph fails to prove its claim.

Why is this teacher feedback ineffective?  The three statements above are value-based judgments and also very general/not personalized. 

Effective Examples of Accessible & Actionable Teacher Feedback

  1. One of the skills we’ve been working on was using specific and meaningful word choice to create a cohesive tone. So, as you revise, ask yourself if your word choice is unique and appropriate.  Which words have connotations that distract from your tone or confuse your reader? (This is effective because it points to a skill and encourages student ownership through inquiry.)
  2. Your argumentation is becoming more complex with this inclusion of a counter-claim.  Think about how you can show further understanding of this perspective. (This is effective because it’s specific and personalized.)
  3. At first, I thought this paragraph was about how the NSA was trustworthy, but then you begin discussing former President Obama as head of the NSA without providing concrete evidence for how this shows the NSA to be “trustworthy.”  Then, you contradict your thesis which values national security over public safety by describing how “Big Brother” is ruining our lives. (This is effective because it describes from a reader’s perspective, avoiding judgment.)

Teacher Takeaways:

  • Find ways to build time for feedback into your classroom. It seems counter-intuitive to take time that might otherwise be used for activities, lessons, fun and sparkly teacher time…but this is powerful for student learning (and makes feedback manageable!).
  • Get rid of judgmental evaluations of student work and substitute description of what you notice as a reader.
  • Get rid of vague comments and teacher speak.  Talk in a down-to-earth, student-friendly way.
  • Make sure students connect their performance to skill-based goals and have the ability to show growth by “acting” on their feedback.
  • Take time to reflect on how you can create a feedback culture in your classroom.

Effective Teacher Feedback is Simple

One of the ways I’ve learned to reduce time spent grading (and stress, too!) is to change how I respond to student work.  I was pleased to see that this was best practice in the business world, as well.  Some call it clarity and honesty; some call it “Goldilocks-sized” goals, and others call it the “3×3 method.” Educational consultant and author of How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, Susan Brookhart, calls it “next step” feedback.  Simply put, less is more is not just for minimalist artists but for teachers, as well!  I think that for some teachers all of our good intentions and desires to affirm students come out in the form of a little too much ink on student work just like my grandmothers’ love comes out in the form of “Did you get enough to eat dear? Yes?  Have some more.”

Teacher Takeaways:  Watch your feedback serving size.

  • Try the 3×3 (or 2×2 or 1×1) method.  I think the key here is balance.  Identify 1-3 areas of strength, and pair them with 1-3 areas for growth or “potential improvement.”
  • Focus on bite-sized goals for learning:  not too hard, not too easy, just right.
  • Instead of commenting on everything a student needs to “fix,” nudge them in the right direction by getting them to take the “next step” in the revision process.

Effective Teacher Feedback is Timely

I remember one of my first years teaching, hearing a well-known and respected veteran teacher share that her turnaround time for a written assignment was over a month. I found myself agreeing with her sentiment that family came first because employees are replaceable, but mothers are not.  However, I don’t think that this is as black and white as she made it out to be.  I think that, yes, family should come first, hands-down. But I also think that effective teachers can give timely feedback within contractual hours. The two are not mutually exclusive!

Timeliness in employee feedback is just as important as timeliness in student feedback.  

So, what is timeliness? 

  • Students receive feedback in time for them to actually use it.
  • Students receive feedback while engaged in the learning process.
  • Students receive feedback that informs their learning and teacher instruction.

This is where writing-heavy subjects and ELA teachers groan.  Don’t you see my guilt bag of grading in the corner over there? Who are you, super teacher?  That’s great in an ideal world, but best practice needs a dose of reality.  

Well, let’s flip that.  In reality, you shouldn’t be killing yourself to write extensive commentary as a part of the grading process.  That’s not timely enough to be useful and does not align with the other tips for effective feedback outlined above. My students shouldn’t have to wait for me to “grade” their work. A month (or even a week) is not timely enough for effective feedback. Maybe this is one of the reasons why so many papers and rubrics are garbage-can-fodder. What’s more, students should definitely be writing more than I’m able to assess, something that Kelly Gallagher, one of my favorite authors, preaches. Check out his blog post here for further thoughts on how he has changed his focus to get his students writing more frequently.

This is so important. In order to give effective feedback that students need for learning, you must change your mindset.  

Grading papers doesn’t mean that you’ve given effective feedback. What’s more, it should be a quick process for teachers if they have done the feedback work up front.

You’ve gotta separate feedback from the grade, friends.  

If teachers see grading as the ultimate form of feedback, it’s no wonder that they stress out as much as they do and sacrifice precious personal time marking up papers.  

Timeliness is less about a set deadline for grading (i.e. all papers back within a week) and more about making sure that feedback opportunities are consistent and ongoing. I think that if a teacher’s feedback is focused and s/he is creative with the ways in which feedback is given/received, then useful, informative engaging (timely) feedback is possible. 

Really, this Grading Hacks series of mine should be called Feedback Hacks. I’ve come to realize that it’s less about grading and more about feedback. Feedback before grading. This frees up teachers to become communicators and problem-solvers instead of overwhelmed grading minions.

Final Thoughts

To wrap up, take a look back at how you initially completed my sentence starter.  How would you change or add to what you wrote based on this blog post?  What are you thinking about?  What questions do you still have about teacher feedback and/or grading? I’d love to try to address some of these in my upcoming posts, so hit me up in the comments below.

Additional Resources

Brookhart, S. M. (2011). Tailoring Feedback: Effective Feedback Should Be Adjusted Depending on the Needs of the Learner. Education Digest: Essential Readings Condensed For Quick Review76(9), 33-36.

Busser, D. (2012). Delivering Effective Performance Feedback. T+D66 (4), 32.

Long, P. (2014). Staff and Students’ Conceptions of Good Written Feedback: Implications for Practice. Practitioner Research In Higher Education(1), 54-63.

Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Educational Leadership70 (1), 10-16.

Zenger, Z. & Folkman, J. (2014). Feedback: The Powerful Paradox. Retrieved December 29, 2017, from https://zengerfolkman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/ZF-Feedback-The-Powerful-Paradox.pdf.

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