Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Formative Feedback

I've been thinking a lot about feedback lately. It started with this tweet:

@mpershan was kind enough to respond with an email and sent me down a rabbit hole of articles and blog posts about the usefulness of feedback. Since Michael was the inspiration for this journey, it's only fitting that I try to imitate his style of writing out loud to try to organize my thoughts on this topic (sorry, Michael - reading this back after I've finished the blog post has shown me that you are inimitable. Also, I should probably avoid writing blog posts at 11 pm in the future).

The central question we discussed was: what is the purpose of feedback? Clearly, it is only useful if it changes a person's thinking. Does pointing out a mistake do this? Does categorizing the mistake do this? Does indicating a student's level of understanding of a topic ala Standards-Based-Grading do this? Do questions do this better than statements? Do students need to reflect on the feedback or do another problem related to the feedback received or implement it in some other way in order to get more benefit from it? Written vs. oral? Immediate vs. delayed?

Feedback while kids are working in class:

This is the type of feedback I think I know how to do the best. When kids are working on a task, either on their own or with someone else, I am usually able to ask questions, point out features of their work, or connect them with other students' thinking so they can make progress, identify and correct errors, and clarify their own ideas. The one blind spot that I think I still have in this area is when a student thinks about a problem in a way that is really, really different from methods I understand or have seen and thought about before. This doesn't happen very often, but when it does, I'm really stumped. I can help them verify that their answer is incorrect. I can ignore their method and show them a way to think about the problem correctly or point them to another student in the class with a different approach. But if I don't understand it, I can't help them resolve the cognitive dissonance of their incorrect approach, which means that my work is not complete.

But in general, this is the type of feedback that seems to pay the most dividends. The kid is right there with their work, we can have a conversation, I can see if they are able to implement my feedback and give more or of a different kind, as needed, or ask them to work on a related problem. This is really the best case scenario in feedback world for me.

Feedback on homework:

Things start to get real hazy real quick when I'm looking at a kid's work outside of class and my feedback is now provided in written form or via a conversation with them the next day. Will they have time/inclination to do anything about my feedback? Without the option of a conversation, I have to make a guess, which I suspect is often not great, about their thinking and the amount/level of information to provide back and how to do that in a way that opens thinking rather than closes it. Honestly, I don't have any evidence that students get a ton out of the written feedback on their homework assignments. I've thought about building in class time to have students read the feedback on their assignment from the previous day and do something with it (since homework is turned in digitally and feedback is provided digitally, I have no idea how thoroughly students would be reading my feedback otherwise), but it seems like I could just use this time to talk to students of concern about their work or have the class do a problem related to an issue that I saw on many papers. We already go over homework questions in class before it's turned in and the answers are provided in advance, so presumably, they know if they are understanding the material. If I'm very concerned, I would rather email a student or talk to them in class or ask them to work with me outside of class. Spending lots of time writing comments and then flinging them into a black hole of ??? doesn't seem like the best use of my limited time. But not providing feedback on homework also seems wrong. So I'm at a bit of an impasse here. I've moved some of my homework grading (especially for bigger projects) to in-person conversation and in an ideal world, I would be able to do that for all of my grading, but time with students is a precious commodity.

Feedback on assessments:

This type of written feedback seems to go better than homework. I think that there are a few components that have made it more successful:

  1. Students perceive assessments to be more summative and take feedback on them more seriously. They know it's a check of their understanding that will more directly be reflected in their grade (grades as motivation.... laaaaaame, but I'm not sure how to get around this... I have to produce some sort of grade at the end, and I like homework to be purely for feedback so that leaves assessments for grading). As a result, they read comments more carefully and are more motivated to figure out their mistakes and learn from them so that they can show more understanding on the reassessment.

  2. I separate the feedback and grading parts to help students focus more on the feedback initially. When I grade assessments, I only write comments/questions (and try not to say too much since I know I'll be there in person to continue the conversation). I record their SBG grades on the assessment in the online gradebook only a day or so later, based on the research that showed that when students receive written comments and a grade on an assessment, they basically ignore the comments and only look at the grade, and that this is not helpful for learning. Getting back their assessments with comments only helps to keep the conversations on concepts and learning only, not on grades, as well as encourages students to work together with less comparison to others. 

  3. We spend class time correcting quizzes, usually in groups that are either assigned randomly or by common error types. The quiz corrections are an assignment that is collected, they are not for "earning back points" (I don't actually understand what that means), but they are required in order to reassess. I ask students to analyze their error (did they misunderstand an aspect of the concept? execute a procedure incorrectly? make a careless mechanical error?), as well as redo the problems on which they made errors. Based on my thinking around this issue, going forward, I'd like them to also state what they plan to do to make progress on the issue identified. Michael seemed to think that identifying the type of error is not particularly helpful to students, but I think that when followed up with a "next step," it is maybe more useful?

  4. I think that more students actually know what they should do to make progress with assessment feedback. They've done a lot of work with the concepts being assessed. They can talk to peers to understand other approaches, they can talk to me, we can schedule a meeting outside of class to work together, they can refer to online resources organized by content topic to review a concept or procedure, they can do practice problems from homework assignments and previous reviews related to this concept so the feedback is both more closely connected to a concrete goal and to ways of reaching that goal. 

So my main questions right now are:

  1. How can I make feedback on homework more useful in helping students change their thinking?
  2. Are there ways to improve both my in-class and assessment feedback?
  3. How can I move more of my feedback to conversation and away from enigmatic notes that try to strike just the right balance of tantalizing hint/information-giving and hook to motivate kids to want to look at their homework again and rethink their approach, but that mostly get ignored or scanned quickly and not attended to? Did I mention that writing tons of feedback on homework assignments takes a lot of time???
  4. Are there aspects of feedback that I'm not considering?

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Using Canvas to coordinate written feedback

Yesterday, @druinok asked for suggestions on providing more written feedback to many students quickly.

It turns out that we both use Canvas, an LMS, at our schools. There are a lot of features about Canvas that are not the most user-friendly, but in terms of giving feedback to students quickly and easily, it's been really helpful. Here's how I use it:

  1. All work that I collect from students passes through Canvas, including work that is not graded, but is just for feedback. I create an assignment with either a link to a pdf for problem sets or to a Google doc for projects/written reflections

  2. Students complete the work either in their Math notebook or in a Google doc (for projects/written reflections). But all work is submitted digitally. The student's view has an electronic submission button. Most of my students have the Canvas app on their phones and can submit by snapping a photo of their written work. Those that don't have the app take a picture with their computer camera and submit it via the web version of Canvas. I remind students to submit their homework to Canvas after we go over homework questions in class.

  3. In grading mode, I see the photo each student took, mark the assignment Complete or Incomplete, and type written feedback. If the assignment is graded, I indicate their level of proficiency and sometimes comment on the specific objectives graded (we use Standards Based Grading so students don't see points, only learning objectives and levels of proficiency).
  4. The system is quick - I can go through all the work submitted by students, type or copy and paste comments, and click on levels of proficiency if I'm grading the assignment. Students see the feedback on individual assignments and can also look at feedback from past work, chronologically or organized by learning objective.

  5. I love the fact that students have access to all of their Math work in their notebook at all times - there's no longer the loss of time in turning it in, waiting for me to write feedback, and then getting it back, accompanied by the inevitable loss of someone's work and of me lugging piles of papers back and forth from school. There's no longer a question of whether something was turned in or what the feedback on that work was. We can both always easily see a chronological record of the feedback given over the course of the year and track progress. If I ever create a portfolio system for summative assessment, all of the student's submitted work is already digital and organized.

  6. The one drawback that I wish Canvas provided is the ability to annotate directly on student work. If I want to draw a student's attention to a particular problem, I have to write a note that says, "In question #2, look at..." instead of just circling question #2 on their paper. When students upload their files in pdf format, Canvas has an internal marking system that activates and allows you to annotate, highlight, and type directly on the page. But for most students, this would add an extra step of converting their picture to a pdf and uploading it in that format, and I would rather make homework submission as simple as possible. So for now, this is my system.