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?


  1. Great post! Much to discuss but (since it's smack the middle of the teaching day) I'll be brief:

    Are there aspects of feedback that I'm not considering?

    I think the word "feedback" raises associations with individual communication. But there's nothing about feedback that NEEDS to be differentiated for individuals.

    One of my favorite ways of giving feedback on a quiz or homework is to pick a common issue and do some teaching related to it before handing the work back. If I have time, I'll quickly highlight the issue on everybody's papers. If I don't have time, I'll just hand back the unmarked pages and ask kids to revise their work with peers and hand it back in.

    So: whole-class feedback is very helpful to me. Could it be helpful for you?

    1. I agree that whole group feedback can be helpful. I sometimes being up a common approach that falls apart and have small groups discuss the feedback they think would help. We do this more on classwork assignments and assessments. I find that homework written feedback is rarely read by students, and found it's probably not a worthwhile battle to have in many cases. Individual conversations about really critical things seem to be much more effective, and not much more time consuming, with enough focus and efficiency. To be fair, my small class sizes help with that significantly.

    2. Great point about the difference between individual and group feedback. Michael, it sounds like in your class, you then help students make the connection between the teaching/discussion that just happened as a class or group and their own individual work. Do you tend to follow this up with more individual questions or do you find that the revision is sufficient? What about students who didn't make this mistake so presumably could be spending their time more productively working on something else? Is there any benefit to individual written feedback? I'm still holding out hope that I can figure out how to do homework feedback in a way that is useful and not as taxing on teacher time.

    3. Do you tend to follow this up with more individual questions or do you find that the revision is sufficient?

      Most often I quickly highlight issues in a student's individual work, which I only hand back after the whole-group feedback activity. I'm also getting more and more comfortable giving quick "check/X" markings on the page. The purpose of this sort of written feedback is minimal -- yes, the whole-class feedback *does* apply to you -- and these minimal markings do the trick alright.

      What about students who didn't make this mistake so presumably could be spending their time more productively working on something else?

      Great point. There are different ways I deal with this, but basically I have a follow-up task waiting. Everyone's going to start work on it after they finish revising (so it's not punishment for doing well).

      Is there any benefit to individual written feedback?

      I think individual written feedback is unbeatable for the way it shows that you know and care about a kid's work. I think I still would like to be writing more written comments than I currently do, just so that kids know that I took the time to read their work carefully.

      I also think part of the cultural script of schooling is that the teacher is supposed to let kids know when they don't know something. Kids often want to know what they got right/wrong when I hand back their work without written comments, and (even if the cultural script is stupid) it doesn't do me any good to have anxious kids in my classroom. Even if it doesn't directly impact learning, written comments (even of the "better luck next time" variety) are sometimes worth it, I think, just to do what kids expect from teachers.

      (Four years ago I was very interested in signalling to kids that the regular school/teacher script didn't necessarily apply. That caused me trouble when I switched schools, and now I'm much more selective about where I conform/deviate from the script.)

      I'm also currently enrolled in a class where I get VERY little direct, individual feedback of any sort, and I find it very frustrating. I don't know where I stand vis-a-vis the standards of the class, and that makes it hard for me to know if I'm learning or not.

  2. I'm in agreement with Michael that feedback that can be directed en masse is always a good way to go. However, on a quiz or a test where a student has struggled across the board, I often try to go out of my way to provide some written feedback. In hindsight, the feedback could be interpreted as a "I didn't do so well on this, so I got feedback," so I need to make the feedback more consistently a part of their work on tests and quizzes.

    Also, feedback on each assignment would be brutal and sends the wrong message, I think. I always try to avoid perpetuating the idea of teacher as function. Yes, I'm the teacher. Yes, I can tell you what you did wrong. No, please don't hand me gobs of your work and expect me to read every single bit of it to see if you're doing well. If you are on top of your stuff, you will know where you are in this course. Life doesn't always give you feedback. People who follow their GPS into a swamp come to mind...

    1. Thanks for the comment, Brian. I do think that the age/maturity of the student matters. I am primarily working with 9th and 10th graders, and many of them are still figuring out how they learn, how to monitor their progress, and how to get help. I agree with the end-goal of self-sufficiency, but am still thinking about the scaffolds and coaching needed to move students who are not currently there in that direction. I think I'm hearing good points here though about maybe lots of feedback not being the ultimate end-all goal for teaching. Thanks, all :)

  3. Great post! Love the idea that your reflecting upon the feedback you give, and how it best helps the student.
    I'm always trying to get my teachers to buy into Immediate Feedback - otherwise the student may be doing the work wrong, not knowing it, and then all we are doing is reinforcing a bad habit. If technology is available, this can be done on many websites (like If no technology is available, I will supply the answer sheets in class, so that students can know immediately if they are doing the work right or not.
    Keep up the good work


  4. Hello Anna,
    I am an educational studies student from Munich and I am currently participating in a seminar about teaching Math in English and I just found your blog. After reading your last post about formative feedback a few questions came to my mind:
    What do you think about giving pure positive feedback to encourage the students and give a new perspective and by that showing them an aim they would want to work for? Or would that mean too much effort for each student so you wouldn’t do that very frequent?
    How many hours do you spend on creating feedback every week and how many students are you taking care of?
    Would you even describe that method as feedback?
    How useful do you think that would be?
    You are talking more about feedback being critical, pointing out errors and helping students in their development.
    I look forward to your reactions