Three Ways to Teach through Feedback to Promote Better Learning

“Feedback is Teaching, Too”

I saw that as the title of a session I couldn’t go to at the Higher Learning Commission this week. And, even though I couldn’t attend it, that phase has been ruminating in my intellectual stomach for a couple of days now. I think it began to create the necessary bridge in my mind to inspire a dawning “Aha” revelation (and I know some of you are saying, “duh”).

Providing clear and timely feedback is an educational best practice.  I know that intellectually and so do many of my collegues.  Sadly, the behavior of many students over the years have taught their teachers and professors that providing feedback is a waste of time. That often happens when the paper upon which the feedback is written is dropped in the trash on the way out of the room. The message communicated by that act is: “I saw my grade and your advice is not relevant to me.”

When I think about the feedback that I have given, though. I suspect it was not as constructive and useful as it could have been. Cryptic and critical editing comments, such as “be concise!” or “avoid passive voice” or “THESIS!?” in the margins may not have provided students with feedback they could handle or use.

Also, I sometimes gave (and sometimes still do give) one-off assignments. If I have students read a couple of primary sources and write a summary and analysis paper on them, and that is the only summary and analysis paper they will write for the class, there is little chance they will see reading and reflecting on the specific feedback that I provide them as important. They might glance at it, but aren’t likely to have any motivation to pour over it, reflect on it, and learn from it.

In that light, it strikes me that I need to take giving feedback more seriously as a strategic teaching strategy.

For this to work, I think that I will have to be more intentional about defining the habits and dispositions I want my students to develop. Then I need to design assignments that practice them in these habits and dispositions and have them do at least three similar assignments that incorporate lessons learned from previous feedback into them.

I need to think carefully about what I need to point out that will help the student improve on the next assignment. Then I need to clearly communicate that.

Idea # 1: Grading Rubric

I have found that using a grading rubric helpful in speeding up the grading process. The grading rubric focuses my attention on the things that I identified as important when I created the assignment. However, when following the what is sometimes a pretty complex and time consuming approach to making a tabular grading rubric, I give up.

I often get stumped trying to think of how to express the five different levels of distinction necessary to put in the boxes under gradations of performance descriptions (ie poor to great). I suppose that might be because I create more gradations of quality than is really useful (I like to use 5, when maybe there are only 3 levels of distinction that I can clearly articulate, so maybe I should just use three, until I figure out the other distinctions).

For a quicky on rubrics see the Wikipedia page on the Rubrics

Or, maybe, to make it more personal, I might use the idea presented several years ago by my colleague Howard Culbertson who used in those days wordperfect macros to create personalized letters with relevant feedback for each student.

Idea # 2: Drafting:

Another approach to getting students to engage in incorporating learning through feedback into performance improvement might be to create an assignment that comes in early enough that it I can use drafting techniques to help them improve. I must say that I’m a little reticent to use this time-honored approach for two reasons:

a) When students hear “turn in a draft” they don’t seem to put their best effort into creating it; and

b) I like to use assignments to cause students to engage in thinking about content.

Since I teach history, the flow of time covered over the course means that when a few weeks go by, I like to have an assignment topic situated relevantly within that flow.  I’m sure that drafting and revision based on feedback would work great on many semester long project assignments.

Idea # 3: Feedback Reflection Journal:

I like to use the Learning Journal approach that I picked up from MaryEllen Weimer’s Learner-Centered Teaching. I think I could modify that assignment, which as it stands now asks “what did you learn, what impeded your learning, what could we do different” to ask students to reflect on my feedback on assignments. Maybe they would address:

Summarize the main points of the feedback you received from me (or others) on your last assignment.

What could you do differently, based on that feedback, to improve the quality of your work on the next assignment?

In an ideal world, I would ask the student to do a self assessment of their work at the time they turn it in, too, and compare and contrast their self-assessment with my feedback. But that seems to be getting too complex.

I think that perhaps the key point is I need to do a better job of providing timely, relevant feedback and find a way to engage the student in a learning conversation around that feedback and provide them another opportunity to demonstrate that learning.

For more practical tips on this topic see The Teaching Professor Blog post on giving feedback.