If we want our kids to become good at things, we need to give them feedback. It's not grades that make a student become a better writer or speaker or knowledge-builder — it's feedback.
(I do work in a system where we use grades, by the way — I don't spend much time thinking or researching about whether that's good or bad.)
The thing is, feedback generally needs to be fast if it's going to be useful, meaningful, or an effective use of the teacher's time. If I was a basketball coach and I watched my players play a game, and then I did not give them feedback on how they might improve their skill until a week after the game concluded, they'd all probably look at me like I was a moron.
“Um, Coach?” a brave player might ask. “We don't even really remember what happened during that game. Next time, do you think you could give us some feedback during the game, and then some more right after, and then some more the next day?”
In this case, the player wouldn't be wrong. It's not that she has no respect for the coach's personal life, or that she's overly entitled, or anything like that. It's that she'd like it if she could improve at basketball, and with late feedback, she can't.
We teachers get frustrated all the time by late feedback. If your administrator comes in for an evaluation, when do you want to hear the feedback? As soon as possible! I feel the same way.
And this isn't a matter of you and I needing to develop patience — even though we always do. It's also not a matter of us needing to develop empathy for our administrators — we certainly need to do that, too. But primarily, the reason we want quick feedback is because that's what it takes to improve.
Our students are in the same boat. So, we have three choices:
- Continue giving slow feedback
- Sacrifice our personal lives to give feedback on work faster
- Get much smarter, pickier, and more intense about the feedback we give
I'll share three examples.
For pop-up debates (see Chapter 4 of These 6 Things or this blog post for a primer), I can't remember the last time I used a rubric. It's been years. I teach a target skill prior to each debate — making a claim, Paraphrase Plus (p. 126 of These 6 Things, or this post) — and then I use a clipboard with a list of student names on it to keep track of who has spoken and what strengths/weaknesses I'm seeing in the class. I interrupt the debate every 3-5 minutes to provide feedback.
After a debate, I have kids reflect (in writing) on a couple of questions:
- What did we do well as a class?
- What can we do better?
- What did you do well as a speaker?
- What can you do better?
If we have a few minutes left, I ask for a few volunteers to share or I share my top-level feedback on the debate.
A token grade may go into the grade book, but no rubrics and very little in the way of individualized feedback. This isn't because those are bad things — it's because they're not necessary, and I don't have time to do unnecessary things. My students love pop-up debates, and every year I see them significantly improve, individually and as a class.
Zero of my planning time is spent giving feedback on pop-up debates.
For Gallagher-style articles of the week (which I've taken to organizing into Burning Questions — see p. 81-86 of These 6 Things or this page), my students are expected to write 250-word responses to each week's article. I have 120 students, and 60 of them are assigned AoWs. This begs a question, doesn't it? How in the world do you find time to grade all of those things each week!?
And it's actually the right question because I grade AoWs rather than give feedback on them. The only time I ever give feedback on AoWs is when, as a whole class, I periodically show students some examples of the quality of writing we're after, or what purposeful annotation looks like. At the start of the school year, I do more of this so that students get a clear sense of what I expect.
But since the chief goal of Gallagher's AoW is and always has been knowledge-building, there's next to no individualized feedback, and I spend next to no time grading them. (Here's a post with specifics — it includes a link to a full conversation I had with Kelly years ago.)
So look: no feedback given, tons of time saved, all because I'm clear about the purpose of the AoW assignment. Clear thinking saves us time and sanity.
Finally, there are essays, which I seek to give back the next day that we have class. For the past two years, I've done this at roughly a 90% success rate — meaning that, for 9 out of 10 essays, my students receive feedback the next day. This might be exploding your brain right now because you're picturing something I don't do: I never cover papers in comments. When giving feedback, 95% of the time I'm using one of the three following strategies:
- A whole class “hit list” lesson where I teach toward and give examples of a specific skill or deficiency I'm finding in multiple sample student papers. This method requires me to read 10 or so papers out of a 60 paper set.
- Coding student papers with shorthand symbols or abbreviations, based on the whole-class list we've developed through preceding Hit List lessons. This requires that every paper be read until 2-3 codes can be applied to it.
- A simple rubric with up to 7 skills on it that I've explicitly taught, modeled, and showed exemplars of in preceding lessons. When I grade with simple rubrics for my AP World History courses, I am often also writing a few comments on each paper. But I'm grading like an athlete — not trying to mix grading with relaxing, literally using a stopwatch to keep myself fast.
(Hit Lists, coding, and simple rubrics are all treated in Chapter 6 of These 6 Things. Conferring with student writers is, too.)
Since enacting this pragmatic, speed-oriented approach to feedback on essays, I've seen student writers grow — in skill and in motivation — more than they ever have. This past year, 44 of my 51 open-enrollment AP World History students — all but one of whom were in ninth grade — scored in the top two quartiles of APWH test-takers — most of whom are sophomores — nationwide. Speedy, simple feedback has certainly helped make that possible.
None of this is about guilt — it just is what it is. Fast feedback is effective feedback, and so we've got to get smarter (and pickier) about how and when we give feedback. A next-day hit list lesson will get your students further — both skill-wise and motivationally — than a two-weeks-later paper covered in comments.
And you'll be happier, too.
Lots to dig into here — feel free to ask questions in the comments.