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.
Great post! I have felt guilty for not giving feedback on AOTW. Thanks for alleviating my guilt!
Amen, Karen — let’s get that guilt out of here!
Ica R. says
How long do you spend per paper on a “turn back the next day” essay assignment? I’m trying to imagine giving a class their essays back after one weekend, let alone one night!
2-3.5 minutes, depending on the type of essay and the type of rubric. Some are longer/more complex. So for 60-70 kids (2 sections worth) on a 3.5-minute essay, it takes 3.5-4 hours. 1 during prep, 1 after school, and often 2 the next morning (I’ll wake up early on these days). The worst is when, just before AP exams, I have the kids come in and take a practice exam. Then I have 3 essays to grade per kid, so it eats up the rest of my weekend. Outside of this, I work hard to not bring any grading home.
What? No comments? I’d be assessed by my Head of Department as a lazy teacher, and she’d definitely give me a low score in my appraisal for sure (the section on “carefil marking”). “Please make sure you give comments to students’ essay” will be her verbal and written feedback. But really, for the longest time, I have wondered whether all those hours I put into grading the students’ writing are moving them forward at all. I don’t find my general comments any more helpful than to give a temporary boost to their esteem. I teach writing and we focus a lot on language accuracy, but underlining or correcting every one of their mistakes is the least helpful thing I am doing to move my students forward, but yet I do it, because I haven’t yet found something else that works. I hope I can incorporate your next-day-return policy by using the strategies you’ve mentioned. I just need to study what you do and adapt them to my own context. Still waiting for my pre-ordered book though, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be worth the wait. If I could nail this grading beast of a monster and find a way that works for my kids, it’ll really remove 50% of the stress I get from the guilt I feel for not grading their work fast enough. It is a delibitating guilt. Thanks for putting out such quality blog posts!
Yin, thank YOU so much for writing. And Karen (below) gives a good resource that may help, too. I’ve not looked at Laura Randazzo’s work yet, but it sounds promising.
You’ve got this, Yin. The first step to nailing this beast is deciding to. Keep after it. Keep thinking pragmatically about how to do this work in sustainable fashion.
To Yin’s comment, I purchased Exhausted by Essays? 5-Minute Essay Grading System – Reclaim Your Weekends! By Laura Randazzo (TPT resource) and love the feedback codes. It has taken me a couple of semesters to figure out how to work it best for me, but I can’t live without it!