Opening Ourselves up to Critical Feedback
Okay, if you are an English teacher, or any kind of teacher who needs to give feedback on written assignments, check this out. Kristy Louden over at Cult of Pedagogy has a great blog article on how to get students to interact meaningfully with your feedback:
In English I ask my students to write a lot. I don’t grade everything they write, but when it comes to the “big essays”—the graded, polished drafts—what grade they will receive becomes the sole motivator for their writing. This frustrates me, and, in my opinion, distracts them from what they should actually care about: writing.
This intense focus on the all-important grade was my least favorite part, and it was definitely what kept the stack sitting on the counter behind my desk…for an embarrassing amount of time. It really bothered me that kids didn’t care about the feedback I put on their essays, not just because I took the time to do it, but because I did it to help them. I want them to grow as writers, and most of them do throughout the year, but so many only seem to care about that number.
I won’t lie: It made me angry. Not only did I feel like I had wasted my time, I felt like they just didn’t care.
Aren’t you nodding in agreement, fellow teachers— fellow-crushers-of-teenage-souls, that is? Because certainly that is how I am often perceived. My students put in all this slavish labor into an essay, and then I hand it back to them riddled with obnoxious comments everywhere and highlighted parts and what is worse, a numeric grade that actually adheres to the rubric I gave them beforehand. Because I wanted them to know ahead of time what the expectations were. And I didn’t want their grades to be TOTALLY subjective and unfair.
You know, I say to myself in my self-satisfied tone, I never received rubrics in high school, let alone college. I just answered the prompt or asked my professor for help. And I swallowed (for the most part) whatever mysterious letter grade was stamped at the bottom of my paper. I don’t even remember specific points being awarded at all.
But the last seven years of teaching have forced me, rather unwillingly, out of my snobbishness. I have realized that although rubrics can be helpful and can cut out some of the vagueness in grading and in expectations, they are by no means a magic bullet for students or for me. Kids read them, but don’t always understand them, even if they think they do–and even if we teachers think they should.
And even when I painstakingly give lots of feedback and ideas in the margins, and highlight very specifically which areas of the rubric best describe what has been written, the kids always still scroll down to the bottom (on Google classroom) or flip pages to the very end where they stare at their grade with disappointment and defeat— or, which is almost as bad, with premature self-satisfaction. Either way, most of them tend to ignore the feedback that matters.
The solution is rather simple. It’s one I have heard before, and even tried before, but keep forgetting about: just don’t give them the grade. Pass back the papers with the feedback and comments, but with no grade attached:
And from this a whole new system was born: Return papers to students with only feedback. Delay the delivery of the actual grade so student focus moves from the grade to the feedback.
The simple act of delaying the grade meant that students had to think about their writing. They had to read their own writing—after a few weeks away from it—and digest my comments, which allowed them to better recognize what they did well or not so well. The response from students was extremely positive; they understood the benefit of rereading their essays and paying attention to feedback. One boy said, “Mrs. Louden, you’re a genius. I’ve never read what a teacher writes on my essay before, and now I have to.”
Seriously, read her whole article. It gives a handy step-by-step approach to her process.
I tried this with my students today, and it was kind of funny (and sad) how frustrated a couple of them were at first. “Wait, what’s my grade? Where’s my grade?”
“I didn’t include it.”
“Yeah, I didn’t. I’d rather you just focus on the feedback for now.”
I was able to have a 3 or 4 minute conference with about half of the students while the rest read through their comments and began a learning from their mistakes assessment– they got to look up anything they wanted to, but had to prove to me that they could do all of the key skills in the essay.
I’ll be honest, this isn’t the most fun process. Nobody likes facing his or her mistakes, least of all me. But I think the more we can normalize making mistakes and then learning from them, the more we are helping our students cultivate a healthy disposition toward writing, and toward learning in general. And maybe even toward life, too. By withholding the grade, we are freeing our kids to focus on the feedback that really matters, the feedback they can really act upon– “look up unclear pronoun references and see if you can spot the one in this sentence!” — “what an interesting idea; I’ve never thought of dreams in The Road that way before. Can you tell me more?” — drawing their attention away from the numbers with which we, in our education system, have taught them to judge themselves.
Not to over-spiritualize things, or to make a false analogy here, but I think the discipline of making a nightly examination of conscience is somewhat similar. It’s not always very fun– especially when, in the back of your mind, you know you really messed up. It would be easier to crumple up the paper of the day and throw it into the bin and pretend it never happened. We often don’t like to pray, Jacques Philippe says, because we don’t like to really see ourselves– to be alone with God who always sees us as we really are. All sorts of unpleasant things bubble up to the surface when we pray. At least they often do when I pray.
But the problem with the crumple-up-the-paper approach to life is that, although you do have a fresh new page tomorrow, you are likely to go scrawling all over it with the same mistakes again.
Thank goodness God always–in this life– withholds “the grade.” He is the master teacher who gives us just the right amount of feedback to work with and to learn from–if we are willing to listen to His comments. It takes humility for sure, but, teachers, if we ask our students to listen to us, it only seems right that we also open ourselves up to feedback as well.