# Making feedback more valuable

Of all the hullabaloo over grading in red pen in my last blog post, the most important question was asked by John Aiken:

Do you find that your students get something out of written feedback? Does the feedback include a reduction in grade? I have found that my students don’t really read the feedback or care about it for the most part. They just look at the grade and then move on hoping for better luck next time. I have found my students learn the most when I spend my efforts on trying to help them learn in class instead of getting them to understand my comments on where they went wrong. How do you get your students to read and care about your feedback? Or do they just do it naturally?

I wrote a comment directly to the post, but I wanted to put it here so that maybe it might generate a bit more conversation for John. This is something I still struggle with, and it occurs to me that it’s been a while since I’ve asked my students how useful my feedback is. Look for me to give some updates in this regard soon.

This to me is the big question—how do we make our feedback more useful to students. It’s why I recently posted a set of graded assessments on my blog, and it’s also why I’m trying to work a lot with having students give themselves feedback. To get students to really use my feedback I think I have to do a few things.

First, and most importantly, my feedback needs to be more than just what you did wrong—it needs to put them on the path to correcting their mistake and understanding the concept more deeply.

Two, I have to create a system in my class where they can derive real benefit from engaging my feedback. This is where SBG comes in. When I used to just grade tests and give them back with no opportunity to show improved understanding, either through corrections or reassessment, I think it’s hard for students who are struggling the most to look 3-4 months down the road and “I’ll be tested on this again, so I better put the time in to master it now.” I know this is an important thing for students to do, but I just think for our weakest students, who are facing a million other challenges and distractions, I can make it much more likely for them to use my feedback if there’s a immediate (or at least very soon) chance to show increased understanding, either in the form of corrections or reassessments.

Finally, I think it’s not a bad exercise to ask students what they are they are getting from your feedback. This could be a short survey in class asking them how they used the feedback on the last assessment, and what suggestions they might have for how you could improve the feedback you give them. Here’s a really great blog post from a math teacher at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn where he describes the great benefits he saw from asking students to describe what sort of feedback they’d like on their assignments. That he was able to get meaningful responses from the youngest students should tell us that this type of introspection is possible at almost any age (and certainly among the high school and college students we teach). Also, this approach of asking students what type of feedback they want promises to reduce a lot of the wasted effort in our own grading, while at the same time benefiting student understanding more.

Whether students even read feedback (or if they do, what do they get from it) is a central conundrum for me. I feel stretched in so many different directions and my days are packed, so why would I keep spending time doing things that don’t matter? This is why I only look for completion of homework, but don’t collect it or comment on it. I used to waste hours doing this tedious task, all to absolutely no avail since the feedback wasn’t used. I sense that students tend to pay a bit more attention to comments on tests and quizzes, but only if they did poorly enough (poorly enough being some lower bar that is different for each student). By using standards-based grading, I get students much more invested in trying to figure out what they did wrong and learning what they had previously missed.

I have used screencast video feedback, but have now limited this to situations where students want to meet with me to go over a topic, but we can’t meet soon enough because of schedule conflicts. In these situations, I give some video feedback that the student is to consider before we meet a few days down the road. This seems to be used by the students (because they know it’s going to be followed up in person). And this, it seems, is the crux of the matter. Feedback that is impersonal (video or written, and not followed up or somehow otherwise connected in person) is less likely to be useful. Not that it can’t be useful, it’s just not terribly useful.

My job is to interact with students. In person. So any feedback I give should be the type that drives that interaction, compliments that interaction, or enhances that interaction. Ideally, I would have all day long with a few students and we could walk the campus, throwing sticks, kicking rocks, pushing bagels across the parquet floor (such nice graph “paper”) in the dining hall, contemplating the Moon and stars, programming our laptops while eating coffee cake, analyzing videos that we shot earlier in the day and learning more physics that you can shake a stick at. Unfortunately, that would only reach a few students, so everything I do is an attempt to approximate that ideal while teaching a reasonable number of kids.

I have been trying to provide feedback on quizzes in the form of questions. My goal is that, rather than marking what is “wrong” on a quiz or correcting the student’s response, I write the same type of socratic question that I would ask in person. Before students earn the opportunity to reassess (SBG), they must correct their previous quiz and answer each question that I wrote. So, as a result of this policy, students do read my feedback. However, John brings up a good point in that I should determine how valuable they find this feedback. If my feedback doesn’t help improve student understanding, then, as Mark mentions, I should spend my limited time in more productive endeavors. I don’t have this figured out yet, but I feel that I’m on the right path.