Sunday, January 8, 2012

Managing Feedback

(I'm going through the queue! Just imagine this all re-written in the past tense. Or the future tense. Either way.)

Good written feedback is hard. It takes time. A lot of time. Here are three things I've been trying to help make it manageable. Only one of them is slightly original.

I've already written about how I help students give each other feedback. That will go a long way but in the end it always comes down to us. As flat as some of us want to make the classroom, we're still the experts.

1. For the nuts and bolts I use Excel. I've got all my students exported into a spreadsheet. I type it out, print, cut strips and staple. Actually my student aide does the cutting and stapling. This is another place where tip #5 comes through. I can go through a pile and head straight down the sheet. When it comes time to staple, the excel sheets and the pile of student papers are in the same order so my aide doesn't have to do any paper shuffling.

I write messy so typing is always good for me. I like having a record. But the biggie? Copy and paste. Students make the same mistakes and need the same help. When it's a long assignment I number sections of the paper or problems and the students match those numbers to the comments.

2. Focus on one or two areas at a time and think long term. I'm going to use a lab writeup as an example here but it could be anything. I used to get these back and write all over them. There'd be so many marks students couldn't even see their original work. They were overwhelmed. Now we focus on just improving one area at a time. Perhaps we all focus on improving the description of the experiment. I want a few more details and better linking between how this experiment will address whatever question they have. They just work on improving one aspect and then we move on to something else later. By the end of the year, we've hit everything. What I didn't get was that a good lab writeup was my end of the year goal. I didn't need a perfect one in October. What I needed to do was improve a little at a time so that it was great at the end of the year. I wrote more targeted feedback and students weren't overwhelmed and knew what steps to take next. Win all around.

3. Delay feedback until the students are going to use it. This is the only piece of advice that goes against the grain. I know we're supposed to kill ourselves with 24-hour turnaround or get instant feedback or their work should be self-correcting. Yeah. That's fine sometimes. But I am very guilty of writing up feedback, giving it to students the next day and then....we just move on to something new.1 It is far better to wait until that feedback is going to be used. The lab writeups from above are good examples. If you're not having students revise what they wrote then why not wait until just before they do their next writeup?

Another common situation when delayed feedback is useful is when we work to continually revise a concept. Right now we're trying to figure out why things float or sink. I'll ask a student to predict if a certain object will float or sink and justify the answer. We'll work on figuring it out.2 Later we get the same prompt, because really that's the whole point of the unit. Before answering the student gets his or her feedback returned and can read it before answering the question. It's fresh and they can actually act on it. As an added bonus, students read what they used to think and see how much their thoughts have changed.

Oh and here's my obligatory BlueHarvest shoutout.

I'm definitely interested to hear if anyone has any good tips for keeping written feedback manageable.

Addendum: I forgot I totally stole Justin's idea to ask students what kind of feedback they want. At the end of a test or paper or whatever I put a little box asking some variation of What kind of feedback do you want? Or What would you like me to comment on? It turns out students respond well to feedback they want. It also turns out that I was often leaving feedback they just didn't care about. Who knew? You'll want to be specific in your questions at first. I found it helped to ask them for a specific area or question number. It will also depress you what students consider feedback. "I would like a gold star at the top of the page and an A."


1: The corollary to this is giving student work back and then getting all hot and bothered when it ends up crumpled up in the bottom of a backpack. If you give a test back and don't want it to end up on the ground, do something with it right away.

2: I usually go from weight to density to forces. Density we get from playing around with film canisters and then later by using different liquids. Forces we get from linking back to atoms. I direct teach Archimedes principles because I think its overrated and don't want to spend more than a day on it but feel free to disagree. If you've got something awesome for floating and sinking let me know so I can steal it.


  1. Three comments:

    (1) I really like the point that we want them able to write good lab reports by the end of the year. That's my biggest problem with how most college courses are graded... the only way to get a good grade is to know how to do everything before you take the course, which then defeats the point of taking the course.

    (2) This point of delayed feedback is really spot on. I makes me think we have to interpret the word "timely" carefully.... we could think timely means returned quickly, but we should rethink it to mean arriving at useful time, which of course, may turn out to be quickly or not.

    (3) Isn't Archimedes' principle almost the same as the forces explanation? And isn't density nearly almost the Forces explanation, just in division form rather than subtraction form? In all cases, there are competing things, pulls up and pushes down and we are trying to juxtapose how those work and how those compare.

  2. I like the idea of continual revision and that the perfect product is our end goal. Food for thought.

    When asking for what type of feedback they want, did you mean you asked that open-ended or with choices? Could you elaborate that part please?

  3. @Brian - Yeah it is but I'm talking about the "weigh the water displaced and that = the buoyant force" thing that my state standards are all about. Sample state question is something like, "A weight is dropped into the water and 10 N of water is displaced, what is the magnitude of the buoyant force?" I'm not a big fan of this.

    @misscalcul8 - I ask them open ended but I've experimented with how specific I ask the question. My first attempt was, "What kind of feedback do you want Mr. Buell to write?" I've also tried more specific questions like asking what question they were most confused about or what question they want feedback on or what kind of help they need. You get more interesting answers with the more open question but you also get a lot of stuff that's unhelpful.

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