Improving my Feedback Practices: a Never-ending Adventure

--Originally published at CAROLINA R BUITRAGO

When last semester ended, I felt I had another opportunity to reflect on what I had done right and what could have worked better in my courses. I identified feedback as a weak point in my instruction, yet again. However, it was still just a thought, a dream. I had not yet identified specific actions to take in order to improve my ability to inform students of their progress (or lack of) and there I was, just musing ideas of improvement without taking action. There I was, just hallucinating once again.

So, the first semester of 2019 started and there I was, scared about the new semester, and without an action plan for the feedback, I am supposed to give. I started the semester as usual, excited about the new courses, full of ideas and very rich lesson plans, but without a contingency plan for when the grading period kicked in. As a result, I ended the first term of the semester completely overwhelmed, sad and frustrated. Pulling all-nighters grading and feeling like a failure. So, after I finished grading and decided that I had had enough (for real), I designed a plan along with two of my colleagues and here are the actions we thought of.

*Big shout out to Ximena Romero and Juliana Diaz without whom I wouldn’t have been able to (almost) turn this around.

First of all, it is important to outline the problems. I have identified three main issues with my practices in regard to grading and giving feedback.

Problem 1: I procrastinate feedback

I don’t know why but I have a serious problem over-sizing the task of feedback. I have an irrational fear that giving feedback or grading a specific task will take me forever. When I finally sit down to grade, I realize it takes me half the time I was thinking. And I feel pretty stupid. I think I have to measure tasks and set times for feedback on a week.

Solutions

Get a grading journal

I know this might sound nerdy, but I am a nerd, so I am going to do this. I will get a notebook (of a note on my phone, haven’t decided yet), and a timer and I will time myself grading different tasks and will record the time each time takes me. This way, I can have a real picture of what my grading times are and can plan more accurately for marking sessions in the future.

Note: by the end of the semester, I allowed the feedback procrastination monster to kick in for a specific task. I had assigned students to write their analysis for two interviews in one document. A group of students separated the two interviews into two different papers forcing me to read more. So Insaw myself in the same conundrum of every semester: handing in grades late.
Even though I felt really bad having fall again, this obstacle taught me a lesson. Stick to your guns! Students also need to learn to follow guidelines, so next semester I will be more demanding with deadlines and conditions.

Get an accountability partner

All teachers have to grade, right? We all have to make sure we mark things. One of the solutions I found for this problem was to find an accountability partner, someone who could help me stay on target for my grading. So I told a couple of colleagues about this difficulty I was having and I asked them to help me by asking me about my grading.

I have also created an accountability format to keep track of the assignments, the dates I expect to grade them and the dates I am supposed to return them to students.  We established a one-week frame for returning assignments to students. The actual paper helps me visualize and keep the assignments that need grading in my radar. Also, having clear due dates help me include the time needed for grading in my calendar.

End-of-the-semester note: I was religious in the use of this format for most of the semester and it worked. However, I left one of the tasks stray and it came back to bite me in the butt. The lesson I learned from this obstacle was: be thorough in the implementation of any new strategy.

Plan feedback

Even when my students like to get one-on-one feedback for all tasks, that might not always be possible. I might need to find some alternative measures for giving feedback (post-its, Google Forms, Quizzes, Notes, and yes, eventual sit-downs might get in the mix). However, more than just having them, I need to plan time for them. During my 2018-2 end-of-semester reflection, I realized how I was giving my students a lot of work, and not giving them a lot of feedback for it, so, somehow the potential of all of that assigned work was seriously diminished. I understand the importance of feedback, but I certainly underestimate the time it is going to take. So, by planning it in my schedule and in the class activities, I might be more effective.

Problem 2: I take on more than I can handle

My inability to say ‘no’ is remarkable. I want to help everybody, be part of every project, have coffee and 1-hour lunches with my friends and I want to be a good teacher and mom, all at the same time. I have to admit that I simply can’t. I have learned it the hard way this term. The more I try to do, the less able I am of doing the important things I have to, and want to do.

Solutions

Prioritize

I have to know what I want to do and be honest with myself when thinking about what I really need to do to develop my mission statement (as Cathy Mazak calls it). I need to set my priorities straight, and as a classroom teacher, feedback is one of them.

I don’t have to do it all

Even though I want to do a million things, I don’t have to. I don’t have to fulfill all the ridiculous expectations I hold for myself. I can do all the things I want, just not all today! I know this part sounded a bit like self-help, but I have been reflecting on the deep impact that bad behavior of not prioritizing has had on my productivity, my overall performance and my mental health and I have decided to stop that. I recently watched a video by Jordan Peterson where he suggests to schedule the day you want to have! That thought was mind-blowing since normally, I schedule my day around what other people want or need, and my own things fall to the bottom of the list. I have realized just how negative that is for me.

Problem 3: I need to simplify the grading process

I am good at giving formative feedback. During class activities, I can get most people and give them constructive comments for.their learning process. So, when I assign written pieces I take the same approach and annotate papers extensively, make language and content corrections and help students write more strongly. However, that kind of thorough feedback takes forever. The bad thing is doing that many times during the semester and feeling swamped in papers to grade.

Solutions

Don’t treat every assignment equally

This past semester I realized that I was treating every assignment equally and devoting the same amount of time to checking everything, which was daunting. So, I decided to rank assignments into two -process and product. There are some assignments for which I decided to grade process. So, assignments, like create a Pecha Kucha type presentation, had different checkpoints and a final grade for delivery. On the other hand, some other assignments get a grade.for.the final product and their ability to follow guidelines. This categorization has eased up the process.

Use rubrics

I read an article and listened to a podcast in one of my favorite blogs, Cult of Pedagogy, about the use of simplified rubrics for grading. It sounds like a good idea. So, I have decided to create rubrics for certain assignments, to make them easier to grade by me, by peers and by students themselves. The integration of simple rubrics has also helped me.train my students into checking each other ‘s work and stop depending on my “expert” eye all the time.

Alternate due dates

We inevitably have grading periods. But I don’t have to give everybody the same due date (I mean my two courses, at the same time). By giving alternate due dates to both classes I can ensure time for feedback for everyone.

Use post-it notes to teach students to self and peer-assess

Our post-it notes are the always safe teaching tool. It works for so many things! I used them well this semester for two assignments; for a debate and a position paper. Basically, what I did was to color code assessment and to leave it to the students to use. While doing the debate, I would listen to students’ interventions and take notes of the corrections they needed to make in the post-it notes. Then, right at the end of the debate, I Would give students their post-it notes with comments for them to work on for next debate activity. It was very successful in class.
Then, for the position paper I assigned colors to aspects to revise, so green for clarity, pink for transitions, orange for grammar, yellow for vocabulary and had students read each others’ papers with the colors in mind. They put the post-its with comments on the page and then we revised again. Involving students in the process certainly removed the burden from me, and helped them even more.

Gallery walk activity with post-it notes

 

Feedback has always been my Achilles heel when teaching. However, I feel that I have put together a system that can work. I will keep you posted on my feedback adventure.

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