How do we embed practical feedback processes into the Change Makers classroom(s)?
In the last post about feedback, I was considering how the student deconstruction of feedback and feedback practices might be different than we as teachers imagine. And that these differences should be considered in our constant evolution of practice. In that post, I considered a little about classroom culture and grading culture and quite a lot about the language of feedback. But the post was quite abstract and I wanted to round that out by focussing on some of the practical steps that we take in the Change Makers classroom(s) to try to mitigate some of these factors, and that we could adapt further to mitigate yet more.
The power of positive feedback
As I mentioned in the previous post, in general we find our students less able to celebrate progress and achievement than to lament mistakes and (perceived) inadequacies. We work very hard to counter this in the classroom – and in our feedback. We are not just trying to be nice, to soften the blow of more critical comments or provide ‘balanced’ feedback. We are actually try to signpost to students where examples of excellent practice and good progress are present in their work so that they themselves recognise this and embed these practices in their future work. Before we started explicitly doing this, we noticed that students would often do very well in an initial assignment, but would then do less well on future assignments. Things that the student had got right and done well, were abandoned in an attempt to do even better. The students chose the wrong parts of their practice to keep and the wrong parts to try to improve.
A simplistic example of this comes in our Lessons From History module, where students sit a multiple choice quiz individually and then again as a team. In on-campus classes, we would use scratch cards for the team quiz, with students able to see which answers they had got incorrect and have more attempts (for less points) to find the correct answer. Since moving to the virtual classroom, this wasn’t possible. The pedagogical value of the quiz is not in ‘grading the students’, but in the discussion and negotiation as a team when the students are trying to increase their score. So in essence, the score does not matter apart from to drive that discussion. So we graded the quiz differently – instead of being graded by their correct answers, the students are graded for participation – do they submit an individual attempt, and do they participate in three team attempts to submit. So the students submit their individual answers, and then come up with their answers as a team, and Ping them to me. Instead of marking which are correct and which are incorrect, I simply tell them their score out of 10. The teams then have to puzzle over which answers they got correct and which are incorrect – attempting to improve their score by correcting the incorrect answers. But often what happens is that they change their correct answers and retain their incorrect answers, reducing their overall score. See below a team receiving their sequentially decreasing scores.
Now, this is a rather basic and mechanical example, but the same thing can happen with their interpretation of feedback. Unless we make a bit of a song and dance about what the students are doing right, there is every chance that they might not have intentionally or knowingly done those elements well, and they might then mistakenly abandon that good practice in future work. And, of course, this example allows us to have the conversation with students about the value of feedback!
We also know that our students struggle to celebrate small successes, placing all their emotional eggs in the basket of their final (numerical) grade. We are trying to help students recognise all the challenges they are facing and overcoming – no matter how seemingly small or insignificant – to contextualise those high valency moments in a wider palette of emotional experience of themselves and their work.
Another use of this positive feedback is to direct students to place importance on elements of their work that to them might seem less significant. Our students are very focused on ‘results’, ‘conclusions’ or ‘outcomes’ and pay less attention to things that are critical to achieving those endpoints. We think it is really important to focus on writing and asking good questions, researching widely and generating polyvalent understandings – taking multiple perspectives into account, recognising the limits of their potential to understand, taking creative risks, understanding the complexity of various methods and taking time to work with that complexity – the list goes on. And by directing positive feedback, effort and attention from us as teachers to those elements, we invite the students to consider them as important – opening up the opportunity for us to engage the students more deeply on these aspects.
As teachers we know how heart breaking it can be to painstakingly craft meaningful feedback only to see it languishing on a VLE, never accessed by the student. For this reason, we decided to create a different mechanism for delivering and using feedback for Change Makers students.
As we practice Assessment FOR Learning, and therefore have relatively frequent interim and scaffolded assessments, we have the opportunity to use feedback in a dialogic manner.
When students submit their work, they also have an opportunity to submit a ‘Note to the Marker’ or for final assessments a ‘Letter to the Examiner’ – letting the marker/examiner know anything they think is pertinent to be considered during the marking. Sometimes, for the more divergent assignments, this might be a contextualisation of the work, or perhaps an explanation of the personal value or meaning of the work. Sometimes it offers students the opportunity to request feedback on a specific aspect of their work, to acknowledge an area of the work that they know is not completed correctly or to explain difficulties that they had with completing the assignment – whether related to the assignment itself, their wider academic experience and workload or to their wider life experience.
Our deadlines are always at the end of a class, allowing students to access last minute feedback and help, dedicated time to finalise their work (or do the work in the case of students who are having timing issues). Students then always receive their grade and feedback within one week of submission – just prior to the start of the subsequent class. We begin the class with dedicated time to read our own feedback. And the feedback sheet is organised with comments for each criteria on the mark scheme, an overall comment on the success of the assignment, a feed forward comment related directly to the work submitted, and a note on the student’s progress in the module as a whole. After this there are three sections for the students to complete.
- The students are invited to consider what skills they employed in the completion of the assignment. From experience, we find that students don’t always realise how much skill and learning occurs when completing activities or assignments – and in class activities we use prompt photos of the students working to explore what learning is taking place. In this feedback dialogue, we provide the students with a skill matrix (using the Change Makers skill profile) and they can then indicate or comment about the use of various skills. Remarkably, the students write a lot here – thinking deeply about this (whereas to us as teachers, we designed this as a largely tick-box section).
- The students then have text boxes to document what went well in the assignment, and what needs further work or attention in future assignments.
- Finally there are boxes that allow the students to ask for further guidance, book follow-up with their teacher and request more practice on different skills/processes during the following weeks.
This is then handed back to the teacher for review, and any necessary follow up is arranged. Also, importantly, students often ask for amendments, for additional things to be taken into account or for their own perspectives to be recognised. Where possible, we always try to accommodate this, sometimes appending a comment to the end of the exchange, and sometimes adding in additional wording in italics. This helps underline the authenticity of the exchange. It is not about us judging the students or choosing random feedback phrases to fulfil our job, this is about a genuine coming together of the experience of the teacher with the effort of the student, and the experience of the student with the effort of the teacher.
The subsequent feedback exchange for the next assignment, is added to this first record. So when the students receive their next feedback, they can review their feedback from the first (or all prior) assignments, as well as their own responses. This is incredibly valuable, and both teachers and students find themselves referring back to previous comments with each additional exchange.
This paper-based, time-dedicated, bilateral exchange of feedback also works really well with team work. The team is only provided with one paper copy of the feedback sheet, and the students have to read it together – usually out loud, and come up with their responses together. This is impressive to watch, with students deep in discussion, dissecting the feedback, trying different ways to understand it and really processing every written word.
And of course, all this is supported by the presence of the teacher in the room (virtual or otherwise) offering to answer questions, soothe disappointments and offer delirious celebration for (sometimes minor) achievements along the way.
In many of our modules, we are able to offer both public and private feedback to students. This works especially well with team work.
We always take time before the assignment to explain how the feedback will be given, why it is a good idea and to consent the students to participate. We have never had a student not want to share their feedback in this way, but it does take some trust between the students and teacher that this will be handled helpfully and sensitively. I often offer an example of public feedback first, before the first assignment is completed. The main thing that wins the students over is the idea that they can get so much feedback, learn from mistakes without having to make those mistakes themselves and that they can ‘supersize’ their learning.
This type of feedback provision typically works well on posters, short pieces of written work or things like annotated bibliographies.
The students submit their work to a public folder (visible to everyone in the class). As I mark the work, I annotate corrections, suggestions, questions, ideas, exclamations of joy etc all over the work. As these are generally short assignments, I pretty much annotate every single word they offer. These comments are purely about the work submitted and not related to the students in any way. And I finalise with a three sentence comment of what is great about the submission and what one thing would improve it.
I then also complete the detailed dialogic feedback sheet for the team or individual as appropriate.
This might sound like a doubling of teacher workload, but actually, I find both types of feedback support each other, and I actually complete the detailed sheet more quickly when I have spent time thinking and annotating the submission first.
In the feedback class, the students receive their detailed feedback – which also contains detailed comments on the students working processes, team working and other more private or personal elements of the work. While the students are going through their feedback and writing their responses, I remind them that there is lots of public feedback to review and learn from – and let them know that at the end of the class I will be asking them what they have learned from someone else’s feedback.
This really does fast-track the learning in the room, allowing the students or teams to take giant steps forward, leap-frogging potential mis-steps, breaking them out of their personal thinking constraints and celebrating and contextualising our progress as a class.
I’m sure as a teacher, we’ve all had that feeling where after a student asks a great question, and we answer it in conversation, we think – I wish I had said that to the whole class – they could have really benefited from that. And indeed, I have often asked a student to raise that question in whole class discussion, or even asked if I can share the discussion – interrupting the class and opening up the discussion more widely. But we also know that not every student is confident to ask every question, some students would benefit from hearing other answers, or even hearing other students having positive conversations with us. And in the classroom, this happened from time to time, when you are having a conversation at the front of the class with another student, and nearby you sense someone listening in, or there is a hover student eavesdropping a few feet away. But this is actually really useful and helpful to the students – and needn’t be an elicit or somewhat undesirable phenomenon.
Since starting virtual classes, we have had to address this explicitly – and we have been able to harness this as a positive aspect of feedback provision. And as a tool that we will take back to the on-campus classroom.
Our virtual classes mostly begin in plenary in the Zoom classroom (after social time in the team rooms). Students then go off to work in the team Zoom rooms, coming back to the main classroom to ask questions, seek feedback or just catch up with their teacher. But this main classroom is also the conduit to the team rooms. So if a student drops off the Zoom, they re-enter through the main classroom. If a student is late to class, they enter through the main classroom. If they change rooms, they tend to land back in the main classroom first. So the main classroom is by no means a private space. And students sometimes hang out in the main classroom to work on something that they want rapid feedback on. Or perhaps because they don’t feel ready to go to their team room. Or because they are waiting to speak to me.
And initially, I wasn’t sure how to handle this – do I acknowledge that they can all hear the 1:1 conversation I’m having with a particular student. Do I ask them to wait elsewhere. Do I take the student to a private room (but then I am not in the classroom and students get stuck in the waiting room)?
So in our second year of virtual classrooming, I decided that this could be a helpful feature. So we explicitly discussed what happens when you come to ask a question or seek feedback. We stated together that it is not rude or invasive to listen to another student receiving feedback – but that if any student wanted to receive feedback in private, this could be requested. In practice, I always check with the student that they are ok to speak ‘in public’, and if I feel the conversation becoming personal or potentially exposing, I check in with the student and ask if they are ok to continue in public. If we need a private space, we ask the other students in the classroom to go to a ‘waiting zone room’ from where I can call them back. The students have always been very respectful, and sometimes without asking will take themselves to the waiting zone room if they feel they are intruding.
But for the majority of questions, we continue our conversations with onlookers and vicarious feedback receivers. Even whole teams sometimes sit in on feedback that other teams are receiving, mysteriously disappearing off before the end, only to return with the issue that was being discussed already resolved in their own work, and able to use their feedback opportunity for further questions.
As well as just learning directly from the content of the feedback discussion, it also helps less confident students formulate their own questions, witness helpful discussion, witness compassion and kindness, and develop their own confidence to come forward. They understand that other students might have the same concerns or worries as themselves. They understand that they will not be ridiculed or shouted at for asking a ‘silly’ question. They understand that they can use the teacher to drive forward their own work. And finally, the students show each other kindnesses and generosities too. They sense when someone is nervous to ask a question, or is not feeling confident about their own work. And they chip in with encouragement and friendly words. Building support networks and meaningful connections between themselves.
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