There are three things that we know pretty clearly about feedback:
- If delivered well, feedback can be one of the most transformative teaching tools in a teacher’s toolbox. (Hattie and Clarke, 2018)
- Far too much feedback, however, is not delivered well, and thus it has minimal or even negative effects. (Hirsch, 2016; Hattie and Timperley, 2007)
- When, where, and how feedback is given tends to be what separates transformative feedback from ineffective feedback, with feedback that is given regularly, during the formative stages of a piece’s production, and in a timely fashion having a larger positive impact that feedback given sporadically and weeks after assignments are completed (McGee, 2016).
These conclusions are likely not shocking to most. Many of us have seen the right piece of feedback change the trajectory of a student’s writing and have also seen far too much feedback bounce off of students like it was never given at all. And it just makes sense that prompt feedback given at regular intervals during the formation of a formal paper or project would have a larger impact than irregular feedback received weeks later, well after the culminating task is finished.
Yet, while these points are logical enough, there is a reason that delayed, scattershot, and therefore generally less effective feedback still tends to be so common in practicing classrooms: The logistics of providing regular meaningful feedback quickly are daunting.
Take my classes, for example. I currently have 153 students amongst five sections—a load that is far from the biggest out there. With this load, every minute of feedback that I provide to each student takes two and a half hours of work, meaning that every sixteen minutes of feedback given equates to an additional 40 hours of work. This begs the question: Is it even possible in these conditions to give regular, prompt, and meaningful feedback?
The answer is yes, but it means that we must shift what feedback in the classroom means.
If the only feedback I provide comes exclusively through time-intensive comments in the margins of student papers, it will inevitably be significantly delayed and come a few times a semester at best, no matter how many night and weekend hours I spend responding to student work.
Instead, we need to use other, faster forms of feedback—flash feedback—in the place of some of those extensive margin notes. While providing comprehensive feedback to full student papers is a useful and necessary practice, effective feedback can be given in many ways to a multitude of different writing assignments and moments in the writing process. Three of the most effective and efficient are the following:
Targeted feedback is feedback that focuses specifically on helping students build or refine a certain skill. It works because feedback on one skill can be both meaningful and given fast, often by the next day or even within the class period itself.
For example, if a teacher wants to assess the students’ understanding of commas, she could have students write a page on any topic in any genre where they must deploy a certain number of commas. Then, by keeping her main focus and response purely on commas, it is possible to read and respond to an entire class-set of targeted assignments like this in under half an hour.
Further, if the teacher is careful about how the feedback is given, her response can be made even faster and more effective. For example, with the comma example above, don’t fix commas in student work because doing so means that teacher, not the student, is the one doing the work. Instead, simply indicate how many comma issues there are and require them to find and fix them before credit is given for the assignment.
Conferences are a powerful feedback tool, but similar to written feedback, the logistics can be quite scary. For example, in my classes, holding a 5-minute conference with each student requires nearly an entire week of class time.
Although longer conferences are incredibly important on occasion, if we want to conference regularly, we need to find ways to have meaningful conversations in blisteringly fast time. If well-structured, micro-conferences (conferences designed take less than a minute each) can take place in even the biggest classes within the confines of one class period, often with time to spare.
The exact structures of micro-conferences should vary according to the topic and situation, but they work best with the same basic components:
- The teacher identifies one or two focus areas for the students and provides a mentor text or short activity to demonstrate to the students what he is looking for.
- Each micro-conference starts with the student telling the teacher about his self-assessment. The teacher then gives her thoughts and the conversation continues as needed. Sometimes the conversations last only about 10 or 15 seconds because the student clearly understands the focus area; other times they will go a bit longer because the student has questions or misconceptions, but the goal is to average 1 to 2 minutes, maximum.
- If the conference will need more time, the teacher can give the student a tangible task for the moment and politely ask to stop back by once everyone else has had a conference.
- Students engage in a self-assessment activity where they assess their current understanding and performance concerning the focus area(s) and back up those assessments with examples.
Student prewriting provides a wonderful opportunity to give meaningful formative feedback in almost no time at all. When we ask students to share their work in its earliest stages, we can assess it and offer real, meaningful feedback in mere seconds—seconds that could save minutes for teachers and hours for students down the road.
For example, we can have students engage in the common prewriting activity of having them draw a visual map of a narrative, but instead of just treating that as brainstorming, we can use those maps to assess and engage in a dialogue about their initial story structure, characterization, details. Further, because the students are in the early stages, they are often more open to big suggestions about structure and character than they are once the paper has already been written.
Flash feedback can be the neutron stars of the writing classroom; the space these take up is tiny, but they are heavy and powerful. Flash feedback provides clear paths forward for students when students need them, creates a culture of ongoing collaboration instead of intermittent judgment, and increases moments of meaningful interaction, which has been shown to make students more engaged and more resilient. And, the best part: If well-structured, the flash feedback approaches above can do all this without adding a single extra paper for the teacher to take home.
For more ideas on giving Flash Feedback, check out: Flash Feedback [Grades 6-12]: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out.
Hattie, J., & Clarke, E. (2018). Visible learning feedback. London, England: Routledge.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. Retrieved from http://www.columbia.edu/~mvp19/ETF/Feedback.pdf
Hirsch, J. (2017). The feedback fix: Dump the past, embrace the future, and lead the way to change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
McGee, P. (2017). Feedback that moves writers forward: how to escape correcting mode and transform student writing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.