When I speak with other teachers about feedback, one of the main concerns I hear is that the feedback we give students — feedback we pour countless hours into — seems to have little impact on student growth.
I know this frustration well, and for many years I grumbled about the fact that my students never grew from my feedback as much as I thought they should. Over and over and over I gave feedback that I thought was clear and useful and over and over and over the students would make the same mistakes on the next paper, almost as if my feedback never happened.
I realize now what was going wrong: I was falling victim to the Forgetting Curve, first presented by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus in 1885. The Forgetting Curve models how and how quickly we forget new information, and it demonstrates what we as teachers likely already know: That any information encountered just once is generally forgotten, often sooner than later.
Why do kids forget our feedback?
Most modern pedagogical practices take this Forgetting Curve into account and find ways to revisit information multiple times over multiple days in multiple ways. Gone are the days where standard practice is to dump information on students once in a lecture or reading and leave the internalization entirely up to them—except when it comes to feedback.
Feedback still tends to be delivered in brief, isolated moments, to be looked at once, if at all, by the students. Rarely is it spoken of again or connected to the lessons in class or feedback from previous weeks. And thus, as Ebbinghaus might remind us, most of our feedback ends up forgotten.
In writing my recently released book, Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out, I came to understand that many teachers already understand that feedback looked at once is likely to be forgotten, but the Herculean effort required to provide regular feedback to 130, 140, 150, or more students is already too much; adding more steps simply is not possible, even if they want to.
This reaction is completely understandable; I currently have 158 students in my five sections of English, so I know what it feels like to be a juggler with so many batons in the air that I constantly feel I will drop one. However, there is a way to get students revisiting and diving deeper into feedback without adding more work to your day: Implementing a Feedback Cycle.
In a Feedback Cycle, students use and reflect on feedback throughout a unit, as opposed to receiving it and moving on. This shifts the feedback from being the end of the conversation to being the beginning of a rich, ongoing conversation about improving the student’s skills and understanding—a conversation where students get the time, space, and guidance needed to fully process and squeeze every drop of meaning from each piece of feedback.
Feedback Cycles can take many forms, and the best way to create one is generally to find ways to reorganize and link what you are already doing. For example, I have long had students set writing goals, held writing conferences, asked students to reflect on their writing, and focused my feedback for each student on a handful of focus areas for each paper. All these elements are a part of my Feedback Cycle, which begins where my feedback used to end—with the student receiving feedback from me—and generally goes like this:
- After students receive my feedback, they reflect on it in preparation for conferences with me.
- The feedback is again revisited and clarified during the writing conferences.
- After the conferences, students are expected to use the feedback in their revision. I underscore this point by having the assessment be based in part on if they addressed and grappled with my feedback.
- At the conclusion of the unit, the students self-assess their scores and justify their assessments by reflecting on how they moved forward in the core areas and the areas I gave them feedback about.
- The students use this final self-grade/reflection from the last unit to set goals for the next unit, and these goals help to direct my next round of feedback, starting the Feedback Cycle anew again!
What is beautiful about this cycle is that the students revisit and reflect on each piece of feedback in meaningful ways at least 5-6 times—all without me doing any extra work or making any major changes. Every element in my Feedback Cycle was already a part of my class; all I did was tie them all together into one coherent narrative. This might seem like a small change, but I have found no pedagogical change that I have made to be more powerful, as my many hours of individualized feedback that was regularly misunderstood, forgotten, or ignored suddenly became farm more clear, memorable, and effective!