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Hacking Feedback: 3 Strategies + Tools

November 23, 2015 / by Sean McComb

So much of teaching is living in tension: giving more support vs. letting a student productively struggle. Following your own judgement vs. following the curriculum. Praise for good work vs. pushing for better.

And one tension I think about often is giving students my best vs. having more to give to future students. Burnout is a real risk in this profession. We have to find ways to do the job well and in a way that let's us make it a career. As a teacher of high school English students and a father of a toddler, I feel this tension acutely. Fortunately, I've found some strategies to help make feedback more time-effective, without sacrificing the support and direction students need for their growth.

Strategy 1: Directing Traffic

This is a simple strategy, sparked by a conversation I had with Sarah Brown Wessling. It can work across content areas and be done digitally or on paper. After students submit assignments, I highlight their work in three different colors. Green indicates great work -- keep going. Yellow is cause for attention for a more minor error -- caution here. Red (or pink) means to give that bit of work attention immediately -- stop and fix.

Using colors rather than long margin comments saves me a great deal of time. The danger is when students don’t know how to fix what needs attention. Since implementing this strategy I've found that more often than not, students simply needed their attention drawn to the error or weakness and with a fresh look they're able to see their mistake. When they're not able to see the mistake, I ask them to first take their question to a peer. Quite frequently, they're able to figure out the issue together, and in the process, both get more work critically thinking about skills. At times, I've combined the highlighting with one or two words in the margins to direct their thinking further, if I can anticipate a challenge in understanding.

An added bonus of this strategy is I can glance at a piece of work and see if I've given a balance of warm and cool feedback. I get so focused on moving students forward that I forget to praise them for arriving where they are. This strategy helps me catch and correct that.

Strategy 2: Navigation Notes

Sometimes students just need direction. For shorter pieces of writing, sometimes I'll offer students three or four bulleted phrases to direct their attention or revision. This could be something such as:

  • unclear claim
  • smooth source integration
  • cluttered thesis
  • excellent transition
  • tone seems harsh -- see [insert a few specific words]
  • characterization discussion shallow
  • show don’t tell
  • consider audience

Similar to Directing Traffic, these notes provide direction for analysis and improvement, while still challenging students to think through their own work and make their own improvements. This strategy is a compromise. In an ideal world, I'd be able to provide detailed feedback, identify (and perhaps correct) all grammar and spelling mistakes, give alternative examples, etc., on all assignments. There are times when I do provide that level of feedback. But one of the realities of this work is that too often we don't have enough time to do it as we'd like, and so we have to make compromises.

Strategy 3: Voice Notes

One of my favorite strategies is to provide voice notes rather than written notes. This allows for the same depth of feedback but requires much less time in delivery. I encourage students to submit their work whenever possible using Google Docs or Word Online. In the case of Google Docs, I use a Chrome browser extension called "Read&Write." This is a dynamic tool, free to educators (note this when registering), that has many applications. For the purpose of feedback, it allows me to record and embed voice notes of up to one minute in length multiple times throughout a doc. And the student accessing the doc does not have to have the extension to access the note. They just open the doc and click.

For students submitting through Word Online, I haven't found an integrated tool, but I can work around this by recording a Vocaroo and commenting with a link to each Vocaroo. While it takes a little time to set up and get rolling with each tool, the time spent is quickly recovered in how efficiently my thoughts on student writing can be stored in ways they can access.

A third tool, for more holistic feedback, is Screencast-O-Matic. This screen capture tool allows me to record myself talking through a student's piece of writing. Similar to what I might say in a quick writing conference, it allows me to talk for a few minutes while scrolling through and highlighting sections. Importantly, unlike a written note at the end of a composition, this allows students to hear my tone, inflection, and more nuanced thoughts.

Models and Success Criteria

It's important to note that each of these strategies relies on students having an understanding of what success looks like for a given assignment or skill; they need to be able to compare their work with better work in order to adjust their aim. This is why it's so important to provide models and ensure that students understand (and perhaps have even co-created) the success criteria as well.

Have you found other strategies to hack feedback? Can you see these strategies working in your classroom?

Topics: Professional Learning, Assessment, Coaching, English Language Arts

Sean McComb

Written by Sean McComb

Sean McComb teaches English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County's STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and is a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with Sean on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.

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