Why feedback is SO time consuming — and how to fix it

Teaching

Teaching | Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Why feedback is SO time consuming — and how to fix it

Providing feedback can take SO much effort. Here are some ways to get better feedback results in less time.

Tell me if this sounds familiar. You’re chained to your desk grading papers. It’s getting monotonous, but you feel like you need to do it because it’s important.

You hand those papers back to the students, and where do they end up? Yep, the trash.

(Even if you make them keep that homework in a binder or a folder to turn in later, you know they’re still probably not looking at those papers, right?)

What we think we’re doing here is providing meaningful, important feedback to our students.

Feedback can be meaningful. It IS important.

But sometimes, the way that we do it stinks.

  • It sucks all of the life and joy out of us as teachers.
  • It isn’t delivered in a way that actually impacts learning.
  • Done wrong, it can have an adverse effect on students — the opposite of what we want.

Why do we give feedback?

It may be good to get to the “why” of the issue first. Why do put so much effort into this?

Because it works.

How can we improve feedback?

Here are some concrete ideas you can start using right away …

1. Automate basic feedback.

There’s no shame in this! I’ve heard Alice Keeler, my Ditch That Homework co-author, put it this way: If a computer can grade it, it should.

Likely, not everything students do for us is at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We still have to build through the basics before getting to the highest levels of critical thinking. And that’s OK.

As we do that, here are some ways to provide automated basic feedback:

  • Google Forms: The quizzes feature of Google Forms does this very easily. You create a quiz, make an answer key, add explanations to answers, and decide if students can see correct answers/missed questions afterward.
  • FAQ section: You see these on websites all the time. The company collects the questions it fields the most and provides responses in a “frequently asked questions” page. For consumers, it means we get instant feedback to our questions.
  • Video-aided feedback (short recordings): What if we started recording video of any teaching and feedback we provide students? Record them with the YouTube app on your phone connected to your school Google account. Use a recording tool like Screencastify that lets you record your screen, with your webcam or both. Students could access these to get support for struggles they have.

There’s a bit of a stigma around automated feedback. Some teachers think it’s not real teaching. Or it’s lazy.

It’s not the single, perfect solution to providing feedback. However …

  • Automated feedback saves you time. And if you had more time for the things that mattered most, your students would benefit, right?
  • Automated feedback gives students feedback in the moment they need it. This is effective. Students are disconnected from the learning they did if they get feedback the next day.

“But it takes so much time to set up automated feedback! I don’t have that kind of time.”

I get that. But how long does it take you to do traditional grading? Set up automated grading ONCE and see how long it takes. Then see how much time it saves you in the long run — and the impact on students.

2. Don’t give too much feedback at once. 

Teachers are fixers.

We see errors in student work. Mistakes. Flaws in logic. And we want to fix them.

At some point, it’s not helping students anymore.

Sometimes, we fix ALL of the errors in student work because it makes US feel better. Let’s admit it.

It’s like seeing two seconds left on the microwave timer. Or when someone doesn’t tear all of the paper towel and leaves a corner.

Gotta fix it.

When students see all of our fixing, it can cause overwhelm. This isn’t because students are soft or inattentive, either.

It’s based in cognitive load theory. It basically says that your working memory has limits … that you can only think about so many things before your brain throws up its arms and says, “I’m done!”

Here’s what we miss about this in the classroom …

Students load up their brains with LOTS of things before they even set foot in the classroom. And those count toward their cognitive load, too.

When you hand back student work and it’s dripping in red ink, there’s only so much of that “feedback” that students will process and retain.

If they’re like me, it might cause them to start to question themselves and their entire abilities in the class. Our goal with feedback is to help students improve. This is debilitating instead of empowering.

Dumping tons of comments and corrections on students all at once doesn’t help anyone.

It’s overwhelming and counter-productive for students. It is time-consuming for teachers with low return investment of effort.

Let’s limit the feedback we give students to a reasonable amount to process and implement in one sitting.

3. Use strategies that are proven to work.

Let’s talk about just one particular strategy that gets a bad rap these days. (See how I’m lessening your cognitive load here?)

Flash cards.

They’ve been around for ages. And there’s a reason for that.

They give students immediate feedback. (Was I right or wrong? The back of the flashcard tells me.)

They use retrieval practice, a powerful, brain-friendly practice backed by cognitive science. (I’ve been on a big retrieval practice kick recently.)

With a tool like Quizlet (quizlet.com), a new deck of flash cards can be created in a matter of a couple minutes (by teachers OR students). The mobile app means students can carry them in their pockets any time. Plus, they have a variety of practice activities to choose from in the app.

A couple of tiny tips for using them can reap even greater long-term memory.

Pooja Agarwal, a cognitive scientist with a K-12 background, shares cognitive science best practices on her website, RetrievalPractice.org. Some advice from her about getting the most out of flash cards:

  • Practice them until you get them right at least three times. Go through the whole deck of flash cards three times, whether you know them or not. After that, the ones you struggle with are the ones that need more work. Students drop flash cards from their decks too quickly, she says.
  • Shuffle. The practice of interleaving — practicing new concepts in a different order — makes for stickier learning. We can use the shuffle button as more than a defense for cheaters! With one click, the shuffle button can increase learning with flash cards.

You can do this. Great feedback is reachable.

Feedback doesn’t have to consume your life. And it can have more impact on student learning.

Thankfully, you don’t need to clear more time in your calendar to improve feedback. Grant Wiggins wrote in this ASCD publication:

Research shows that less teaching plus more feedback is the key to achieving greater learning.

And there are numerous ways — through technology, peers, and other teachers — that students can get the feedback they need.

More resources on feedback and cognitive load theory:

How do you provide feedback effectively and efficiently to students? Tell us in a comment below!

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