This post is an adapted excerpt from Flash Feedback, my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy.

Me for far too many years.

For years I struggled with the fact that I would spend untold hours scrawling notes and suggestions through each set of student papers only to have the next set of papers feel almost as if my feedback to the previous paper had never been given. Like some endless and highly frustrating Groundhog Day, my students tended to make the same mistakes as I gave them the same responses over and over and over.

I now have a culprit for what was going wrong: I was falling victim to the Forgetting Curve, which is the subject of one of the more popular posts of this blog and can be summed up like this:

We forget nearly everything we encounter only once, with well over 90% evaporating from our minds in a few days.

My rough rendering of The Forgetting Curve

Most modern pedagogical practices take this Forgetting Curve into account and find ways to revisit information multiple times over multiple days in multiple ways–as thoughtful, spaced revisiting of information is the key to long-term learning. 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.

I have written about this before, but there is one common glaring exception to this trend of more recursive practice in our classes though: feedback to student writing.

Feedback still largely tends to be delivered in brief, isolated moments, likely be looked at once, if it is actually looked at all by the students. Rarely is it spoken of again in class or connected to feedback from previous weeks.

This is exactly what I was doing with my students in those early years when the feedback never seemed to stick. They would get the papers in some random moment, look at it once, and then put it away, and by the time the next paper came along, most lessons learned from the feedback had long since disappeared.

My defense at the time was that the effort and work required to provide feedback to 150 or 160 students was already too much, and adding more steps, more feedback, and more things to do in class was just too much to juggle for a juggler who already had more batons in the air than he could handle. At the same time though, I know that I was always really uncomfortable with the fact that I spent so many painstaking hours providing feedback that seemed doomed to be largely forgotten.

Jump forward to today and I now know that there is a way to get students regularly revisiting and diving deeper into feedback that, far from adding to the teacher’s load, actually takes some work off of their plates: creating a feedback cycle.

The idea of a feedback cycle is simple, and I am hardly the first person to suggest or implement one. Still, like many other pedagogical moves, often the most simple are actually the most powerful–and no change has made a larger impact on my class than committing to a feedback cycle.

What makes a feedback cycle so powerful is that it shifts 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. And in that conversation students get the time, space, and guidance needed to fully process our feedback and squeeze every drop of meaning from it.

Further, while implementing a cycle might seem like more work for the teacher, if carefully designed, it doesn’t have to add a single minute to our teaching load. Take for example, my standard feedback cycle:

Regular readers of the blog will know that the vast majority of my feedback for writing is given in the earlier, formative stages, as that is where its impact is maximized. This formative feedback is where my cycle begins, as it is the moment in each unit where every student gets deep, comprehensive feedback from me.

Directly after I give formative feedback is when I hold my main writing conference with students. I do this for two reasons. First, my feedback can double as pre-conference notes, saving me another read through their papers. For those who worry as I once did that this might be redundant, remember we learn from attention and repetition and conferences are a great way to make sure that students are clearly understanding our feedback.

Second, in preparation of the conferences I also have my students write a reflection on their rough drafts that includes a line about directly reflecting on and responding to my feedback:

This pairing of feedback, student reflection, and conferences assures that students look at the feedback at least 2-3 times right away, and sets up the next step, which is for the final student assessment to be based in part on students grappling with and moving forward on the areas identified in my feedback. I even have a section in the co-constructed rubric allocated to this:

Putting that students need to “grapple” with my feedback right in the rubric itself might not seem necessary, but I’ve found it that without it most students don’t tend to revisit feedback much as they revise. The front and center placement of the message that students need to dig into the feedback on the rubric helps to make it clear to all that using the feedback is a necessary step to a piece being considered as “final.”

Then before the students submit their final papers, they give themselves a self-grade and justify it by writing a paragraph where they explore their piece. Like the conference reflection, I ask them to specifically respond to my feedback:

Finally, when we start a new unit and set goals for the unit, I encourage them to base the new goals on their observations and the feedback they received during the unit. To help with this, I also do goal setting on the same day that I return the papers from the previous unit.

What is beautiful about this cycle is that in total the students revisit and reflect on my feedback in meaningful ways at least 5-6 times, and it is all done without me doing any extra work. Everything in my feedback cycle–conferences, rubric creation, goal-setting, etc.–are pieces of my classes already. All I am doing is tying them all together into one coherent narrative, but that one small change acts as a remarkable amplifier, allowing my messages to come through stronger, deeper, and clearer!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

Let me help you!

Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

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