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Some of the strangest images of how Covid-19 has affected the world are the early pictures of professional and college sports teams around the world playing in front of empty stands. Those images were my first major indication that something different and scary was heading our way, and they perfectly capture the feeling of the moment we are living in. When I walk through my neighborhood today, it feels an awful lot like an empty cavernous stadium.

I feel that same eerie silence as well when it comes to my classes. It is not that I’m out of communication with my students (here is what I focused on during my first and second weeks of distance learning); it is just that I am used to the noise of the hallways, the energy of a classroom jammed with 35 bodies, and the hundreds of small conversations I had on a daily basis just a few weeks ago.

Without those things, it has felt in recent weeks like I was teaching to an empty lecture hall, even as I posted notes for students, provided enrichment opportunities, and responded to their letters and enrichment work. This feeling wasn’t fully wrong either. My approach to teaching relies heavily on small human-to-human moments with students. I focus a lot of attention on greeting them at the door, quick check-ins, and making sure to ask about that upcoming play or game, and replicating those remotely isn’t fully possible.

To make up for these missing moments, I have begun to focus even more than normal this week on the one consistent area of interaction with my students that I have left: my feedback to their work. In the same way that small noises in my neighborhood like bird calls or wind chimes are suddenly amplified without the ambient noise of a city behind them, our feedback without all of the other interactions of the school day will likely come through even louder and have a bigger impact on student learning and motivation during the months of distance learning ahead.

This added weight to feedback will be tricky though because many of us will also have less bandwidth and time than usual this spring as we translate our brick-and-mortar classes into digital ones and care for ourselves and our families (for example, I am frantically writing this as my two young kids nap). It should also be noted that providing quality feedback in normal circumstances is already difficult and time-consuming enough.

I know that we are being bombarded with information from all directions right now, so I plan to keep my upcoming posts as short as possible (for more depth, on any of these ideas, you can find all of them in my recently released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster–Without Burning Out). But I want to spend the next few weeks providing a quick cheatsheet to the feedback practices that will likely play a key role in helping to provide efficient distance learning feedback that is also as effective as possible.

The first topic that I am covering today might be the most important. It is a question that will be at the forefront of my mind during every piece of feedback I write until we can get back to physical schools:

Am I acting as a Detached Authority or an Interested Reader?

The idea behind this question is that students have different styles, personalities, skills, and contexts that they are writing from on any given day. And yet as teachers we often come to their work with rather rigid philosophies of what we will respond to and how we will respond. I refer to this as the Detached Authority approach, and in it the teacher’s job is to enforce the rules of right and wrong in his/her/their classroom. Every comma splice, incorrectly formatted quote, or misspelling is addressed, often in exactly the same way, regardless of the student and the situation.

The issue with this approach is that it will inevitably work well for some students and not work as well for others because each situation is different. Feedback experts and researchers have been saying this for decades, and yet the Detached Authority approach still largely dominates the classrooms I see.

The counterpoint to the Detached Authority is what David Fuller (1987) calls an Interested Reader, which is someone who…

  • Reads carefully
  • Maintains a clear and specific role
  • Remains aware of the context
  • Stays sensitive to the student

In short, the idea is that an Interested Reader thinks about the student, context, and his/her/their role as teacher, and then focuses the response on the student’s needs. The difference between this and the Detached Authority can be nuanced. Both point out problem areas, offer suggestions, and give praise, but the difference is that one focuses on enforcing the rules and the other focuses on moving the writer forward. Here is a chart from Flash Feedback that lays out the key differences between the two:

I would argue that taking the stance of an Interested Reader instead of the Detached Authority is a better practice in nearly all settings. It frees us from having to mark everything, which in turn gives us time to dig deeper into the most important issues. It also makes it far less likely that we will overload students and far more likely that we will respond in more targeted individual ways that will help the student to feel a connection to the teacher and the class.

But in distance learning during a once-in-a-generation crisis, I would argue that the Interested Reader approach is all the more essential. Many students are desperate for real adults who they don’t live with to listen to them, many more will have lessened bandwidth due to the omnipresent stress and uncertainty of the world right now, and others still will likely be dealing with illness and loss. Further, most states and districts are going to ungraded work, meaning that the internal motivation of the students will play a central role in their engagement with the work now that the normal external motivators of grades and test scores are largely gone.

With this all in mind, I might even go a step further and say that instead of just being an Interested Readers, we might want to broaden for the moment to becoming Interested Humans. This means that we think about the student and our content and also think about our current roles and contexts–some of which are likely wildly different than they have ever been before–and use those as our guideposts for response. If that means we focus in one response entirely on the work because the student needs a distraction, that is what we should do. If that means that we focus in another response entirely on the student because they are too distracted to work at the moment, that is what we should do instead.

These days don’t have a precedent. There are no sudden-epidemic-learning experts or studies, so I suggest instead that we listen to Donald Graves who said, “We need to look for, listen for, and feel the heartbeats in our students.” Then we need to act accordingly.

Yours in teaching,

Matt

IF YOU LIKED THIS…

Join my mailing list and I will send you a thoughtful post about finding balance and success as a writing teacher and a list of curated reading suggestions each week. Also, as a thank you for signing up, you will also receive a short ebook on how to cut feedback time without cutting feedback quality that is adapted from my newly released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

3 thoughts on “The Essential Role of Feedback in Distance Learning

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