Before winter break, I asked my subscribers to send me topics that they were interested in discussing in 2021. I got a lot of great suggestions, but the clear winner was to go deeper into how to provide quality feedback faster.
This makes a lot of sense, as so many teachers have been pushed to the brink by this year. In general teaching loads before this year were already too big and too many teachers already wore too many hats, and yet the days before we had to simultaneously teach online and in-person or load every syllable of our lesson into a learning management system seem, at least to me, like a relative breeze.
To manage this extra load while still maintaining the quality of our instruction, we need to be as efficient as possible right now, and for writing teachers any talk of efficiency begins with feedback, given that each minute of feedback taken on the scale of a 150 or 160 students requires over 2.5 hours of teacher time.
So today, I wanted to take a look at an email sent by a reader named Ann-Marie after my recent post on looking for ways to find the poetry in each student and use it to unpack what we know about what the most efficient and effective comments tend to look like.
In her email, Ann-Marie shared that, like me (which I discuss in the piece), she also stumbled across her old high school papers decades later. Unlike me though, she found a positive exemplar reaching out through the years. Sitting there on one of her papers, which she described as an ambitious, yet somewhat muddled 2:00am creation from her junior hear of high school, was the following comment scrawled next to a particularly opaque section of the paper:
“I see you ran into an organization issue here.”
In regards to the comment, Ann-Marie told me the following:
“I don’t remember the other comments, but I marveled at the simplicity and kindness of these words. I love this comment, and find myself using it more and more for those students who did not meet the expectations of an assignment. Not only does it give me the ability to say a lot (Where is your thesis? Please don’t hand in a giant block of text, You need a clear argument…and counterargument…and, actually evidence, too!; This is only 5 sentences, and it should be 2 pages) in a few words, but it removes shame from the student and allows me to focus on their “‘poetry,’ as you say.”
When looking at this comment from an efficiency/effectiveness standpoint, she is absolutely right in her love for it too. While I’m not sure it is the exact right go-to comment for me (as good feedback can and should be as unique as the teachers themselves), I see you ran into an organizational issue here demonstrates some key traits that make it a good exemplar of best practices for effective and efficient comments. They include the following:
1. Strong comments often lead with description, not evaluation.
Researchers at Michigan State University have come up with a model for providing effective feedback called Describe–Evaluate–Success. The idea behind it is that starting a comment with something neutral and non-judgmental instead of instantly leaping into evaluation can help to lower the natural defenses writers often put up and center the discussion on common ground. This in turn makes it more likely that the student will accept and use the comment in his/her/their revision.
I have found this to indeed be the case, but the one major downside of the Describe-Evaluate-Success approach is that it can be time-consuming to spell out description, evaluation, and paths forward when one has 160+ students. In this comment though, we see a time-saving twist on Describe-Evaluate-Success that I use all the time to help me do it as efficiently as possible. Instead of going all the way through describing, evaluating, and success, I see you ran into an organizational issue here only spells out the first step, a relatively neutral description. The evaluation and success steps are not mentioned directly, but the implication is that the teacher and student will discuss them together during a writing conference. This splitting of Describe-Evaluate-Success between the comments and the conference is a great time saving tool, and I also like that it frames the act of evaluation and discovering paths forward as a joint effort. This leads me to the next common trait of effective/efficient comments:
2. Strong comments generally require the students to do most of the work.
The classic way of giving feedback is for teachers to go through and fix up the paper. Add a comma there, cross out a redundant phrase here, capitalize all the proper nouns–or in short, act as an editor would. And much like it does when a competent editor marks up a paper, this approach undoubtedly makes the paper better. Whether it helps the student writer to be better though is another story.
The reason that this approach can often limit student growth is because the teacher, not the student, is the one doing most of the thinking and work, and to paraphrase a quote from Daniel Willingham, learning is the residue of thought and work.
What I like about the comment above is it does’t do the work for the student. It points out organization as a part of the pathway forward, but ultimately the student is the one who must walk the path. The teacher will be there in conferences and class, ready to offer guidance if needed, but there is no mistaking whose feet will do the footwork. That brings me to the next trait that quality, quick comments often have:
3. Strong comments respect the students’ autonomy and authorship.
When teachers respond to student writing, they can often inadvertently imply through taking over the paper (see acting like an editor above) or their curt tone (which is often caused by having too many papers to work though) that the writing expert in the room is the teacher, while the students are simple, slightly hopeless Padawans, reliant on their instructor for nearly all growth and improvement.
I strong believe this pecking order that is so regularly woven into teacher comments is why students so often resist true revision of their papers and peer response. If the teacher is the real expert, why go anywhere else? I mean, would you want to waste your time Googling how to make an apple pie when you know the Barefoot Contessa is stopping by later?
I see you ran into an organizational issue here does not imply that there is only one true expert in the room though. Instead it respects the student as a fellow writer and active agent, inviting them to take the next step. That next step might be on their own or it might be to conference with the teacher or a peer, but the choice is ultimately up to them.
4. Strong comments are often warm and human.
At first glance I see you ran into an organizational issue here might not seem remarkably warm, but when one digs into it, the little semantic details make it actually quite welcoming when one parses it out. For example…
- The qualifier of “I see” frames it as just one person’s opinion, as opposed to being a universal decree. It also marks the start of a conversation, not the end of the story.
- “Ran into an organizational issue here” implies that while this area needs work, the student’s writing isn’t always defined by poor organization.
- And even the phrasing of “organizational issue” as opposed to “organizational problems” makes it seem less dire and more like a little bump in the road.
In the end, I see you ran into an organizational issue here may or may not be for you, but either way it is a great tuning fork with which to calibrate our responses. So many of us have been trained by our experience and our mentors to go right to evaluation, correction, and sage on the stage mode, and yet decades of research have made clear that the this approach both takes a long time and often has less than stellar results. And yet when we invite students in as trusted partners and offer them pathways and mirrors instead of readymade answers, the results, both in terms of their growth and our time, are generally far superior!
Thanks as always for reading, and yours in teaching,
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