Tips for Grading and Giving Students Feedback | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers. In this chapter, titled, "Tips for Dealing with the Grading and Feedback Masses," I provide an insight into my own grade book and give advice on how to cut down on the stack of papers and assignments while still giving effective feedback to students.

I don't know how your desk looks after your classes hand things in, but mine looks like a mountain range of stacks. In fact, I need to launch an expedition just to reach the top of the piles in order to grade them by deadline. Think about it: 36-42 kids per class, 6 periods a day, maybe 3 assignments per week. How does a new or veteran teacher handle the hours of grading that can amount to a second full-time job?

And as our class sizes increase, something's gotta give. The key is to provide feedback in different formats. It keeps students alert to your message, and it keeps you from going out of your mind. Here are just some tips, some old, some new, to help you towards your own grading sanity:

1. Use Rubrics for Preemptive feedback: After watching my three-year-old son one day attempt a thorough teeth-brushing session, I jokingly said, "I definitely give that a B at best." He paused. "What's best?" he asked.

I won't bore you with my description of tooth brushing excellence. However, I will say that it got me thinking that many students don't know how to ask this question. Which brings me to rubrics. Rubrics aren't just about summative feedback, "Here's how you did," they are also a sort of preemptive feedback, "Here's what you need to do."

2. Only focus feedback on one skill - Think about it from a student's point of view: it makes a greater impact and is less defeating to see specific notes on a single topic then to see the explosion of pen critiquing every past lesson missed.

3. Only focus feedback on one part of the assignment - Only comment on the first paragraph or only the first 5 questions of an assignment. Better yet, allow a student to choose the section or numbers they feel best represent their comprehension.

4. Rotate students to give deeper feedback to - Sure each student turns in the assignment, but do you really need to focus as intently on all 200 of them equitably every time? Rotate groups of students that get more percentage of your attention.

5. Train students to give feedback to each other - Teach the students to give the first wave of feedback to each other. This saves you from having to repeatedly write the same basic comments that could have been easily caught by a peer.

6. "Comment rather than correct" - Carol Jago reminds us that it's the students job to correct their errors. In fact, it would be even more powerful for them to identify the errors in the first place using hints provided by you:

In your essay, I see (general mistake) appear X-amount of times. In your history project, I see two date errors. In your math assignment, I see three equations that do not add up.

7. Create a key of feedback symbols - Identify the most common errors that you predict you will see. Develop a key of symbols that you can use in the margins instead of writing in sentences or bullets. This will require students to translate as well, which embeds the lesson even further.

8. Outsource the grading - Sometimes, assignments will take a huge leap in quality when students think someone other than their own teacher is seeing them. Ask administrators to get involved, switch stacks with other teachers, assign your other periods to evaluate the work. Outsource occasionally, and you just might find the students stepping up their work.

9. Keep them in suspense - Keep the final grade of an assignment as a carrot dangling until the feedback is read, attempted, and proven. Make them solve some of the problems in the assignment based on your feedback, and trade their solutions for access to their score.

10. Feedback Note-taking - If the one who does the work is doing the learning, should not the student be the one writing down the feedback? You conference; they write.

11. Stagger due dates for your classes. There is no rule that says all 200 shoeboxes or flipbooks have to show up at your door on the same date.

12. And while you're at it, give them a way to give feedback to you. If they believe that you are reading their feedback, they will be more likely to read yours. Develop a survey, via hard copy or one on, for them to fill out at the end of a unit, quarter, semester, whatever. Ask them what worked and what didn't. Model your own comfort at criticism and they will work harder at their own.

The unabridged chapter includes more in-depth advice as well as templates and surveys to help you navigate through the mountains of grading that can weigh down a teacher both in the classroom and at home. The book is available at the Web site Eye on Eye Education Publishing and will be available at Amazon on March 15.


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Lori Day's picture
Lori Day
Educational Psychologist and Consultant at Lori Day Consulting


These are great ideas. I am particularly fond of rubrics for the exact reasons you state, and find them especially useful for giving feedback on writing assignments all along the way.

I have a question for you. How do parents respond to your techniques? Do you ever get push-back from parents who want you to spend more time on their child? I have worked in several middle schools (private and public) and been the Head of School at one (where I also taught writing), and I found that some parents were laid back, but others were very focused on the letter grade, even when I wrote letters home in advance and explained my approach to grading/commenting.

What has your experience with parents been like so far?

Lori Day

Jason Kornoely's picture
Jason Kornoely
Elementary Teacher

I love your ideas! Thank you for sharing them. My favorites are "Keep them in suspense" and "Feedback note-taking".

I've always felt that it makes more sense to grade student work with the student nearby--immediate feedback. I've written a few things about feedback myself in a teacher-centered blog called InterGrade: Instant Teaching Ideas.

I'm going to use these ideas starting next week!

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

As long as I can prove to a parent that I know their kids, that I know their writing pros and cons, how I got there doesn't prove to be a difficulty. Besides, so many of my techniques have to do with the students' ownership of their own learning, which many parents recognize as a means to an end to prepare them for high school and beyond. If you pitch these strategies as ways to focus the students, and keep their reflections and feedback notes as evidence of your effort and theirs, I don't find push-back to be too much of an issue. Many parents really appreciate that I try to push their students and challenge them to prepare them for possibilities beyond middle school, and I think you can make an argument that many of these strategies do just that.

To be honest, the only parents I find that do push back tend not to know their own student's challenges or have a real philosophical issue with teachers being innovative with their curriculum. Those parents tend to be those who want their students to be taught as they were, but as we know, education has to evolve. Just be honest with them about why these strategies work, and make sure your own ducks are in a row regarding your knowledge about their kid.

Good luck, and just be honest with the why. Be frank with parents and students (they deserve the effort) about why you are doing these things, and you'll find less push-back.

Thanks for your comment and question!

-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

John Barell's picture
John Barell
Consultant for inquiry, problem solving, critical thinking.

The idea of students providing feedback for each other can be most powerful! Here we challenge students to become engaged in using criteria with which to assess others. But, more importantly, it's a path toward self-reflection and self-assessment, a key capacity for any generation. We do not want to teach students to be passive acceptors of others' judgments. They need to be actively engaged in Planning, Monitoring and Self-Evaluating their own work.

John Barell

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

As a speech and debate elective teacher (as well as an ELA teacher) I try to bring in elements of debate, the empathy of counterargument, and the art of arguing into my classroom. I love your quote:

"We do not want to teach students to be passive acceptors of others' judgments."

What a great assessment that would be (and a valuable ongoing mini-lesson) to teach students to recognize what's good about their work, and justify their pride by giving evidence from their pieces to the teacher or to a panel of peers. My school doesn't have student-led parent teacher conferences, but there's a power in that model as well.

Thanks for the comment and the links!

-Heather WG

Ryan Reed's picture
Ryan Reed
7/8th Grade Social Studies Teacher in Maine

I'm trying to do many of these things in my classroom, and one thing I'm finding with the 6th & 7th graders is that they struggle to self and peer evaluate projects in class. The feedback they are giving each other (with detailed rubrics or checklists to go by) is generally superficial in nature. Has anyone had luck teaching how to provide feedback?

Heather Wolpert-Gawron's picture

Thanks for your comment (and I also saw you on the middle school discussion group, so welcome!). I know it sounds obvious, but the answer is scaffolding, scaffolding, and more scaffolding. Sometimes, as I'm sure you know, we assume middle schoolers are ready before they really are. It takes breaking down the rubrics' components and asking them to evaluate using those specific tools first before giving them the whole rubric.

For instance, when I ask students to peer edit, I have them first focus on comma usage only. They are total experts at comma usage. Only then do I add the proper use of dialogue. Etc...If we're talking giving advice to each other, have them focus on one component only, like the hook or the evidence. But first model. Perhaps a fishbowl model? Then make sure that you are walking around and giving advice as you supervise.

It's also about not getting discouraged and being consistent. You do it over and over, and slowly, but surely, their comments to each other will become more and more rigorous.

So, in a nutshell:
* Model how to give advice.
*Supervise (they aren't ready to do it totally alone)
*Be Consistant

Oh, and one more thing: find great examples to publicly praise. The more great examples from the class you can identify and explain, the less actual teaching you will have to do because the lesson will be obvious.

Stick with it. Good luck, and let us know how it goes. Thanks for jumping in!

-Heather WG

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