We know that giving students feedback works: In his meta-analysis, John Hattie found that it has an effect size of 0.7, which is beyond the “hinge point,” or average effect size, of 0.4—meaning that it has a significant effect on student learning.
However, giving feedback can be challenging, and it’s certainly a lot of work. We’ve all taken student assignments home over the weekend or stayed late after school grading papers. This may be necessary from time to time, but there are strategies we can use to reduce this workload by working smarter for our students.
Reducing the Feedback Workload
1. Recognize when instructional feedback is called for: Sometimes written feedback is not the best or most effective strategy for improving student learning. If you collect an assessment and notice that there are significant errors common to many students’ responses, it may be more appropriate to correct these errors through reteaching.
This is instructional feedback—using student assessments as a tool to reflect on our teaching and reteaching the content in a new way. Instead of providing written feedback for each student, we can say to the class, “I noticed that many of us didn’t do so well. Rather than give feedback on every student’s paper, I’m going to do something different to help us all learn.”
2. Promote thinking, but don’t do the thinking: A common mistake in giving feedback—one that often takes a lot of time, and isn’t the best use of that time—is providing it in a way that does the thinking for students, rather than pushing them to think and learn. An example of this is correcting every grammar or punctuation mistake in a paper—circling all the capital letters that should be lowercase, or correcting all of the end punctuation. The student is given the answer and isn’t required to do any cognitive work.
Instead a teacher might verbally say, “I’m noticing many capital letter and punctuation mistakes.” Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey refer to this as providing prompts and cues that guide student thinking. It’s better for the students because it requires them to figure out where they’re going wrong. And handing this work to the students takes it off the teacher’s plate.
3. Don’t provide feedback on summative assessments: This might seem counterintuitive—or perhaps even mean. We always want to support our students, so why wouldn’t we give feedback on major assignments?
The key question when giving feedback is: Will it be actionable and useful? If an assignment is truly summative—an end-of-unit test, for example—students most likely won’t have an opportunity to redo it or to use the feedback. If that’s true, providing detailed feedback may be a waste of time.
But note that if you’re going to allow students to redo the assessment, you should provide the students who will redo it with feedback that will help them learn the content better. You don’t need to provide feedback to the students who will not redo the assessment.
4. Address feedback requests: Another way to work more efficiently is to have students request feedback when they need it, rather than giving feedback to all students. Students may request it at any time—even on a summative, when you don’t ordinarily give feedback.
One teacher I worked with offered feedback conferences that interested students could sign up for. These were similar to the 60-second interview, except the teacher’s intent was to give feedback rather than to check for understanding. She worried that students who really needed the feedback wouldn’t sign up, and she was correct about that—initially they didn’t. But as other students found the conferences to be useful, all of her students became more inclined to request one when they felt they needed it because the conferences provided “just in time” feedback. These took place during normal instructional time.
5. Focus on self-assessment and peer feedback: Instead of doing all the work, put some of the onus on students to provide feedback. In his meta-analysis, Hattie found that self-assessment or student-reported grades had a significantly positive effect on student achievement. Giving students assessment criteria and having them gauge their progress not only increases student learning, but also saves time.
Peer feedback can also benefit both students and teachers, while promoting a collaborative classroom and culture. It takes clear protocols and modeling to support students in doing peer feedback, but the effort is worthwhile.
6. Don’t wait: Instead of spending hours in epic sessions of writing feedback on a full draft, provide it in smaller ways that are spread out over time. This is not only more efficient but better for students, who get more digestible feedback that is actionable and timely.
For example, instead of providing feedback or setting up a peer review session that covers all parts of an essay—from the thesis to the organization to the conclusion—give feedback in chunks. Do a peer review on the thesis and the introduction, and then later give feedback on the next body paragraph, and so on.
Feedback is powerful and is proven to increase student learning, and there are many strategies teachers can use to make it more effective and efficient.