6 Steps to Effective Whole-Class Feedback
Ensuring that students know what they did well and where they need to improve doesn’t have to be an interminable task.
Consider this. It’s Sunday evening and you’re once again sitting at your desk. Back stiff and fingers sore. You’ve been here for the past three hours, taking an exercise book from an ever-so-slowly dwindling pile and then grading it. One after the other. For hours. And there are still seven left.
For many teachers, this is a familiar scenario, even a rite of passage. Staying up late on the weekend, desperately trying to fight your way through a stack of work before Monday morning.
But it doesn’t need to be like this. As an approach to grading student work, the promise of whole-class feedback is potentially transformative. Instead of giving each student a personalized written comment, focus on identifying and addressing common patterns across the whole class. Grade better by grading quicker. Since first reading about it in a 2015 blog post by Joe Kirby, I’ve experimented with various whole-class feedback routines, refining and improving my own approach.
I’ll share my latest version with you—outlining a step-by-step guide that can be implemented immediately. In my experience, it works best when grading and providing feedback for already completed work, but it could easily be adapted to guide students at a draft phase.
Step 1: Read and Highlight Student Work
As with all grading, whole-class feedback begins by collecting student work and reading it. Yet, this is also where the differences start.
Rather than scribbling detailed individual comments in the margins, read with a highlighter in your hand. If you read something you like, highlight it. It could be an idea, the way a student has phrased something, or where they’ve met an agreed success criterion.
We do this for two reasons. First, it’s a far quicker way of showing students that we have read and paid attention to their work. Second, it provides an opportunity for metacognitive reflection, as students reflect on exactly why something may have been highlighted.
Step 2: Identify Individual Next Steps
Once you’ve read a piece of work, provide the student with a targeted next step, ideally drawn from a premade template. This is a specific goal that they need to work on for their next piece of similar work. Like highlighting, this serves a motivational function. It shows students that you’ve attended to their work and are offering them something specific and personal to act on.
Step 3: Identify Examples of Excellence
While reading student work, seek out examples of excellence. This is going to form a core part of the feedback lesson.
Aim for at least two examples of excellence drawn from student work. As you read, make a note of any such examples on a piece of paper. During the feedback lesson, share these with the whole class, live-modeling them and explaining why they’re excellent. Students see what excellence looks like, and this step discloses the nature of success in a concrete and actionable manner.
It’s crucial that these examples come from student work. In my experience, this provides a significant boost to student motivation. To those students whose examples you use, there is public recognition for their work, although you may wish not to disclose names (I keep the examples anonymous). To everyone else, there is a specific model that they can adopt and adapt, as well as accruing all the benefits that come with any live modeling. By using student work, we communicate a clear message: If one person can do it, then so can everyone.
Step 4: Create the Template
By the time you reach the final piece of student work, you should have completed the following:
1. Highlighted student work, focusing on what you like.
2. Given each student an individual target, ideally drawn from a prewritten template.
3. A couple of examples of excellence, jotted down on paper and drawn from student work.
For a full set of class grading, getting to this point usually takes me just under an hour.
With the student work in hand, now it’s time to give it back. This is the premade template I use, printed out beforehand and attached to each assignment with a target highlighted.
Step 5: The Feedback Lesson
Hand assignments back, asking students to reread their work and to pay particular attention to what has been highlighted. Encourage students to pause over these highlights, considering why they might be highlighted.
Next, share the chosen examples of excellence. I do this by placing a blank template under a visualizer, live-modeling the example and verbalizing what precisely makes it excellent. If you don’t have a visualizer, you could just as easily type your comments onto a screen or write on the board. Use the notes you jotted down while reading student work as a point of reference. Here’s an example of live-modeled feedback.
As you live-model, students should follow along with you so that they have their own version. In many ways, this is the most important part of the entire process, so move slowly and carefully. Pause to ask questions, invite comments from students, and discuss together what makes “excellence” excellent.
Now, move on to next steps. Ask students to look at their individual targets, perhaps returning to their work to try to identify specific moments where they could change something to make it better. It’s likely that you would have used the same target for multiple students or maybe even just a handful across the class. Take a few moments to address these high-leverage areas for development, explaining what might’ve been done differently. It’s even better if you can link certain targets back to the examples of excellence already modeled.
Step 6: Complete a Task Together
As the lesson comes to a close, I like to finish with a final task that everyone completes. This “together task” might take many forms, but try to link it to the examples of excellence or an especially frequent next step. The goal is for students to practice deploying the skills you’ve addressed during the feedback lesson in a different but similar context to the original task.
And with this, the lesson ends. Consider how far we’ve come. We read and marked the work of an entire class in an hour. In the lesson itself, students engaged more fully with the feedback, reflecting on their work and coming to understand what defines excellence. No more scattered glances before pushing their graded work to one side, unread. And the teacher got their time back.