Good feedback is a critical part of quality instruction, but it doesn’t need to be time-consuming writes Matthew Johnson in Cult Of Pedagogy’s “Flash Feedback: How to Provide More Meaningful Feedback in Less Time.”
Johnson, author of the book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster—Without Burning Out, teaches writing to more than 150 students, so he calculates that “responding to one essay or project or test in ten minutes—a blisteringly fast speed based on the teachers I’ve talked to—will take over 25 hours.” As a new teacher, he found he was spending all his free time grading, so he began to research and develop ways to offer quick but meaningful feedback.
In a method he calls flash feedback, only a few clear learning objectives are addressed at one time—any more than that, he argues, is not only time-consuming for the teacher but also overwhelming for the student. Identify specific, actionable goals for individual lessons, he insists, and couple the work with similarly tailored feedback.
Johnson also says that if grading is to be sustainable and constructive, students should shoulder more of the burden, evaluating their own work products before teachers do and reflecting on their own efforts more frequently. When students are asked to persist to find answers and new strategies to solve difficult problems, comprehension and retention are improved.
Finally, flash feedback should include a system for efficiency and a back-up plan for the times when individual feedback takes longer than expected—an approach he calls a “spillover plan.”
There are three strategies that Johnson returns to “again and again”:
1. Targeted response: Johnson advises that educators tailor an assignment and its assessment to a single learning objective. For example, Johnson’s students struggled with commas. He abandoned the practice of circling every erroneous comma in their papers and instead devised an assignment focused solely on the issue. Students write a “comma paper” on any topic they choose. The only requirement is that they include four examples of the correct comma usage taught in class. He uses the electronic “find” function to locate their commas and uses pre-populated template responses to offer feedback—one that congratulates them if they correctly placed the commas and one that tells them the paper has errors and to receive credit for the assignment, they need to go back and fix them. This condensed assignment yields big results, Johnson says: “The best part is that the deep focus on commas leads to more student growth in one short paper than a year of circling and correcting commas ever did!”
2. Micro-conferences: While one-on-one meetings are “one of the most celebrated pedagogical tools,” they can take a large portion of classroom time when a teacher has many students. Johnson advocates the use of a micro-conference: a 1-2 minute session focused on a specific learning goal. Students assess their own work first. After giving themselves a score and writing several sentences about their work, students speak with the teacher about their assessment. “My role in this is mainly that of the gadfly—asking questions and helping the student to orient in the right direction,” Johnson says. These quick check-ins provide a way to offer feedback without consuming large chunks of instructional time.
3. Wise Interventions: In a process developed by psychologists at Stanford University and the University of Virginia, rapid positive change occurs when teachers intervene at “the exact moments that fuel and perpetuate negative student beliefs/mindsets/behaviors.” By framing feedback with encouragement and reiterating the teacher’s confidence in the student’s abilities, one famous study found, that negative narrative is disrupted and students are far more motivated to revise their work. Similarly, research out of Harvard concluded that little gestures that create a sense of relationship with students can boost confidence. Participants in that study were 422 percent more likely to loan someone their phone if the person prefaced the request with the simple, conversational sentence, “I’m so sorry about the rain.” In the same way, Johnson says, sharing a short personalized statement on a student’s paper can make her more receptive to the feedback and more willing to make adjustments to her work.