Do We Have Time for Effective Feedback?

A stereotypical day in the life of an ELA teacher…

A daunting stack of writing samples collected…all on the same day…all on the same topic…all written in basically the same format with about the same textual evidence. Ugh! Who would want to grade 100 essays like that?

Maybe the old cliché often attached to essay feedback will work? Just toss the stack down your stairs. Whichever ones land at the top of the staircase earn the A’s. The B’s and C’s are, of course, in the middle of the staircase, and those poor souls whose papers landed at the bottom of the staircase, “earn” the D’s and the F’s. Sounds like a bell curve to me!

The words 'effective feedback' can sometimes wreak havoc on a secondary ELA teachers’ level of efficiency and even create a roadblock for instruction. The above scenario might not have been exactly what happened to me in my formative high school years, but it sure felt like it had. My own teachers’ feedback was limited and, after receiving it weeks after the assignment, seemed completely out of touch. I am sure we have all felt this at some point in our education. 

Effective feedback should allow students to determine whether they are on the right path or not. Are they on target for their learning? Are we on target for our instruction? Can we as instructors identify where student success is and where intervention is needed? Not on the staircase we can’t.

How about we change the scenario for the ELA teacher? How about we work with our students and talk through feedback during the process? How about we train our students to participate in conversations about their writing process and resulting responses? To change our prior teaching approaches, we need to retrain our students’ minds and get them involved in the process of their own learning, starting with small writing samples and working our way up from there. 

It’s a valuable experience for all those involved, and the more casual you make it, the better; take some of the pressure off your students and help them see you’re invested. A typical feedback conversation in my room consisted of a timer, two comfy chairs, and a writing sample. Or in an ideal situation, a Google Doc where the conversation can take place within the document itself via comments or chatting.

Oftentimes, teachers try to provide feedback in too many areas at once and unintentionally bog down the process, overwhelming their students and causing them to shut down instead of progress. We need to keep in mind that it’s okay to limit ourselves and our students to one specific learning target to be addressed in one conference. Here’s where that change from prior ELA teaching practices comes in: Instead of focusing on every nitty-gritty detail in the paper, we focus on a goal and/or individual learning target, conferring about progress toward that goal and that goal alone. 

With individual goals geared toward personal growth, that stack of writing samples might not seem so daunting. In fact, it might even seem a little bit exciting as each of those samples become personal for you and your students.