As a middle school social studies teacher, I knew my practice was not perfect, but I was pretty sure that I was providing my students the feedback they needed. I had over 150 students writing in their composition notebooks daily, responding to prompts, or writing their own questions. I was really proud that my students were doing so much writing in social studies. But, this also meant that I had 150 journals to read and respond to each week. I packed up all of the journals and took them home for the daunting task at hand. I would spend my Sunday afternoons reading and responding to student journals because I thought it was important that they know I was reading their writing and that I cared about what they thought. I was working hard to provide them with feedback, but was it effective? The truth is, probably not.
To be effective, feedback needs to be timely. My weekly comments, however well intended, were not effective because the feedback was no longer relevant to my 7th graders a week later; they had moved on long before.
To be effective, feedback needs to be specific and aligned to the intended learning. Unfortunately, my comments of “Great job!”, “Keep up the good work!” and “Good thinking!” were not specifically about the learning and didn’t tell my students how they were doing in relation to our goals. Nor did my comments do much to move learning forward. They may have been encouraging, but because my comments weren’t specific, students didn’t know what they did well and what they needed to improve.
I don’t fault myself; I just didn’t know any better. I thought my Sunday afternoons were well spent and that the carefully selected stickers I placed in each journal were encouraging my students to keep trying their best. I didn’t know the difference between feedback and effective feedback. I wish someone had told me so I could have used my Sunday afternoons more wisely.
So here I am, telling you that, yes, there is a difference between feedback and effective feedback; one is much more useful than the other. Don’t waste your Sunday afternoons providing encouraging comments that have little impact on student learning. If you are going to take the time to provide feedback to students, make sure it is timely, specific, aligned to the learning, and moving learning forward. Try working on your feedback, and see what results you get from your students. I think you’ll be surprised by the difference. And, you’ll get your Sunday afternoons back.
Virginia Ressa works for the Ohio Department of Education as the project coordinator for FIP Your School Ohio. A former middle school teacher, she is committed to ensuring that Ohio educators have high-quality professional learning tools that support their transition to new standards.