Sunday, March 22, 2009

Giving Feedback…A Reflection

To start, I’ll be honest that the first time I was asked to give feedback on a student paper, a little over four years ago during my first field experience, I was a little worried. Would I do it correctly, would I mark the right boxes, would I actually give the student something that they could work with to improve their writing, vocabulary, or other Language Arts skills? From that point until now I have grown exponentially. Now I do not fear away from the red pen or at least in my case the black or blue pen.

For the last eleven weeks Anne and I have been working on completing her graduate school project about the “No D Policy” and the last cycle was her helping me to give better feedback to the students so that the students can improve their scores in the writing area specifically. We did this by collecting two copies of student work throughout the time that the Assignment-Change the World paper was going on. At first I we graded the same paper. She graded it first and then I graded it second. Then we moved to collecting two copies for everything, which worked out really well. We would both take the copies and then sit down and give the students feedback. Then after the grading and feedback individually we would get together and conference about what each other marked. It provided for the students two sets of feedback and for me a standard to see what Anne was giving feedback on and what I was and to compare notes. Now that the project and unit are over I thought that it would be appropriate to reflect upon my own feedback to the students.

At the beginning of my student teaching experience I was very hesitant to give feedback to the students, because I worried about them standing up to me and saying that I was wrong. However, I soon gained the confidence, through the double feedback process, that I was in fact marking some of the right things. Looking from the beginning of the unit until now I have grown in my feedback giving ability. At the beginning I was giving feedback on everything from stray marks to uncommon sentence structure to spelling mistakes, which I think is appropriate at all times, but that was all that I was giving feedback on. At the beginning of the double feedback process I missed the boat, because I was focusing on the small and needed to focus on the paper or paragraph as a whole. I discovered this by looking at conferencing with Anne about the papers that we were reading through. I would mark the little stuff here and there, which Anne would do too, but then I would totally forget about the big picture – how does this paragraph relate to the thesis, does it prove a point, does it actually build on the previous statement, or does it relate to the topic sentence for example. Anne did this and I learned from her example. So one thing that I improved upon was looking at the big picture in grading. Now before I move on to another paragraph, especially when I was grading the Assignment-Change the World papers, I looked back at the thesis and the topic sentences to make sure that they matched. I also reflected on each paragraph before moving on to check and see if really does prove a point. I learned that the big picture is as, if not more, important than all the small stuff.

I also learned to sweat the small stuff, but with an intent in mind. Giving quality feedback was something that we talked about in teacher education for about a day or two. We were given student papers to grade once, one time to give feedback before actually heading out for student teaching. Maybe that is something that Wartburg needs to take into consideration when planning their courses for the next year and following years. However, the only real models of feedback that I had were from previous teachers. They all have given feedback in a multitude of different ways, but they have always marked up the small stuff (the commas, punctuation, passive voice, etc.) so this is what I started to do when I arrived at Arapahoe. This is what I had done at other teaching placements before and no one had ever said anything about doing feedback in a different way. However, I learned from Anne, and the double feedback that we did, that you do not mark just to mark, but instead you mark with intent. Anne was marking the same small mistakes that I was, but she was doing it because there was a reason behind it. I would say the same thing was true for me, I was marking because there was a purpose, but Anne had that big picture in mind. Let me put it this way, I marked the spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes and that was it. Anne marked those things, but then she also marked other elements that we were looking for in the paragraphs (the point to the paragraph, the make the point – where the students connected the piece of evidence not only to the topic sentence of the paragraph, but also to the overall thesis). That was small stuff, but she was also looking for that in addition to everything else that she was marking. I learned this and started to look for it in student writing thanks to the double feedback process. As a result, I think that students began to receive better feedback that was more pointed. For me it was not feedback that was all over the place, but it was marking with intent.

Another aspect of my feedback that changed throughout the last eleven weeks was the actual format of the feedback. Eleven weeks ago I was marking a few things in the paragraphs and then writing down at the end of the feedback a paragraph stating what I thought the author needed to change in order to make their overall paper better. It was a start, but it was not exactly effective because I was missing multiple things in the middle of the paper that I needed to be marking like how the topic sentence relates to the thesis. I might have been mentioning that below in my reflection paragraph on their paper; however, it was not effective telling the student that they needed to improve their topic sentences if I had not marked out which ones they needed to improve. So I quickly moved away from an almost 80 – 20 type of feedback where 20 percent of it was marked in the paper and 80 percent was my written feedback at the end of the paper. Now, after reflecting, refining, and adding in the intent to mark papers I believe it has turned completely around. It is now about 80 percent, if not closer to 85 or 90 percent marked in the paper with major comments along the sides and then 10 to 15 percent a small reflection paragraph at the end of the paper. This paragraph usually reflects some of the major problems that I see in that student’s paper, usually something that comes up time and time again too. I have found this new revised format for feedback to be a result of the double feedback that I went through with Anne and the questions from students. They would often read my paragraph at the end and then ask questions about what exactly I wrote, which then would require me to go back and point out what I wrote. Instead, now the comments are directly in the paper and by the time they get to the reflection paragraph at the end they probably know what I am going to write based on the comments above. So throughout this process the format of my feedback has improved immensely.

One other piece of feedback that I struggled with at the beginning of the process was marking everything on a student’s paper that was incorrect. What I mean is that if a student had an incorrect citation and they incorrectly did that citation format over and over in the paper I would mark the first few and then stop. I figured that the student is smart enough to figure out that it was marked a few times, so they can fix the rest of them. Well through experience, as they did not ever fix all the mistakes and through Anne’s comments to me I decided that in fact it is my job and my role to mark everything for the students. If the student chooses not to fix it then it is their fault; however, they do not know it is wrong if I do not mark it. So for the past few weeks I have been marking everything, even if it is the same mistake over and over again. The students need to know that it is incorrect. Yes, it does take a lot of time, but in the end it is better for the students and the quality of feedback I believe has improved in that regard.

Another aspect of feedback, because so far I have focused strictly on the written, is the oral feedback given in class and through individual writing conferences. At the beginning of my time at AHS I met with students and proceeded to point out every little error in their writing and not give the students any say in the grade they received. I am hesitant to write this, but I sometimes remember moving on and giving feedback to a student that it appeared they did not understand or completely comprehend at that point and time. Now, this has changed. I now approach oral feedback as more of a collaborative approach, but with me, the teacher, still in control of the situation. In class and a student asked for feedback on an individual paper I usually approach it two different ways: One, by asking the student if they see any major problems that they want me to look at specifically and two, by throwing the question right back at the student and having them give me their thoughts before I start. The students figured out quickly that what they thought they had issues with were probably exactly the things that I had hesitations or problems with too. Once I had established this part of the feedback with the student, then I focused on how collaboratively we can fix this. I would, once again, probably ask for their suggestions in changing the specific section and then I would also offer my suggestions. From there, I would set-up or leave the student with a goal in mind. Either, “Fix this and I’ll be back to check it in a little bit” or “See if you change this, this, and this and then tonight e-mail it to me and I will give you some feedback on it.” I really focused on making this process a little more collaborative. In writing conferences my style of feedback has also changed. I used to start off the conferences telling the student that here is what is going to happen, “I am going to grade your paper and if you have any questions feel free to jump in.” Not exactly the most effective method of grading, nor is it constructivist at all. So instead, now I start off asking the student: “What do you think you did well in this paper” and “What do you think you still need to work on?” This provides a framework for my feedback and for their focus as I provide feedback. Then I inform the student that, “We will work through the rubric together and I will not continue on to another section until you understand and comprehend the reason behind that grade and what you did well and could improve. In addition, this is a collaborative process. I will offer feedback, but this is your paper. You tell me what you see and if this grade is unfair.” So from there I start off the conference. We collaboratively, with me as the teacher and the lead, work through the paper section by section. Before I hand down a grade from the sky, or at sometimes I felt that the students thought that was how it was, I ask the student what they thought of that paragraph or that section. I want their feedback and input before giving the grade. Then after I give the grade I make sure to explain it fully with the student. I ask him or her if everything makes sense and if that is fair. I want them to truly understand what the purpose of the grade was when they receive it and what they can do to improve it or what they did well on overall. Also, if I am looking for a specific piece of a paragraph, for instance how the quote relates to the overall thesis, making the point as we referred to it in class, and I do not see it I will ask the student to find it for me. Sometimes they do and then that leads to a conversation about clarity, but if they do not then they completely understand why I am giving them the grade that they deserve for that part. That method I have found is a lot more effective than just handing down the grade. So I think that orally my feedback has also grown significantly throughout this process.

Looking back at the last eleven weeks of grading and feedback I still see some room for improvement. I need to make sure that what I am grading has that overall intent and purpose behind it, that I mark with intent, and that I am not giving false praise. The false praise is something that I have learned a lot about from Anne. At first I was giving praise right and left, especially to work that did not receive the praise that I was providing. I think that part of that had to do with not knowing the students that well at the beginning of the semester and what exactly they are capable of and another part of it was handing out praise that was entirely false. A good job needs to really mean a good job and a well done is another two steps above that. However, I need to learn how and when to pull that type of language out more effectively. When is a good job really a good job and when is it well done? What if a student is consistently turning in good work, does that warrant a good job every time? What about a student that only turns in a few assignments and they are not good quality. Does that deserve a good job because they completed the work and at least turned in the work? These are questions that I need to resolve and I am sure I will with time. As with riding a bike and teaching, I really feel that my quality of feedback, and specifically my praise, has been limited to only things that are really good. However, I believe that statement is true for the writing portion of my feedback, but it still comes out when speaking with students. After going through a paper that needs a lot of improvement I provide them with a “good job” to encourage them. This needs to change to something with the same type of intent, but a different phrasing. Maybe, “This is an ok start, keep improving, I know you can do it” or something along those lines. I think the main thing to improve this is to be constantly aware of the situation and to reflect on my feedback once again when I start to teach in the fall and at important points throughout the teaching experience. I feel like the false praise piece has come a long way, but there is still room for improvement.

I really feel that Anne has done a good job helping me to grow as an effective teacher in the area of feedback specifically. The conversations around the double feedback that we gave the students were especially helpful. I was able to take notes about things that I was missing and she was able to take notes about things that I picked up on and things that we both did well.
Overall, I was worried that the amount of feedback that the students received was going to be overwhelming, but I feel that from an educational standpoint a student can never have too much feedback, especially the kind of constructive feedback that I feel Anne and I were providing for the students. However, I think the interesting thing for me was that at the beginning of the double feedback process I took an entire page of notes as we went through the papers discussing all the feedback that we both gave - An entire page of notes of things that I needed to fix, improve, or change for the next time that we give feedback. By the end of this process I really felt that my notes had come down to a few minor things that could be improved. I was not missing the major “rocks” you could say in editing and feedback, but instead they were small things that could always be improved. Furthermore, I really felt that Anne and I were marking more of the same things by the end than different things. At least that was the impression I received when we went through their drafts for the last round of double feedback. That placed some confidence in me that I have improved and that at least by Anne’s standard of feedback, I am closer to giving effective feedback than when we started. In fact, I now feel that I am giving that effective feedback that the students deserve and want and I feel that this process has spurred on this growth in me as a teacher. I really feel that this double feedback project has been one of the most effective and educational things that I have done while in student teaching. I have learned, grown, evaluated, and now continue to grow in an area that I think is so integral to student growth – feedback. I feel like I can constantly improve, but I have come a long way in giving effective feedback.