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My study of feedback began in earnest on a sunny afternoon during my third year of teaching. I was living in California—much to the envy of my midwestern friends and family—but I was also harboring a secret, a secret that was troubling me that afternoon. The secret was that while my social media pictures showed me at the beach and hiking past redwoods, those excursions were rare, maybe once-a-quarter outings. Instead, the vast majority of my days were spent doing exactly what I was doing in that moment: responding to and grading papers.
For the better part of my first three years as a teacher, student papers acted as the chains that shackled me to my desk day after day. Like Tantalus, I could see the beach gleaming through a crack between the apartment buildings next to mine, but when I looked at the towers of student work in front of me, the sand and waves receded out of reach. Maybe tomorrow after I chop these essay stacks down I would tell myself once again.
That afternoon though, for reasons I don’t fully understand, something inside me finally snapped and I admitted to myself what I’d long known unconsciously: I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I was drowning, submerged under a never-ending torrent of student work in need of feedback and assessment. I didn’t want to leave the classroom, but I also didn’t want to stay if it meant that my next forty years would endlessly orbit stacks of student work in the way that my first three years did.
That night, in a last-ditch effort to stay a teacher, I began to read whatever I could find about responding faster and better to student work, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that I was far from the first teacher to resent living a life with papers at its geographic center. In fact, the very first article of the very first volume of the The English Journal in 1912 begins with a simple question written in all caps: CAN GOOD COMPOSITION TEACHING BE DONE UNDER THE PRESENT CONDITIONS?
The answer given by the author, Dr. Edwin M. Hopkins? “No.” There were simply too many students and papers to manage. By the way, it is worth noting that Dr. Hopkins had 100 students. I currently have 158.
And the problem is that Dr. Hopkins wasn’t fully wrong, then or now. The issue largely comes down to feedback, which is an essential part of good teaching—not just for composition, but for any content area. Just like the conditions in Dr. Hopkins’ time, our present conditions make providing quality feedback incredibly difficult. This is because effective feedback generally shares a handful of characteristics: It is given regularly, returned in a timely manner, and written in clear language. It also works best when students are in the midst of creation, as opposed to as a postscript on final drafts once they finish.
When one digs down, the logistics of providing regular, timely, and formative feedback are absurd when one has 158 or even 100 students. Take my classes: Each minute of feedback I provide to each of my 158 students takes a time investment of over two and a half hours. That means reading and 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. Even if a teacher works 60 or 70 hours, sacrificing countless evenings and weekends to student work, there exists a hard cap on the amount of feedback a teacher can give if it’s only given in big chunks on big assignments.
Of course more global feedback on larger assignments is important, and there are ways to get more efficient and effective with that feedback (I wrote a book largely on this subject, Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster—Without Burning Out, and this very site has excellent suggestions here, here, and here), but if teachers want to provide timely, regular, formative, and meaningful feedback, we need to diversify our practices.
Feedback, after all, is just a teacher’s response to something, and we can meaningfully respond to different assignments in a multitude of ways, many of them only taking a minute or two. I call these practices Flash Feedback, and while they come in small packages, they can pack a serious educational punch.
Teachers can take countless approaches to Flash Feedback. The exact structures will depend on the discipline, students, and teacher, but the most efficient and effective Flash Feedback tends to share these four characteristics:
In my classes, and especially during the time when I’m writing this—an era of emergency distance learning when time is tight—there are three types of Flash Feedback that I find myself coming to again and again: Targeted Response, Micro-Conferences, and Wise Interventions.
My students, like most people, tend to struggle with comma usage. My approach to helping them with commas used to be to circle and correct every comma error I found in every paper, but this never led to much progress and it took a tremendous amount of time.
Now I mainly use Targeted Response, which is where the teacher focuses an assignment and its feedback solely on 1 to 2 targeted learning goals. When it comes to commas, my students write a very short one-page paper about anything they want in any genre. It is called the Comma Paper, and its only criteria (and the only thing I give feedback to) is that they must include at least four correctly used examples of each type of comma we studied in class.
To speed my assessment of and response to these papers, I have students turn them in on Google Classroom. That enables me to use the Find Function (Command-F) to highlight all of the commas in the piece, so I can quickly scan for comma issues. It also allows me to pre-populate two comments in the comment bank (if you don’t know how to do this, here is a quick tutorial). One is a short congratulatory note for students who had no comma errors. The other is a message where I tell students the number of comma errors and let them know that to get credit for the assignment, they must find the errors and fix them during the class time provided.
By keeping the scope of the paper and feedback focused and using the technology tools available, I can give specific, individual, and meaningful feedback in less than a minute per student, and 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!
Conferencing is one of the most celebrated pedagogical tools, and there is good reason for that. It is a rare one-on-one opportunity to offer individualized instruction and feedback, fix misconceptions, build relationships, and give students the opportunity to be heard by a caring adult. Like written feedback though, the logistics of conferences can be daunting in most classes. My classes meet for 210 minutes each week and average 32 students. This means doing a five minute conference with each student takes over 75 percent of the class time that week.
While larger conferences are sometimes worth this time investment for me, I can only do so many if I want to cover everything else I need to do. Enter the Micro-Conference, which is a conference that is done in a fraction of the time (generally 1 to 2 minutes) by being focused and carefully structured.
One of my favorites is one I do around paraphrasing, which is another deeply important skill that students tend to struggle with. Here’s how it works:
Like the Targeted Response, everything about these conferences is designed to maximize time efficiency. The students have already laid the groundwork and highlighted the paraphrased sections, allowing us to jump right in at a high level. Further, by focusing just on paraphrasing, a minute is not too short to go deep, answer questions, and figure out meaningful action steps forward for the student.
Wise Interventions is a practice that came out of Stanford and the University of Virginia, among others, and the idea behind it is that while shifting negative student mindsets, beliefs, and behaviors is often painstakingly slow, in the right circumstances it can also happen incredibly quickly. The key to these moments of rapid positive change is that if teachers can find the exact moments that fuel and perpetuate negative student beliefs/mindsets/behaviors and disrupt them, sometimes it can open students up to better alternatives in surprisingly little time.
Probably the most famous example of this was a study of Massachusetts middle schools that found that students did twice as much revision on an essay when they each received a sticky note on the top of their essays that read “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them,” versus those who got a sticky note that read “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”
The researchers theorized that the reason for why one sticky note—the product of no more than a few seconds work—would have such a large effect on student mindsets and behavior was that many students in the study might have felt the teachers didn’t believe in them. Those narratives were disrupted by a note coming just at the moment they were preparing for teacher disappointment once again via the teacher comments, which in turn cleared the way for those students to put in more work.
I use a number of Wise Interventions in my classes, but my favorite with feedback is one called “I’m so sorry about the rain.” It comes from Daniel Coyle’s book The Culture Code, and the basic premise is that a study out of Harvard found that people were 422% more likely to let a stranger borrow their phone if the stranger prefaced asking for the phone by saying “I’m so sorry about the rain.” The reason this rather banal comment about the weather led to a striking shift in behavior was likely that it was enough to signal a relationship, which changes nearly everything about how a brain responds to a request.
I have found that little personal things that take only a few seconds to write—like quickly referencing something a student said in class or an aspiration the student shared at some point—can often have the same effect on students, especially those who are wary of writing, and shift the attention and care they give to feedback on that paper and beyond.
By being focused and carefully structured, Flash Feedback allows us to make feedback a part of class that is as regular as the bells in the halls. It also allows us to teach many more personalized lessons each semester; gives us regular points of contact with students, which have been shown to improve performance and relationships; and best of all, can be done quickly, allowing teachers to break those shackles to student papers and take a day at the beach every once in a while.