Friday, October 2, 2015

The Power of Timely Feedback

If you were to ask a group of teachers to share the part of their job they enjoy the most, likely nobody would say grading.  In fact, chances are that more than a few would cite grading as their least favorite part of teaching.  This is understandable on one level--most of us went into teaching because we enjoy working with students, and grading seems a rather solitary endeavor.

Certainly, this was my mentality in the first few years of my teaching career:
I HATE all this grading--I wish I could just focus on teaching!

I now realize that I was setting up a false divide between grading and teaching, as though the two were fundamentally separate.  Indeed, grading is a vital part of teaching.  When I grade an essay, I have the opportunity to give focused, specific feedback that I would not have the opportunity to give on a normal day in the classroom.

And while it's true that time spent grading is certainly different from time spent interacting with students face-to-face, it is not, at its heart, a solitary task.  When I grade an essay, I engage in a meaningful dialogue with each and every one of my students.  I react to their ideas.  I share what their  supporting examples reminded me of, and recommend additional articles, books or movies that they made me think of.  I bring up concerns or challenges.  I ask questions of clarification.  Sometimes, I ask questions that I don't know the answer to, myself, but want my student to wrestle with when they revise.  I get to affirm what my students are doing well as writers, and make suggestions for the areas in which they are weak.  It may not be a live conversation, but it is a meaningful one.

Or rather, it can be a meaningful conversation.

For the dialogue of student work-teacher feedback to truly have an impact, the teacher must be prepared to commit to a quick turnaround time.  Any more than two weeks is essentially a loss--really, it shouldn't be any more than a week.

I actually discovered this firsthand from a student's perspective, in my Master's program.  I found myself deeply benefiting from the feedback professors would leave on my essays or reflections when they returned them within a week.  Any longer than that, and I would struggle to remember the assignment itself, even as I read through the professors' comments.  Having experienced this myself, I resolved to do everything I could to get student writing back quickly, knowing just what a vast difference timing could make.

My first set of Humanities essays started coming in a week ago, and my first set of 1st period English essays started arriving yesterday.  As of this morning, I had read and commented on every Humanities essay I had received.  Because of our new late policy, I was receiving late submissions (all of which fell within our 5-day grace period) throughout the week.  Though I would not have wished for so many students to submit work after the due-date, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I was able to read and return essays as they came in during the week.  With the submissions staggered in this way, my turnaround time was no more than 2 days per student.  I was even able to get a start on essays that students in my 1st p. English class had submitted early yesterday evening.

A number of students have expressed amazement to me, and I told them that if I was going to make reading their essays a priority, then I hoped they would make reading my feedback and revising accordingly a priority.

This is my sincere hope--that my students will engage with my comments, questions, suggestions, and challenges while their original writing and thought processes are still fresh in their minds, and start thinking through how to improve the quality of their discussion as they revise.

I won't know for sure how carefully my students will read my feedback until I receive the final drafts in mid-October.  Currently, I have finished reading and commenting on 26 of the 51 essays, just over halfway through.  I am happy with the pace I have set, and hope to have the rest returned before heading off into the woods on Wilderness Camp on Tuesday!

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