Making Formative Feedback Work

Students, the research suggests, do not look at the comments if there is a grade attached. I have to give grades and comments, so I separate them and put the grade in a slightly more inaccessible place (on an online gradebook)

I have experimented with how I give comments. In my most recent assessment, which was an exam, I copied this rubric and had three columns. Left: to improve, middle: on track, right: advanced.

But it was exam so I had to give grades. And they all looked the grades and didn’t really notice the comments. Some of them looked at where the comments were placed, rather than reading them. Maybe it was a wasted effort but at least they had something to reference if they were confused about their grade.

With another assignment, I tried this column method and it worked really well. Students could see the targeted feedback about their own performance and I wasn’t wasting my time writing out anything about presentation or vague ‘well done’ style feedback.

We will have to see how that goes.

What I am finding hard right now is wording the feedback so they can get something out of it. When I was grading in London, writing “to get to level 6, you must explain rather than describe” was good enough for my head of department. And that was who I was writing to. Not my students. They would see the number and stop reading. They wouldn’t even register I was saying they were level 5 right now. But it wasn’t FOR them. It was to get the right boxes ticked so I didn’t get fired.

Now I am grading so that my students get better at the things they are practicing. What if they aren’t ‘explaining’ because they don’t know what that entails? It’s tricky because I don’t want to write out a long explanation for every student. One, I will get hand cramp, two they are busy people and are only going to skim it for praise.

I have to be succinct.

Yesterday, we had a parent-student conference where the students took their families through their portfolio from this year. I could hear my students reading out comments I gave them at the start of the year and then the student would say “hmm, yeah ok, and then I did do that in the next piece and look”. It was interesting getting feedback on my feedback in this way. (Aside, they were all fixated on grades: parents and students. And it broke my heart when I heard 6/8 described as ‘bad’ repeatedly)

Now it is report writing cycle and I have to sum up an entire term and give next steps for improvement. I don’t mind writing reports all that much I just feel bad that I can’t give them the attention and time the child really deserves.


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