Grading? Or Giving Feedback

The “Grading Song” sung to the tune of “Rawhide”

Grading, grading, grading.
Got to keep on grading.
My focus it is fading…
my eyes!

Through rain and wind and weather,
I’m gonna fe-el better.
When I get this grading…behind.

Add up up!
Mark ’em wrong!
Star ’em right!
Feeling strong!
Grade all night!
Gonna win this fight!
Sunday NIGHT!

If you’ve taught any length of time, you’ve probably had a moment early in your career where you sat staring at a stack of student work to “grade” wondering if your students would really appreciate or benefit from the comments you were adding to their work.

I hate to break it to you. But those comments are probably not going to carry the impact you want them to. Which means you’ve likely wasted a LOT of your scarce time to put something in writing that won’t achieve what you’d hoped it would.

If feedback is only given at the end of a project, it’s already too late.

When working as a National Faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, I share with teachers that their formative assessment to summative ratio ought to be 2:1 and that students need ongoing feedback in a variety of ways to allow them to make revisions to their work or their thinking.

Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design draws a distinction between “assessment” and “evaluation.” The former is learning focused and emphasizes progress toward a learning outcome. The latter is more summative and “credential-related” as they put it.

I have at times given students feedback only to continue on with new instruction because my focus was on a pacing calendar. I told myself I would build in more time to allow students to continue grappling with a concept-the spiraling curriculum model we see in so many adopted materials. But let’s face it: that doesn’t always happen, and if it does, review isn’t treated equally to the new material being taught.

The big point: Give students more feedback and less grades. Engage students in providing feedback, too.

The corollary: Once feedback is given, provide students a chance to refine their work or thinking and/or be willing as a teacher to provide more coaching and time so they can grow based on the feedback provided.

The Nature of Feedback

As Ron Berger below would say, feedback needs to be kind, specific, and helpful.

Reading Fisher & Frey’s The Formative Assessment Action Plan, they would add that feedback must be timely, understandable, and actionable, too.

Timely means throughout the project process and not just at the end. Students need time to act upon the feedback given. If you’ve ever had a stack of papers sit during Thanksgiving or Spring Break because a project or unit ended just prior, chances are the time you’ve spent evaluating will be a moot point if your goal is to start a new unit after the vacation.

Understandable means information that can interpreted by a student to promote revision of thinking or work. If a teacher passes along qualitative comments that aren’t specific (“I really like your intro.” or “This part is confusing.”), a student will struggle to translate those comments into action. This is where a rubric can help.

Actionable means students can build on what you’ve said rather than react to it. Feedback ought to include next steps, a plan to reteach, a reference to something, an exemplar, a moment to reflect an unpack on what did and did not work.

Recently a team of three students began brainstorming a math instructional film on how to order rational numbers. They settled on a concept showing numbers with inequalities and a brief verbal explanation of how they ordered the numbers. The next day I realized the team had missed several key parts of the task.

To provide feedback we met to discuss how their approach was missing a visual context. An inequality doesn’t explain much. What they were doing wasn’t wrong. It was missing the visual. We reviewed the progress of other teams to see what concepts they were working on. One team was using a map to show the placement of rational numbers with a number line superimposed. Another team was using a number line. My team of three and I moved to a white board to brainstorm a context for rational numbers: bank accounts, a number line to show seating in a theater, a thermometer. The last idea resonated most. With that visual they were able to move forward with an elevated concept.

You can check out their progress below by following the development of their Google Slide presentation.

Ultimately feedback is about the learner. It’s about what they can do with what you’ve shared with them. “Grading” or “evaluating” is a post-op maneuver. It has to happen, but at the end of the learning cycle. Give your students feedback they can use. And enjoy those weeks off when you get them. Teaching is hard work. So is learning. We all need a break sometimes.

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