I’m never gonna do that shit. I just don’t have time for it.
At PCMI last summer, the focus of our daily Reflecting on Practice sessions was formative assessment. We spent some time talking about feedback, and the value of comments in place of grades. I remember, walking to lunch after that session, hearing another participant say, “I’m never gonna do that shit. I just don’t have time for it.”
It’s definitely a sentiment I’ve felt. I do buy into the research suggesting that comments accompanied by grades are no more helpful than grades alone (here’s a more readable take from Alfie Kohn). But the primary outcome of that research for me has been to give fewer comments on student work that I’m grading, and put that energy elsewhere. Instances of actually implementing comments-only feedback have been few and far between, and I haven’t seen evidence that it moves the needle on student learning.
I’m currently reading Dylan Wiliam’s most recent book, and there’s some useful guidance in it:
Robyn Renee Jackson suggests that one of the most important principles for teachers is “Never work harder than your students” (Jackson, 2009). We regularly ask teachers whether they believe their students spend as long taking onboard the feedback they are given as it takes the teacher to provide it. Hardly any teachers believe this. We spend far too much time giving feedback that the students either completely ignore or give scant attention to. One corollary of Jackson’s principle is therefore that feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor (122).
If the feedback relates only to the particular task at hand, it will improve the student’s ability to do that task, but not others, which is not particularly helpful, since the student is unlikely to do that task again. In giving feedback, we need to be clear about the goal of the feedback. Is it to improve this particular piece of work, or is it to improve the student’s capabilities more generally in some area? If the goal is to improve that particular piece of work, specific feedback may be entirely appropriate. However, in general, the goal of feedback is to improve the student’s general capabilities, and the particular task is just an index of that general capability. Telling students how to improve a particular piece of work may just be the equivalent of placing ice cubes in the mouth of a patient with a fever. When you measure the patient’s temperature with a thermometer under the tongue, the measured temperature may be lower, but this doesn’t mean the patient is better (123).
It’s worth noting that, in a 1996 review of the literature, Kluger & DeNisi found that more than 38% of effects in well-controlled studies of feedback were negative. Feedback is not universally good, and using it indiscriminately can be counterproductive. My favorite guide to feedback is this review from Valerie Shute, in particular the tables on pages 30-33. There’s a lot of subtlety here, and reason to be skeptical that feedback is a particularly powerful pedagogical tool.
But Wiliam offers two pieces of guidance that I think can create an effective, practical framework for using comments-only feedback.
- Students should do something with the feedback — and if it’s important to us, we should prioritize instructional time for them to do so.
- Opportunities for feedback should be structured such that the feedback is transferable beyond the task itself.
This framework suggests that much of the feedback I give is ineffective. If I don’t prioritize instructional time for students to respond to it, students who most need that feedback are unlikely to make effective use of it. And many tasks that I give feedback on are unlikely to lead to transferable learning, instead focusing student attention on concrete features of the task that will not support their learning in the future.
To revisit the sentiment expressed at PCMI — comments-only feedback isn’t something that should happen every day. Thinking about the likelihood of transfer can help clarify where it is most useful and avoid spending energy where it is not. And when there is an opportunity for such feedback, if my students are spending time in class responding to that feedback, I’m a lot more likely to find time to give it — if I don’t have to plan 20 minutes of class as a result of giving students a chance to respond to feedback, I can put that time toward giving that feedback. It’s not perfect, and it’s still going to be a strain on my workload, but this framework seems much more practical and powerful than my previous, haphazard attempts to make feedback meaningful.