By Kamilah Cummings
As last quarter drew to a close, I was discussing the final revision of a student’s essay with him. During that discussion I found myself repeating feedback that I had previously written, so I asked if he had viewed my earlier feedback. He replied, “You really didn’t give me any feedback on my paper.” In my head, I briefly replayed the hour that I’d spent providing feedback on his paper. I then opened the file that contained my original feedback and discussed it with him in detail. Our subsequent discussion revealed that not only had he failed to read most of my feedback but that he did not understand much of what he had read. This experience led me to question my view of the feedback process.
According to Sadler and Davies, “The cycle of assessment for facilitating learning consists of an assessment task, a student’s response, an appraisal by a teacher or competent marker, and the provision of feedback” (Sadler and Davies 1). However, my recent experience led me to question whether that cycle should end at my feedback. I began to wonder whether I could improve the effectiveness of the assessment cycle by asking my students to provide me with feedback on my feedback.
In reflecting on my conversation with that student, I thought about the countless conversations I have had with colleagues where we wonder if students actually read our feedback. We have at times been mystified by a student’s inability to apply our feedback. Yet, without a method to assess our feedback beyond a student’s final revision, there is no way for us to determine whether students have read or even understand our feedback.
This all led me to create a feedback assessment assignment that allowed my students to give me feedback on feedback that I had given them. I attached this assignment to their first essays because I wanted to use their responses to improve the effectiveness of my feedback on future assignments this quarter.
I am used to receiving student feedback on the overall classroom experience in end-of-term course evaluations. However, as one of my students remarked, “by that point you just want to get it over with and can’t even remember half of what happened anymore.” My students expressed that providing feedback to an instructor during the course was something new for them. However, according to Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, “Soliciting mid-semester student feedback has the additional benefit of allowing you to hear your students’ concerns while there is still time in the semester to make appropriate changes” (The Center for Teaching). The Center suggests using methods from Barbara Gross Davis’s book Tools for Teaching such as in-class feedback forms, online surveys, or small group analysis to obtain feedback from students during the term.
The feedback assessment assignment that I created was a one-page form. I didn’t want it to feel like “work,” so I kept it simple. I asked six questions that centered on how students felt about feedback, their understanding of the feedback that I provided, and how they planned to apply my feedback.
In asking students their general attitudes toward feedback, I gained a better understanding of how they might receive my feedback. Although most students welcomed feedback, some expressed strong anxiety over it. For example, one student wrote, “I feel like when I hear so many comments on what I did not do on my essay, [it] hurts me inside and makes me feel that I have not done my best on my essay.” After reading his response, I spoke with him and learned that he was used to his paper being covered with corrections, which resulted in him reacting negatively to feedback. I am always careful to scaffold feedback so that students do not receive “so many comments” on their work. However, in this student’s case, I am now even more aware of this when providing feedback. I am not sure that I would have learned this about him had he not completed the feedback assignment.
The remaining questions focused on the students’ understanding of my feedback. Some responses revealed that students had not read the feedback. Others revealed that students either did not understand the feedback or misinterpreted it. For example, I learned that one student thought my suggestions for improving sentence clarity and incorrect word usage meant that he would “lose something in the storytelling.” He wrote, “Some of it is cultural and seems a bit turgid but it’s at the core of how I think in my head.” I explained to him that he could, indeed, maintain his authentic cultural voice and storytelling while improving his sentence clarity and word usage. Again, this is something that I might not have learned had he not completed the assignment. I am now mindful of his perceptions when providing feedback.
By asking students their plans for applying the feedback they received, I learned that most students did not have a plan beyond “correcting what was wrong.” This underscored that many students view feedback and revision as “correcting” rather than improving their work. They viewed revision locally rather than globally. As such, this is something I will continue to address in class.
Overall, the responses I received from this assignment revealed that I cannot assume that what is clear to me regarding feedback will not produce a haze of confusion for students. In offering strategies for providing effective feedback, Sadler and Davies state that we must first “recognise that feedback is primarily a one-way message sent by a marker to a student, without any guarantee that the receiver-student will be able to interpret it” (Sadler and Davies 2). I have learned that feedback cannot be a one-way message if I expect my students to apply it effectively.
To that end, my biggest takeaway from this experience is that instead of feedback being a one-way message, it should be a conversation. This assignment allowed me to engage in a dialogue with my students regarding feedback in a way that neither of us had before. Although I always ask students to contact me if they have questions about my feedback, I think this assignment was more effective in soliciting feedback from them. By allowing students to assess my feedback mid-quarter, I gained useful insight from them about the ways they receive, process, and apply my feedback. I think this will improve the overall learning experience for my students this quarter. I have already started to apply what I learned from their responses to feedback on subsequent assignments.
Sadler, D. Royce and Lynda Davies. "Developing Effective Feedback for Learning." n.d. Griffith Institute of Higher Education. 28 April 2013 <http://www.griffith.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/225831/Developing-Effective_Feedback_for_Learning.pdf>.
The Center for Teaching. Gathering Feedback from Students. 2013. 28 April 2013 <http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/teaching-guides/reflecting/student-feedback/>.