Feedback!

At Park, we write about our students at the end of each quarter. This feedback is meant to be global feedback that goes beyond performance on any one assignment.  This almost always takes the form of a paragraph or two about each student, and possibly some sort of rubric.  Parents love this evidence that teachers understand their students’ personalities and learning styles.  However, teachers wonder if it really makes sense to do this four times a year, and if it’s really worth all that work.  By the fourth time you are writing about a student, it can be hard to think of new things to say.   So we’re now looking at mixing it up and maybe doing something different for some of those four times. 

Here’s my conservative solution for this quarter.  I’m making a bulleted list of each student’s strengths and “areas to work on”, with a sentence or two of explanation after each one.  Often, the explanation will be customized to each student, but I’m also just cutting and pasting explanations in some cases, if I really think the same explanation applies.

Here’s a sample describing a fake student.  I made this by combining bullet points I’d made for various real students and changing gender pronouns if necessary.

Strengths:

  • Using algebra to her advantage.  XXX is very comfortable solving equations.  She will write an equation to describe a mathematical situation if she thinks it will help her to solve a problem.  At the same time, she does not over-rely on algebra.  She uses common sense to think about what would be a reasonable answer, and she also draws pictures to see what she can learn from them.
  • Abstract thinking.  XXX seems very comfortable operating in the realm of mathematics.  She understands the significance of the concepts she’s learned in class.  She can make connections between concepts in order to come up with new ideas.
  • Enthusiasm.  XXX becomes excited when figuring out new things.

To work on:

  • Risk-taking.  XXX participates often enough in class, but sometimes seems unsure of herself.  I’d love to hear some of her less-well-developed ideas in class discussion, even if they turn out to be wrong.
  • Executing strategies that are complicated or take several steps.  XXX has sometimes had trouble getting her mind around the most complicated problems in the course.  She may come up with a strategy but not think through all of the parts in sufficient detail.
  • Clarity of writing.  XXX does put her work down on paper, but it is not organized in a way that is easy for someone else to understand.  Working on this should be a priority for XXX: on her lines test, nearly every problem needed more/better explanation.

In the spirit of my newfound format, here are some advantages and disadvantages of doing this.

Advantages:

  • Abandoning the paragraph structure means I don’t have to spend as much time thinking about how I’m going to start, how I will transition between ideas, and especially, how I’m going to introduce some negative comment so as to soften its blow.  Everyone will expect to have a few good things listed as well as a few negative things.
  • The bullet points will be easier for kids to process (I think).  Often they read over their comments too quickly and miss things. 
  • This ensures that nearly all of each comment will be substantive.  This is as opposed to filler like “XXX has been doing a great job in this class; it’s been my pleasure to work with him.” 
  • In some ways, this format has a structure similar to a rubric, where I am assessing each student along a variety of dimensions.  However, not every student gets the same bullet points, and so I can focus on the dimensions that are most relevant to a particular student.

Disadvantages:

  • While this format makes it easier for me to get started in my writing, it’s not infinitely flexible.  It doesn’t allow for a natural way to talk about issues that are not strengths or weaknesses: for instance, improvement over time.  This is only one very particular way to look at students, and so I wouldn’t want to use this format more than once or twice a year.
  • There are some students for whom I’m not confident that I know their strengths and weaknesses so specifically!  But it’s nice that doing this makes me think about those things.
  • One might think that doing this would take less time than writing a paragraph, but I’ve found that the time spent is about equal.  This definitely isn’t a way to punt.

What are some of the ways you give summative feedback to your students?

5 Comments

  1. Douglas Gorham
    Posted January 21, 2013 at 5:33 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Would you find it more beneficial to the student/family to provide this sort of comment at the midpoint of a term? Emphasis can be given to the areas of weakness and how to make improvements. Does Park give comments at the end of each quarter for each division?
    I do appreciate the bullet format. This is far easier to read. Also, I share your concern with how to start the paragraph and move from thought to thought. I do not have the command of the language as my peers in other subject areas.
    Looking forward to learning how your journey to improved comments progresses.

  2. Posted January 21, 2013 at 7:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Mimi – I can’t imagine writing such a lengthy report for each of my 150+ students 4 times a year! Yikes!

    I personally like the bulleted format. I find it easier to concentrate on the strengths and areas to strengthen when presented in outline form.

    In my university work (part-time) I have to give written feedback pretty often … so I started a list of statements … categorized them … add to them when I am inspired with a thought or two. This way, when I do have to write feedback I can go to the list and match comments to students. It saves some time.

  3. Mimi
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink | Reply

    To answer some of the questions… since we write four times a year and classes are a year long, we are giving feedback with improvement as the goal. Of course, individual conversations with students are usually more effective than anything we could write in a comment. The middle school has a different system, with comments at trimesters and “weeklies” given to students who need extra guidance or have done something impressive.

    Since our school is small, the most number of students any teacher would teach would be about 70. While the task can still be overwhelming, that’s much better than the 150 or more at public schools or universities!

    instillnessthedancing, I’m curious how your system of feedback works. I don’t ever recall getting written feedback other than comments on exams when I was in college. Who is the audience for the feedback, and how often do you give it?

  4. Posted January 4, 2014 at 5:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Good article

  5. David Srebnick
    Posted November 2, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Many years ago I remember reading a book by Edward de Bono in which he offered an alternative to the usual “positives/negatives” when evaluating the merits of an idea or solution to a problem. He suggested a third column, “I”, for interesting.

    Perhaps you can take the same approach to evaluating students. Strengths, weaknesses, and observations that re neither strengths no weaknesses. The third category of bullets is where you might list those things that don’t fit into the other two categories.

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