Feedback as a Critical Tool for Distance Learning

By Matthew Johnson

The first time that it fully dawned on me just how much Covid-19 might change our lives and our world was when I saw those pictures in early March of sports teams around the world playing in front of empty stands. I remember looking at those images and wondering what it must be like for the athletes to play without the cheering, jeering, and general noise of thousands looking on. How strange it must have been to suddenly hear every crack of the bat and kick of the ball and to have more than a few moments of silence in between.

Little did I know that within a few weeks, I, too, would suddenly exchange my busy and loud work environment for the relative silence of a small and hastily constructed basement office. Overnight, the noise of my day—the hundreds of tiny interactions I had with students, the greetings and goodbyes at the door, the ambient buzz of 35 bodies learning in one room— disappeared, replaced with mostly silent asynchronous education where I was separated from my students by both time and space.

Also gone were the non-verbal pieces of information, the real-time data written on the students’ faces about how well the lesson landed and my body language to students concerning their performance.

Without all those big and small moments of communication, teaching last spring often felt like talking to an empty lecture hall, even as emails and student work came in and out. And while the quietness was unsettling, it also presented a major challenge. For me and many other educators those quick check-ins and greetings at the door aren’t just pleasant throw-away moments. They are where we do so much of the work of building relationships with and cultivating positive beliefs within students. They are where we gain crucial information about who the students are, how they learn, and what impact our instruction is having. They are where we humanize our classrooms, and without them, I suddenly found myself missing a critically important piece of my pedagogy.

Luckily, however, there was one tool that I was able to lean on for these aspects of teaching, a tool that is often underutilized: feedback. In my recent book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster Without Burning Out, I argue that when teachers look at feedback as little more than a scoresheet meant to point out what is right and what is wrong in student work, a tremendous opportunity for connection is missed. Feedback is often the main individualized contact point between teacher and student. This becomes even more true in blended and remote learning, when so many of the other common contact points are suddenly absent. This is why this fall, regardless of what route my district takes, I plan to engage in the following feedback practices.

I Plan to Take the Stance of an Interested Reader, Not an Editor

A long history of scholarship suggests that when teachers edit their way through student work, marking every error and thought they have, both teachers and students generally lose. The students lose because the sheer quantity of marks and comments often overwhelms them—meaning no lesson is learned particularly deeply—and the teachers lose not only because the results are often less than ideal, but because marking every error and thought in an essay or test generally takes a very long time.

Instead of this editorial approach, the stance suggested by many scholars is similar to what David Fuller (1987) calls an Interested Reader, which is where the teacher thinks about the student, context, and his/her/their role as teacher, and then focuses the response on the student’s needs in that moment. This Interested Reader role tends to be more efficient and effective because teachers only give what the students need right then, which increases clarity and saves time for both parties. I would argue that this stance is even more important now in the midst of a global pandemic because student needs—both as learners and humans—will be more varied than usual and teacher time will likely be stretched even thinner as they navigate the twists and turns of the global crisis.

I Plan to Use Lots of Flash Feedback

Flash Feedback is my term for when a teacher gives quick, meaningful, and formative feedback, often in a minute or two, by keeping the feedback focused on one or maybe two learning objectives. For some of my favorite examples of this, you can also look here.

Flash Feedback is always a key part of my feedback strategy, but this fall it will be an even larger part of my teaching repertoire, as it will allow me to give meaningful feedback multiple times a week. This matters because, as blended learning expert Catlin Tucker explains, “In the absence of face-to-face classes, teachers can communicate that they care about their students’ progress by providing them with feedback on their work.” She is right. This spring I saw how the serve and return of regular feedback helped to maintain and even further build some of the connections I had with my students. It served as a potent reminder that I was still there, still listening, and still looking to help them take their skills to the next level.

I Plan to Create Feedback Loops

Feedback is a one-way street in many classrooms. The students give the teacher work and the teacher gives them feedback. Rarely, if ever, are the students given the opportunity to give the teacher feedback or even question what the teacher said. Occasionally there is some discussion of the teacher’s feedback in conferences, but most of the time the feedback, like a river, runs one way.

In my classes, however, I have found that feedback is far more effective when it is an ongoing conversation between the teacher and student, not a monologue from on high. This is true both because it empowers students and because while discussing and reflecting on feedback the student revisits it multiple times, making it more likely the student will internalize the messages. Further, through conversation, moments of confusion are discovered and the teacher can elaborate and dig deeper into the feedback, as needed.

This fall, I plan to take this concept to the next level and have students respond to my feedback in a number of ways: They will reflect on it before we conference, use the previous feedback to set subsequent learning goals for the next paper, and use it to inform their writing choices. The hope is that, considering all of the conversations we will have potentially lost, to change feedback from being largely disconnected moments into one larger, continuous conversation about their growth as readers, writers, and thinkers.


References:

Fuller, D. (1987). Teacher commentary that communicates: Practicing what we preach in the writing class. Journal of Teaching Writing, 6(2), 307–317.

Tucker, C. (2020, April 20). 3 Strategies for Personalizing Feedback Online [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://catlintucker.com/2020/04/personalizing-feedback-online/.


Matthew Johnson is a teacher and writer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He writes for Edutopia, publishes his thoughts on writing instruction in his weekly Re-Write Blog, and is the author of a recent book from Corwin Literacy, Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster — Without Burning Out (2020).

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