On Giving Feedback, or, You Have a Life, Too

At the end of February, I attended and presented at the 4th annual GATESOL IEP Mini-Conference in Atlanta. It was a wonderful conference and it was great to have an event so focused on a specific teaching content, and meet other people who teach in that same context!

Among the many great presentations I attended, one of the best was by Dr. Lauren Lukkarila called “Giving Writing Feedback: Freeing Yourself and Learners” (download the presentation and handout). Giving feedback on writing is hard. First, it’s pedagogically difficult. What you comment on, how you comment on it, how much you comment, and the question par excellence, whether you use a red pen – these are all difficult questions. Furthermore, we have to wonder how effective feedback is, especially when students tend to make the same exact mistake (grammar or content) the very next time. Second, it’s emotionally draining. How many times have you been frustrated because the student just did not do what was expected of them? How many times have you face-palmed while grading a paper? Finally, and perhaps worst of all, it’s time-consuming. Do you grade on the weekends? Do you mark papers late into the night? Why are there coffee stains on that essay? And, didn’t you fix that error last time? Didn’t you address this in class? Didn’t they log this in their error diaries? Why are they still making this mistake‽

This, of course, is just from the teacher’s perspective. Just as we struggle, our learners struggle too. First, they need to figure out what you actually want – which, despite our best efforts and rubrics, is not always clear. Then, they need to actually say it, which could be the hardest part. Our students (usually) would have little problem saying these things in their own language, but through the filter of an L2, their thoughts are muffled; they’ve been hobbled. It’s quite stressful and, as a student, it can be demoralizing.

Dr. Lukkarila has a plan to get us (teachers and learners) out of this funk. We are all dissatisfied with the feedback transaction and we need to change it. Lauren offers two important solutions:

  1. Manage expectations
  2. Let go

What this means is that we should require less whole products to give comments on. Instead, we should require more revisions as the writing develops. This allows us to give simple and quick feedback. It’s not time-consuming and when the entire product is done, it is made of the best revisions possible, so it requires no further feedback! Of course, another lesson is that we shouldn’t correct everything. Accept mistakes because students will make them again (and they can always go to the writing center for little things like that anyway). Just because we don’t correct certain mistakes doesn’t mean the student will become a failure at life. Accept mistakes and accept that not correcting doesn’t signal the four horsemen to come riding.

Dr. Lukkarila stresses that we should follow the 80/20 rule. That is, of the 10 most important things to look for in a text, two are more important than the others. And students are likely to only be able to handle / take-in / internalize / acquire two instances of feedback. So, for each revision or feedback round, focus on only two things. Focus on 20% and let go of the other 80%. Each revision round, you can shift your focus, but stay within the 20%.

Here is more of what Lukkarila said:

Managing Expectations

  1. Beliefs – Managing expectations means that we need to rethink our writing beliefs. Perhaps we are giving feedback too harshly because that’s how we were graded and we think it’s the norm. Perhaps we our applying our own subjective understanding of “good writing” to the writing of our students. Maybe we are focusing too much on accuracy, or maybe not enough? What’s better: quality or quantity? There are a lot of assumptions we may have to rethink in terms of what we expect our students to produce, including the assumptions our students might be making about writing.
  2. Needs – Managing expectations means being honest about our needs. How many hours can you reasonably spend giving feedback, considering the hours you spending planning, teaching, and on Twitter or Facebook? Are you going to have time to give feedback on everything you said you will? Can you, will you, or do you have to comment on everything? What kind of feedback do your students need? How fast do they need it?

Letting Go

  1. Require fewer whole products and more revisions.
  2. Break down writing into smaller parts – even smaller than the paragraph level. Think sentence-level stuff here.
  3. Follow the 80/20 rule
  4. “Releasing your own student writing experiences and replacing those expectations with  expectations that are realistic and respectful for your students and you.”
  5. Consider the most important whole products still will make and let go of the other products you wanted them to write.
  6. Less is more – students should receive feedback more often, and revise more times. This is only possible with less feedback.
  7. “Accept that learners can improve even when you don’t comment on everything– allow the natural acquisition process to work.”

I really like Lauren’s ideas. I think that they can be adapted and applied to almost any teaching situation and still be effective, as long as the basic principles are observed: manage expectations and let go. Of course, it’s harder than it sounds. For me, it would be hard to give feedback on only two items and let go of the other eight. I could focus on two of the other eight during the next feedback round, but eventually, we have to move on if the writing is ever to be finished. Knowing when to let go is hard. And here, the “less whole products more revisions” comes into play.

I think I already follow this mantra to some extent, focusing on quality instead of quantity (for quantity, I have my students blog). Some colleagues have their students complete six or seven essays during one term. My classes usually produce three. We take our time, go slow, and get lot’s of feedback. I try to give feedback in class and do as little as possible aside from grading out of class, but it doesn’t always work that way. I also try to break the writing down into paragraphs, for example looking at the thesis before writing the intro, and looking at an intro before allowing students to move to the body. This works well to some extent, but a class of more than 6 means I don’t have the time to work with everyone. So, I inevitably take work home and use up my free time.

I’ve been trying to make the feedback process more efficient and effective for both myself and my students. It’s difficult but I’m making progress. Compared to a year or two ago, when giving feedback was like being in prison, you can consider me a free man. However, there is still room to grow and I think I will take Lukkarila’s advice into deeper consideration.

I am a teacher, yes. But, I’m also a father, husband, and friend. I need to do my work in a way that respects and helps myself as much as it helps my students. There is no shame in that.

Please check out her presentation and handout for more information.