Making a fuss of feedback

At the weekend I attended the Teaching and Learning Takeback conference at Southampton Uni – #TLT17. It was wonderful to meet so many engaged and enthusiastic teachers who had given up their time to share their ideas freely with others. One stand-out session was Rebecca Foster’s who discussed the problems with the need to provide endless streams of summative data and the implications of this for curriculum design. She also shared her method of giving whole class feedback (WCF). These ideas were tweeted out by me and many others – like the one below.

Once something in education, that has always been done, is given a name you can expect a debate to kick off. Knowledge organisers, direct instruction, whole class feedback, none of these are anything new. Teachers have always shared with pupils lists of what they need to know (knowledge organisers), always told them things (direct instruction) and have always given feedback to the whole class about pieces of work. People who say, as they have said on twitter, “I would never explore whole class feedback” have clearly missed the point. Feedback is a constant process in class and inevitably some of it will be delivered to the class as a whole.

The debate around whole class feedback is an interesting one. As with just about everything else people end up dividing down roughly “traditional-leaning” (Pro-WCF) and “progressive-leaning” (more anti-WCF). This is an odd division. It is hard to image something more didactic than the traditional way of marking books where each pupil is told exactly what they have done wrong and what they have got right, whereas WCF encourages pupils to “discover” their errors for themselves; more with a guide on the side to help them. The education world is a strange beast.

When people say they are “against WCF” they tend to mean either.

  1. They don’t like the templates used (efficiency) or
  2. They don’t want it to replace individual comments written in books (effectiveness).

The template

WCF doesn’t have to mean filling in a template like those shared by Rebecca Foster. I was first aware of this type of template after it was created and shared by Greg Thornton here.

The idea of using the template is that you have this next to you as you are looking through a class set of books and you are making notes on this to share with the class; either by showing it on a screen or as a prompt for what you want to tell them. The reason it is used is that many comments you write in one book you also end up writing in another. By using this template (or one like it) you write the comment once on the sheet, number it, and then write that number in any book where the target applies. The pupil then knows what they need to do to improve. the targets are specific to the piece of work. One example shared by Rebecca, from the Geography department in her school, also had the space to include a screen shot of excellent work. Once the class have been given feedback they then work on redrafting or (and I’d suggest more effectively) complete another task where these targets can be worked on. The first time I used this template it took a little less time than writing individual written comments but the more I used it the faster I got.

What gets lost in this is the fact that WCF doesn’t mean this template. As so often happens we risk losing the pedagogy and focusing on the structure. While I sometimes use a template like this, on other occasions I just put a few notes on a slide showing the features of good answers and the features of less good answers. Pupils then look for examples of these things in their own work and make corrections. This example is feedback following a Year 12 test on coastal processes.

WCF

This is far less time consuming than either writing the annotation on their papers or using a more formal template. It is certainly efficient but is it effective?

Replacing individual comments

There are a few problems with using individual written comments that WCF addresses.

The first is that of time. It is far quicker to give WCF than it is to write annotation on to pupils work. Is this a benefit for the teacher or for the pupil? I have yet to meet a teacher who uses WCF so that they can spend more time with their feet-up. Any time gained from using this method is spent on creating better lessons, creating resources, collaborating with others or working with pupils 1-2-1. There is a finite amount of time and we need to find ways to use it well.

The second issue that WCF addresses is that individual written comments do little to develop self-regulation (or independence if you prefer). When I give feedback to the class the pupil needs to look through their work and check if they have made the errors discussed or where they have made them. They need to look for the common spelling errors and make the corrections. This is developing important study skills for when they don’t have the constant support of a teacher, not just in the exam but throughout their life. There is no evidence anyone has been able to point me to that individual written comments lead to students making better progress and Hattie and Timperley’s meta-analysis shows that this feedback could be harmful if used at the wrong time for the wrong task.

One problem with writing individual comments is that they end up being very generic. You end up with comments like “add more detail here” or “explain this” but without being able to give the detail on how to do those things. When giving feedback to the class you have ample opportunity to demonstrate and model the difference between excellent answers and less good work. The feedback can be far more meaningful.

A criticism that seems to be leveled at the use of WCF is that pupils will miss the personal touch of these written comments. I have never heard this from anyone who has experimented with increasing their use of WCF however, or from a pupil. Again, we need to challenge the image of a lazy teacher using these templates and nothing more.

Pupils in my class get a huge amount of personalised feedback but this feedback comes verbally. After we have looked through the work as a class, and shared excellent examples we have seen, they improve their work or complete a different task to develop areas of weakness. During this time I give individual feedback to pupils about their work. I often sit with a pupil and look through their book with them 1-2-1 and give detailed and meaningful feedback on the progress they seem to be making. This dialogue is far more effective, and far more personal, than a hastily scribbled note asking for “more detail” or to “use examples”.

Conclusion 

Whole class feedback is something that almost all teachers do much of the time. We frequently discuss excellent work with a class or call their attention to common errors. If you are doing this, you are using WCF.

Increasing the amount of WCF you do, and decreasing the amount of individual written comments you write, saves time that you can then use to improve other aspects of teaching and should have no negative impact on pupil progress. Nor should it have a negative impact on relationships with pupils as you open a dialogue about their work.

WCF is an important tool and I am incredibly grateful to the likes of Greg Thornton and Rebecca Foster for giving up their time to explore it more fully with us.

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