Why Work On Feedback?


By Sarah Cunningham —

Feedback is daunting to most instructors and often to students as well.  Time after time, the same questions and frustrations emerge:

From teachers:

  • How do I find the time to give meaningful feedback to everyone?
  • How do I make my feedback understandable?
  • How do I get students to actually read and utilize the feedback I’ve given them?

From students:

  • What does this feedback mean?
  • Even if I understand it, what do I do with it?

This Year’s Plan


This year I decided to focus much of my teaching efforts on giving meaningful feedback and developing strategies for the students themselves to both give and act on feedback to strengthen their writing.  Below are several strategies I’ve tried.

Teacher Feedback

Conferencing:  I *try* to conference with every student at least once during a piece of writing that we will polish.  This is still the most difficult part for me because it is so time consuming. I think it is also why I have spent so much time and effort determining different strategies for giving feedback.

Google Comments:  After students have completed one or two rounds of peer feedback, I then also read through their writing and give teacher feedback.  I have several precepts for quality feedback:

  1. Congratulate the well done–specifically.  “I like how you…”; “I admire the way you…”; “You did an excellent job with…”
  2. Keep in mind that teaching someone to fish is far superior than feeding them fish!  This means cool feedback is usually structured in the form of questions to get students to think, or minilessons about the particular weakness, or references to a model that will help them see what I’m trying to get at.  (I always supply models before I expect students to write themselves).

Personal letters:  This year in one class, I wanted to know how personal letters about student behaviors and work would impact student progress.  I chose my most difficult class to teach as my focus. Using Gmail, I wrote them several letters at different times of the year, noting what I saw as their successes and areas for growth.  I had students reply to my letters stating whether they agreed with my statements and what they would want to do to improve. These letters helped me set manageable goals for students because I forced myself to find two strengths and two areas of growth.


Peer Feedback

What-you-told-me / What-I still-want-to-know charts:  After free writes and rough drafts, I assigned students partners.  Students read each other’s work and then completed a chart as follows.

Students then orally shared their feedback.  Writers used the “What You Told Me” feedback to make sure they had communicated their thoughts effectively ands the “What I Still Want to Know” to add details to their writing.  Writers were also taught that one can say “No thank you” to some feedback. At the end, it is the writer who decides what she wants to include in her text.


Google Comments in Silence:  
Peers have learned to use Google comments to ask questions and give suggestions.  They follow the protocol that only the writer can write in her text. Writers have also learned that when they read a comment, they cannot automatically resolve it but rather use two codes:  “!” means I understand. “?” and writing what they do not understand shows that they need more support with that piece of feedback. Using Google comments in this way has been helpful for both the students and me.  It forces students to actually deal with the feedback they are given. Also, when they reply to a comment, this reply is sent to the feedback giver, so that person (teacher or student) can address any confusions the writer has.

Google Comments + oral feedback:  I tend to use this in heterogeneous pairs so that students with stronger English can support new learners.  The protocol is as follows. Two students share one computer. The writer reads a paragraph of his/her work and the feedback-giver tells the writer her feedback orally and writes it in the comment section.  At the end of each paragraph, the writer must state back what she can make better in that paragraph so both are clear that the feedback has been understood. This protocol works well for the stronger writers to help the weaker ones.  It does not work well the other way around. When using this protocol, I generally allow a work period immediately thereafter so that the students who got feedback can utilize it, and the stronger writers can pair up homogeneously and get feedback from their more-skilled peers.


Hybrid Feedback

Half and Half (aka Pay It Forward Feedback):  Something new I tried this year was a mix of teacher and peer feedback.  I did this towards the end of the year because I realized that although the more advanced English speakers tend to thrive on teacher feedback, the weaker English speakers do not always utilize it well.  Therefore, I decided to do something different. I paired students with one advanced and one beginning English learner. For the strong writers, I gave them feedback. For the beginners, they sat one on one with their “teacher” (stronger partner) and got feedback using the “Google Comments + Oral Feedback” strategy above.  I justified this to the stronger students because it gave them the opportunity to work on giving feedback and graded them for it using a feedback rubric. This strategy seemed to work for all pairs except for one, and grades were generally much higher for all students than usual.


Strategies that really helped me with Feedback this year

  1. I clarified the difference between editing and proofreading.  This is something our Writing Project coach has encouraged me to do for years, but this is the first year I’ve done it consistently.  When giving feedback, I ask students to focus on ideas, only addressing conventions or grammar if those make the writing unintelligible.  Making this separation between ideas and “technical writing” has helped students give more thoughtful feedback, rather than “You need to capitalize this” or “Add a period.”
  2. Using only comments for feedback has forced writers to think more for themselves as no one else can change things in their actual  document.
  3. When partnering students with the same language, I encouraged feedback in English or NL.
  4. I always provide students with leveled models for their writing.  This shows kids what to do rather than telling them, and helps feedback be more detailed and actionable.
  5. Having writers annotate their feedback (“!” = I understand; “?” = I have a question) instead of merely resolving it helps them focus on the feedback and helps me see how they are processing the feedback.  It also allows me to give extra support when necessary because I recieve their comments to my comments!
  6. Teaching minilessons and hanging posters about conventions has helped students know what to do when I tell them to proofread.
  7. I explained to students that when we read silently, we don’t pay attention to every word.  That’s why when we write silently, we often make silly mistakes. I taught them to read their writing out loud to themselves when proofreading.  This was especially helpful to students with stronger English as they could recognize the careless mistakes they made in their writing.
  8. I have also tried not letting students write over their drafts but rather write each new draft separately.  That helps them and me see their revisions.
  9. I also encourage students to share their writing with other students across our JI team and ask for their feedback.  I find that especially the stronger writers like this approach because it is a bit like using social media, and they get insight from students at their level.
  10. Codifying the process of editing and the role of feedback has provided clarity to students and to me.

  Process:

  1. First draft
  2. Peer feedback (What I Understood/ What I Would Like to Know)
  3. Second Draft
  4. Second round of peer feedback using Google Comments
  5. Third Draft
  6. Teacher feedback
  7. Proofreading
  8. Submission

Reflections on My Own Progress

Warm Feedback:  All in all, this has been a good writing year.  I feel like I am getting stronger at balancing being prescriptive and encouraging creativity in my student writers.  For years, I’ve known the importance of modeling in the writing process, but this year I feel like students were able to make more significant strides in their writing– and more appropriate individualized strides–due to the various strategies of feedback employed in the classroom.

Cool Feedback:  The writing process, especially when emphasizing the importance of giving and receiving feedback, is incredibly time consuming.  Yet, it gets a bit faster and more effective with every round. I would like to see our JI Team better standardize how we use feedback in our classrooms.  That way each discipline can profit from what’s being done in the other classes.

Additionally, I would like to experiment more with the Hybrid Feedback described earlier. It has real potential in my classroom.  In this context, I would also like to work on standardizing ways to assess the giving of feedback, so “teachers” feel validated for the work they do.  A rubric dedicated to the quality of given feedback could help students clarify what quality feedback looks like.


Sarah is a teacher at International High School for Health Sciences in NYC.

Posted in Classroom Practices