Another dot in the blogosphere?

Posts Tagged ‘feedback

After reading this piece on formative assessment by Steven Anderson, I decided to focus on formative feedback instead.

I sum up and oversimplify formative feedback in four broad and overlapping activities. These are driven by the questions:

1. Where is the learner now?
2. Where does s/he need to go?
3. Why does s/he need to go there?
4. How might s/he get there?

Three questions for formative feedback.

The problem with generalisations is that people start and end there. I do not share these questions to drive dogma. Instead they are distillations of the collective experiences and wisdoms of progressive educators everywhere.

Post production note: I originally had just three elements — I did not have the WHY at first. This might not seem like a logical formative question, but it is an important one to ask to keep the learner’s motivation up.

As much as I try to promote and model progressive forms of education, I am “old school” in some ways. I believe in being “cruel” to be kind.

I get a fair bit of my work done at public libraries. These libraries have a rule about not leaving personal property behind to reserve seats or tables.

Signs pasted on table tops inform patrons that abandoned property will be confiscated and put in special collection areas.

Librarians make their rounds to remind users not to reserve seats or leave belongings unattended. If patrons are absent, the librarians are authorised to remove the abandoned items. Instead, most librarians leave warning notes behind instead.

I have observed patrons return to the seats, see the notes, and nonchalantly crumple them up. The rule is not upheld and there is no consequence for their actions.

The librarians probably want to avoid confrontations with patrons. But by being considerate to such patrons, the librarians allow the inconsiderate behaviour of some patrons to persist.

It is better to be cruel to be kind. This adds teeth to the rules and takes a bite out of inconsiderate behaviour.

A peaceful reading alley in the #library at #orchardgateway #singapore.

A post shared by Dr Ashley Tan (@drashleytan) on

These libraries are one of my work spaces. I often provide feedback and grade assignments there.

In the earlier piece, I explained how and why I provide feedback that goes beyond content. I am particular about how my learners write and I am strict about the standards they need to achieve.

Like the upholding of library rules, I am “cruel” to be kind. I believe in providing encouragement, but I also know that errors and bad habits must be clearly and firmly pointed out.

If doing this bruises the egos of my learners, so be it. I am confident that they will grow and learn from the pain eventually. After all, we learn more from occasionally falling down than constantly staying up.

Yesterday I shared some thoughts on providing formative feedback on written assignments. Today I share some strategies I use to do so efficiently and effectively.

Get out of comfort zones
I try not to work at home. There are too many distractions there largely thanks to my fast Internet connection. I might get sidetracked by YouTube videos or social media alerts.

I make my way to a library or a coffee place. I do not have the comforts of home and I switch to my all-business frame of mind.

One benefit of being at a coffee place is that I cannot stay long. I cannot hog a table or I might have time-limited Internet access. The time limit is an incentive to work efficiently.

Block distractions
Being in a public place means it gets noisy much of the time. I counter this by donning a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.

I have different playlists to help drown out ambient noise or bad store music. Some music is calming if the work I am reviewing agitates me; some of the tunes are energetic if my human battery runs low.

I also remove my glasses as I do not need them for close up work. Doing this has the benefit of not being distracted by what appears in my peripheral vision.

Set a quota and stick to it
I use the number of scripts and the feedback due date to calculate how many assignments I need to process a day. Then I divide each day’s quota into a before-lunch and an after-lunch set.

The quota needs to be achievable. Some initial trial and error has built my experience up on this matter. Calculating the quota is the easy part.

The difficult part is keeping to the quota. By this I do not mean completing the AM or PM session’s amount. I do this consistently. I mean stopping when I seem to have gained momentum.

It is important to stop because I do not want to mentally exhaust myself. If I am tired, it will show in my feedback and this is not fair to my learners. I also need time to rest, play, or finish the now cold cup of coffee on the table.

Revisit earlier scripts
It is tempting to grade, provide feedback, and never want to see a piece of writing again. However, I find it useful to revisit earlier scripts to
to check for the consistency of my feedback.

I think that we operate like the tides when we process assignments. We seem to wash up consistently like waves crashing on a beach. But no two waves are identical and there is the overall ebb or flow of tides too.

This could be due to my energy, the time of day, the overall nature of the class, the behaviour and expectations of learners who submit at different times, and so much more.

Embrace subjectivity
I do not try to be a robot or strive to be absolutely objective. This is impossible.

I embrace subjectivity but do so professionally. By this I mean that I take into account how a group responded to one or more lessons, what strategies I used with them, what content we uncovered together, etc.

We might have a menu to follow, but each dish is a bit different from another. I acknowledge and respect that by seeing how it was prepared (focusing on the process), not what it looks like (focusing on the product).

Strive for timeliness
One thing that makes feedback effective is timeliness. Wait too long to provide it and all effort it lost because learners have forgotten what they wrote.

The assignments I grade and provide feedback on are submitted online. After the submission deadline, I process assignments in the order they were submitted. This means that the first person to submit gets feedback first.

I could resort to an administratively convenient alphabetical order, but this is not fair to students who might have Z surnames but A response times.

End note: I prepared much of this reflection after processing a day’s quota of assignments. My mind was still buzzing, so I put my energy into sharing some ideas.

It is that time of the year when I deal with the haze.

A photo I took of the haze in 2013.

Not the literal and annual haze that has plagued Singapore. It mercifully gave us a miss this year.

Neither was it the burning, smoke, smells, and extra dust that accompanies the month-long hungry ghost festival.

I am referring to the haze of written assignments that I grade and provide formative feedback on.

The assignments are cumulative. This means that the first one sets a foundation for the second, and the second is the basis for the third. This makes the writing (by learners) and the evaluating (by facilitators) of the assignment challenging.

I could simply focus on the grading criteria and content of the assignments. That would be challenging enough. However, I do not think that this is logical or ethical.

I also focus on various aspects of writing as a form of communication. I provide feedback on spelling, grammar, organisation and structure, logical flow, presentation, use of white space, and more.

Example of what I provide feedback on that has nothing to do with content.

Doing these might seem like doing extra work. To use the haze analogy, it is like smoking while burning incense paper during the haziest time of year.

It is not.

I know that good writing is not just about WHAT my learners say, but also HOW they say it. It is about their attitudes and mindsets — whether they show care, sincerity, and effort as they write — that also matter.

Here is a general example of the persuasive writing that is expected in some parts of the assignments. A good structure of three arguments (1, 2, 3) is to have three parts to each argument (A, B, C).

An organised person who takes care to communicate clearly would write in this pattern: 1A-1B-1C; 2A-2B-2C, 3A-3B-3C. This is critical thought that flows logically.

A writer that does not care or is not aware of such structure might write like this: 1A-2A-3A, 1B-2B-3B, 1C-2C-3C. This makes it very hard to follow arguments because the elements are out of place.

If I focused just on my learners’ understanding of content and their application of concepts, I could ignore structure and just look for mention of the content and concepts. However, this would be like singing parts of a song out of sequence. All the parts are present, but it does not make sense.

While I am not teaching a writing class, my learners are writing purposefully. The best way to learn how to write is to write, get critiqued, reflect, and revise.

Learners who pick up good writing habits break through the haze of ignorance or stubbornness. It takes effort to do this, but the sunlight and fresh air when you rise above the smog is worth it. So is the effort to help my learners get there.

… is another man’s poison.

That was the saying that came to mind when I read this student’s feedback on teaching.

A reporting officer or an administrator might view this feedback on teaching negatively.

A teacher who focuses on content as a means of nurturing thoughtful learners might view this positively.

I am not describing a false dichotomy. I am summarising reality.

One of my favourite tools for written feedback is Turnitin’s document viewer.

The name viewer is a misnomer since the tool also allows an evaluator to annotate digital documents.

Turnitin's assignment viewer and markup tool.

The screenshot above is of the side bar of the tool and this is what makes it useful and powerful. (I pixellated some of the customised content to respect the work of others and left one of my examples plain to see.)

As a lone evaluator, I can add frequently-used comments to the side bar. When I notice something in an essay that triggers concern, I highlight some text in the essay and click on a button that represents that comment.

For example, I might find that someone has a misplaced trust in “learning styles”. I highlight those words in the online document and click on my “learning styles” button. My entire comment (text in bottom window) is added to the document as feedback in a speech bubble.

Users who receive feedback do not need to install anything or have a browser extension. They revisit their graded work and hover a cursor over the speech bubbles in order to read the feedback.

Even better than this convenience is another affordance: When evaluating as a group, each member can add their own comments which other evaluators can see and use. The tool becomes a pool of distilled wisdoms in the form of critical feedback.

Unfortunately, this tool is limited to educational institutions that pay for the service and add-on. I had long wished for a similar tool that was more open and preferably free. I might have found something close in the form of JoeZoo.

JoeZoo is a Chrome extension and I have yet to explore it fully. It promises the efficiency of reusing comments, but it does not seem to pool shared wisdoms.

However, JoeZoo seems more visually-appealing than Turnitin and offers useful options like feedback categories, rubrics, and grading scales.

Like Turnitin, students receiving feedback on their work do not need to install anything on their computing systems to view the feedback.

If you are like me and security conscious, you might block third-party cookies from your browser. If you do this, JoeZoo will not work. To get around this issue, you will need to create this cookie exception: [*.]

My ideal feedback and grading tool would be a hybrid of these two tools.

  • Very simple to use like Turnitin’s side bar
  • Visually appealing for teachers and student like JoeZoo
  • Shared or pooled comments like Turnitin
  • Free and open like JoeZoo

Disclosure: I have not been paid or otherwise compensated for mentioning Turnitin or JoeZoo.

Formative feedback: It is a pillar that upholds learning. Without it a student gets grades and the learning stops. Why? The student does not know what exactly went wrong or right, and why. As a result, that student does not reflect and change strategies.

Ideally the feedback is meaningful and timely. For feedback to be meaningful, the student needs to know: Why is this important? How do I make sense of it? For it to be timely, the student wants to know: How soon can you give it to me? Am I ready to receive it?

Trying to provide feedback that answers these questions is a big problem for any educator. The problem has a bad side and a good one.

The first thing an expert forgets is what is it like to struggle with learning.

Feedback is often given from the point of view of an expert who cannot remember what it was like to struggle with learning. This creates a disconnect.

An educator trying to provide good feedback will also realise that quality soon leads to quantity. This could be in terms of time spent with individuals, or the amount of written or otherwise recorded feedback.

Both these problems stem from the fact that traditional grading and feedback depends on an audience of one — the teacher. The students write for one person, and that person has to be director, manager, applauding audience member, performance critic, publicist, and popcorn seller.

There is far too much for one person to do and too little time to do it in. So what is an educator to do?

Some might point to the future of artificial intelligence (AI). Already some AI can fool very educated academics into thinking that another expert gave them feedback.

However, most teachers need solutions now. Not solutions like robots that scan bubble sheets or testing programmes that tally answers. Those tend to be summative, relatively quick, and as they involve grades, may not focus on learning.

Current technologies for providing feedback on written work (like Google Docs, Kaizena, JoeZoo) or performances (like video capture and annotation) require an investment in time.

Again, there is far too much for one person to do and too little to do it in. So what is an educator to do?

The problem presents opportunities. These are good problems and I present them as questions.

  • How might our learners be more peer-driven and collaborative?
  • How can we be more open so that other experts contribute to the process?
  • How might the tasks be more authentic or otherwise more representative of the wider world?
  • How do we filter noise from signal?

If there is power in peer teaching, then the same could be said about peer assessment. While learners do not have the same content expertise or thinking ability as an expert, they are cognitively closer to each other than the teacher is to them. They will use language and examples in ways that a teacher cannot.

Opening up assessments to a wider audience also places peer pressure on learners. The wider audience could include other educators and experts in the field.

If your students are sharing their work with the world, they want it to be good. If they are sharing it with you, they want it to be good enough.

So far the suggestions operate in the classroom and academic bubble. Step outside of it and consider what happens in social media and YouTube: Feedback is constant, brief, brutally honest, occasionally pleasant, but always real. It can be messy and the learner has to decide what is important to take in and what to ignore.

Even before a student leaves school or university, he or she is already operating outside that bubble. When they eventually leave, they will spend even more time there. They are learning how to operate in the social media and YouTube world largely without the benefit of the teacher. Their audience of potentially many is missing that audience of one.

Why are we not using strategies that already work outside our bubble? What is holding some of us back from embracing the new normal in the wider world? What is more important: Our fears or our learners?


Click to see all the nominees!

QR code

Get a mobile QR code app to figure out what this means!

My tweets


Usage policy

%d bloggers like this: