Monday, May 2, 2016

Inside the Teaching Professor - Negotiating Feedback

by Tim Deines

In discussions of evaluation and assessment of writing and other academic work, feedback is held up as a nearly unimpeachable good. Writing teachers, for example, often use marginal and end comments to heavily supplement, if not replace entirely, traditional grammar correction. As long as the feedback is more or less immediate, we often assume, it is preferable to a grading regime that strictly quantifies the final product.

And yet, the translation from feedback to grade can be a difficult one for both student and teacher. As teachers, we’re often not sure if students read and practice the suggestions we make. We might imagine that a valuable exchange of insight and information is happening – especially in online environments – where none actually is. 

From the student point of view, if the student reads feedback, there may be a lack of understanding about how the feedback relates to the grade. Rubrics are one way of confronting this potential disconnect, but that sometimes just introduces one more variable into a messy, vague calculation.

Part of the problem is that today we tend to want to quantify everything that happens in the academy. But everyone knows that writing, for example, is not easily reducible to impersonal, objective numbers. 

In the April edition of “The Teaching Professor,” Cassandra O’Sullivan Sachar discusses all of these issues in a piece called “Making Feedback Matter.” Sachar offers three bits of information that may help writing teachers and others better manage the relationship between feedback and grades

Sachar’s first piece of advice is “separate the grade from the feedback.” The main reason to do this is to remove the stigma of the grade from the writer’s self-perception as a person capable of doing that work. “Many students hold negative perceptions of themselves as writers,” Sachar says. “Removing the threat of bad grades can build confidence and motivate students to complete the assignment” (1). Sachar has found that students respond more positively and productively to feedback when the grade is removed from the assessment criteria. For most of us, this approach cannot be applied to the course as a whole, but there may be wiggle-room inside a course to experiment. 

Sachar also recommends assigning grades “based on student effort and improvement.” The point here is to emphasize writing and thinking processes while placing less weight on the final product, as important as that may be. “I want them to think,” explains Sachar, “not just about the quality of the final product, but the journey to get there.” In this way, feedback is attached to process and product, as opposed to some ideal result students feel may never be attained. 

Finally, Sachar suggests requiring a quick follow-up assignment based on the feedback. This can take any number of forms, and should not be a major undertaking. When students are asked to put the feedback to work in their writing right away, it follows that they will take much more intrinsic interest in the feedback. 

Sachar does us the great service of taking feedback seriously. If we are to rely on such a method in the academy – in writing courses, certainly, but also across the curriculum – it would be a good idea to understand the limits of its effectiveness. 

The Teaching Professor includes summarized articles from various educational publications, as well as original articles from university and college instructors. If you are interested in viewing articles in this and/or other publications, contact Tim Deines at or stop by the CTE, TLC 324. 

Reference: Sachar, Cassandra O. “Making Feedback Matter.” The Teaching Professor 30.4 (2016): 1. Print.