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How to Make Feedback the Focus

Using an online portfolio in the gradeless classroom

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about how two weird findings permanently changed my perspective on grades.

The first finding (Butler, 1988), showed that, of the three types of feedback — scores, scores with comments, and comments alone — students who received comments alone demonstrated the greatest improvement. The second finding (Hattie, 2012) demonstrated that, among hundreds of educational interventions studied, student self-assessment/self-grading topped the list with the highest effect size.

These two findings — so opposed to what I was doing in the classroom at the time — were further corroborated by readings of Alfie Kohn, Carol Dweck, Daniel Pink, Linda McNeil, Linda Mabry, and Maja Wilson. Helpful guides like Joy Kirr, Starr Sackstein, and Peter Anderson helped me to further refine and utilize these ideas.

So much of this confirmed what I already intuitively understood: feedback could be more powerful if unaccompanied by scores. Whenever I returned papers to students, they would often flip immediately to the rubric to view their scores, ignoring any feedback I’d painstakingly provided. Even when I had students track their ongoing performance on these assessments, the emotional effect of the score seemed to override any desire for growth.

Somehow it was a done deal, for better or worse.

I also saw that my students were apparently mystified by assessment criteria, evidenced by the fact that, from September to June, many continued to commit the same writing errors. How was this possible after all the clear targets I provided, after all the detailed, frequent feedback I gave? Part of it seemed to be that my assessments were all scored. If accompanying scores caused students to ignore my comments, then it made sense they wouldn’t show much improvement.

Additionally, I wasn’t providing students any opportunity to internalize any standards through self-assessment. Feedback was my job. But as Terry Doyle puts it, “The one who does the work does the learning.”

I realized that, after years of providing feedback on thousands of papers, I had truly become an expert in writing criteria I taught. The problem was that I wasn’t allowing my students to gain that same expertise by letting them use that criteria to assess themselves and one another.

As a result of these realizations, I began to see new ways to improve my assessment practices. First, I eliminated scores from as many assessments as possible, instead commenting on what students did well and what they could improve. Second, I insisted students start assessing themselves and their peers based on clear criteria.

Coming to the aid of these new priorities was the online digital portfolio, Seesaw. This platform allows students to independently document their learning by uploading or linking artifacts and filing them in folders associated with one or more standards. For each item uploaded, students add a comment (text or audio) self-assessing their work, making reference to general criteria, prior feedback, and, as time goes on, personalized goals. I then respond to this self-assessment, citing strengths and identifying one or more areas for further growth.

Students are prompted to file their work under one or more standards

Most importantly, however, is what students do with the feedback once they’ve received it. As Dylan Wiliam points out, “No matter how well the feedback is designed, if students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time.” To this end, I continually have students access prior feedback in their portfolios, jotting down goals for subsequent attempts.

For example, students often complete short in-class “conclusions” analyzing how a certain literary element (a character, setting, symbol, motif, theme) contributes to the meanings of the work as a whole. One frequent comment I make to students is to catalog more instances of how those elements function in the work.

So, if water functions as a symbol in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, students should first of all spend time pointing out the various places where water plays an important role — Ophelia’s drowning, Laertes forbidding his tears, Hamlet’s enriching exile over water, the gravedigger scene, etc.

Nevin and Bianca find Seesaw so incredibly fun

Upon attempting another such writing with Camus’s The Stranger, students will then access this feedback from Hamlet and jot it at the top of their paper. This time, they will make a more conscious effort to catalog more instances of a symbol — in this case, perhaps light — before attempting to analyze its significance. When logging this new attempt, students comment on how they demonstrated growth based on that earlier feedback. When this happens, the student has used feedback to move their learning forward.

Bullet points at the top are feedback from a prior attempt

Grading

Another change I have adopted inside this model is involving students in the process of assigning a term grade. Since students receive very few scores over the course of a term (I still have quizzes from time to time), there actually isn’t much to calculate! Since I have to assign a grade each term, this lack seemed like a good opportunity to empower students to evaluate their own learning.

Before the end of each term, I usually scale back the workload to allow students an opportunity to evaluate their overall performance using statements from my Descriptive Grading Criteria, adapted from Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades.

Students read over and listen to feedback they’ve received and identify examples of where they’ve met or exceeded learning targets. They note any instances where they exhibited exceptional insight or creativity. Finally, they point out any evidence of growth, places they were able to turn weaknesses into strengths.

When they complete this process, they either sign up to conference with me personally, or complete a linked letter or video explaining the grade they believe they deserve. Usually I agree with the student’s determination (like here). Occasionally, I push back, always referencing evidence to support the statements in the Descriptive Grading Criteria (like here).

Reporting

Obviously, with few or no grades in the gradebook, reporting student performance and progress needs to take another form.

First of all, any teacher wanting to go this route needs to clearly articulate the rationale for the approach and explain how it will work. In addition to providing a description in my syllabus, I send home a detailed letter and invite students and parents to express any questions, comments, or concerns. I regularly post an Updated Assessment Log so students can keep track of their progress. Throughout the year, I email parents reiterating these ideas and expectations, especially when we are nearing the end of the term.

Every email I send out, I invite parents who have not yet joined us on Seesaw to do so. Once they’ve joined, parents can view and comment on their student’s work as well as read or listen to any feedback. I find that many parents who join are much more actively engaged with this platform than they are with a traditional online gradebook. Even if they don’t leave comments themselves, they tell me about specific items in the portfolio they found interesting. One parent, noticing her son slouching in a video of a class discussion, told him later to sit up straight and participate. He listened!

Obviously, little of what I describe here can be reflected in an online gradebook, that reductive descendant of a bygone age. Back then, the wirebound class record book was the only available means to gather student achievement evidence in one accessible place. Thanks to user-friendly platforms like Seesaw, this is no longer the case.

Isn’t it time we make room for this richness, no longer restricting ourselves to communicating through numbers?

How do you keep the focus on feedback? I want to hear from you! And please click the so more people get to see this.

Care to learn more? Join Teachers Going Gradeless, a global group of educators convinced that teaching and learning is better when we grade less.

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