Monthly Archives: January 2015

“Feedback is what happens second” Part I

Gearing up for spring semester begins late in fall semester for me. That’s a practical matter–if I waited until the fall semester was over to gear up for spring, I’d be behind schedule immediately. It’s more than a practical matter, though. There comes a time in every semester, the deepest, darkest time (which in fall corresponds with shorter days and longer nights) of a semester, when it’s easier to see what’s not working rather than what is working.

One of my ongoing goals as a teacher is to return student work faster. I struggle with it for a number of reasons:

  • I don’t like delivering bad news. I absolutely love sitting down with students and providing feedback on drafts and revisions, but at that point, the possibilities for success are still wide open. With a final draft, some doors are shut. I’ve wondered if switching to a portfolio system would help me here because of how much I enjoy giving feedback early in the process.
  • I’m a master procrastinator when faced with unpleasant tasks.
  • There isn’t a clear deadline for when student work has to be returned except in terms of when they need to turn in the next assignment, or at the very end of the semester. This is one reason I think a portfolio system might work better–I’d be grading final drafts at the end of the semester when the deadlines are very firm and real.

I’m not saying these are GOOD reasons, but they’re reasons I’ve discovered.  I just realized earlier this month that I’m always slower about returning student work in spring semester & one reason for that is probably because I tend to have more problems with anxiety and depression in the spring (ironic, because I love light and love when the days begin to grow longer). I discovered it because I keep track of when student work comes in and when I return it (I call it TIR for turned-in-returned rate) on a spreadsheet & I have numbers going back several years. The good news is that overall, I’m doing much better than I used to. The bad news is that my numbers have gotten ugly the last couple of spring semesters….

Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to try something I’ve never tried in relation to solving this problem. (Other things I continue to do: keeping track, rewarding myself if I meet my goals at different points in the semester, reporting to someone on how I’m doing–which is what I was doing earlier this month when I discovered the WORSE IN SPRING PATTERN.  I was putting my numbers in my yearly activity report.)

I’m problematizing the problem. I’m going to do research first, on feedback, and see what the research says.  That’s where I am right now, and at least at the moment, my plan is to report on the research at different points in the semester.

I know it’s important–feedback is the thing that an instructor can do in a real class that an instructor can’t do in a MOOC, and however good AI gets, it still seems to me we’re a long way away from computers being able to give good feedback to writers on much beyond sentence complexity, vocabulary, spelling, and some grammar. Feedback is what makes instructors invaluable.

The first article I’m tackling is called “The Power of Feedback” and it’s by John Hattie and Helen Temperly at the University of Auckland.

One of the first quotes that struck me in the article was this one, “Feedback has no effect in a vacuum; to be powerful in its effect, there must be a learning context to which feedback is addressed.”  That’s why they say “feedback is what happens second.”  Instruction has to happen first.  When I read this quote I thought immediately of my discomfort when a student in creative writing asks me for feedback on something they wrote before the class.  I tell them it feels weird because I don’t know what they were trying for, whereas if they wrote in response to an assignment, I know what they were supposed to be trying to do.

I appreciate Hattie & Temperley’s article for their definitions & clarifications, among other things.  Here’s one:  “The claim is made that the main purpose of feedback is to reduce discrepancies between current understandings and performance and a goal. ” To me this emphasizes the importance of backward design–if my students and I don’t know what our goals are, I just don’t stand a chance of providing effective feedback.

These three questions seem so crucial: “Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)”

I particularly appreciate the emphasis on the role students play in the feedback process. Here’s the good news:  it’s not a passive role. Here are some things students can do. They can

  • “increase their effort, particularly when the effort leads to tackling more challenging tasks or appreciating higher quality experiences rather than just doing ‘more.'”
  • “develop effective error detection skills, which lead to their own self-feedback aimed at reaching a goal.”
  • “seek better strategies to complete the task or be taught them, or they can obtain more information.”

So I dived into this article hoping for motivation for returning student work faster, and it does address that several pages in, and I’ll get to that as I post on the topic, but for now, it’s met a goal I didn’t even realize I had–get me pumped up about a new semester.

What can I do with this enthusiasm? Lots.  “Teachers can also assist by clarifying goals, enhancing commitment or increased effort to reaching them through feedback….More generally, teachers can create a learning environment in which students develop self-regulation and error detection skills.”

I need to model self-assessment and self-regulation by setting goals, monitoring them, and then making adjustments (all processes discussed in the article, but also widely discussed any time metacognition comes up).

So my goal for returning student work in terms of promptness is this.  By the end of Week 5, I want my overall average to be below 7 days, and the average for longer assignments to be below 10 days, but I want the standard deviation to be 2.0 or lower–this past fall my averages met those goals, but the standard deviation was too high (I was still keeping some longer assignments wayyyyyyy too long).

a little poem I wrote with big feelings

a little poem I wrote with big feelings

Beyond that, I’m setting some goals on the quality of feedback. I want to set the questions and good points from “The Power of Feedback” in front of myself as I start to communicate with students about their work, which I’m less than a week away from (classes start on Monday and the first assignments come in next Friday–sooner, since some students will want me to look at rough drafts, more than likely).

My plan is to report on my turned-in-returned rate after Week 5, or sooner, and I’ll also write more about this article & others I’ve found and will find.

Meanwhile–it’s back to finishing up syllabi & schedules for next week!


U(W) Inspire Me

So happy to be back on the UW Colleges English Department Executive Committee, or as I like to think of it, Master Class in Teaching.

When people ask me, “so are you having fun on your break?” I say yes, because my time is more flexible between semesters and that allows more room and time for family and movies (and also doctor appointments, actually). Of course, fun is kind of a priority for me during the semester, too, so I would answer yes to the question most any week of the year.

But calling it a “break” is misleading because even though I’m not in class, I spend Christmas Week shifting between family and grading (since our semester doesn’t start until after Labor Day in the fall, grades are due after Christmas, and since part of what I’m usually grading are portfolios, I don’t grade super-fast). Once the New Year has rolled around, I’m usually finishing up my own activity report, and years when I’m on my department executive committee, I’m reading tenure and retention dossiers, which can be very, very long (hundreds of pages each). We once did the math and figured it added up to 80 hours of work in January. (Which explains why I’m not one of those stalwart workers who are always on the executive committee.)

But it is fun, or rather, in some ways, just an intensely pleasurable experience. So many of my tenure-track colleagues inspire me.

I hum Nick Lowe’s “You Inspire Me” to myself sometimes, reading their reflections on teaching, professional development (i.e., publishing and research), and service (i.e. 700 committees).

I keep two sets of notes as I’m reading. One set is on the particular professor–this is where a professor reflects on what is going well and what might need improvement. As a member of the Executive Committee, I reflect in two directions. I reflect on the professor’s teaching, but I also reflect on my own. Thus, the other set of notes is for myself–what I can learn, what I can do to make my own courses better. And it’s A LOT, what I can learn from them. Everything from how to comment on grammar errors to how to best ask students to work online to how to provide feedback before the final draft is due to…everything.

The UW Colleges is made up of 13 campuses, and we’re the 2-year college branch in the UW System tree. It would be lovely to see us mentioned in the local stories about President Obama’s call for making the first two years of college free. Here’s a story about how UW Madison researchers consulted with the president (which is great–Sara Goldrick-Rab does terrific work at the Wisconsin Hope Lab), but no mention that there are two-year colleges in the UW System.

The lack of mention is unfortunate. Tom Kleese, who used to be a terrific professor at UW-Richland before he turned his skills to helping students and parents navigate the college admissions process, had this to say:

“The UW Colleges are the perfect example of what this is for….I don’t know enough about funding or details, but I’m excited to see this on the table and hoping it sparks some productive discussion, not just positioning back and forth in the media, but actual dialogue about what we value as a citizens.” (You can learn more about Tom’s work online, at OnCampus College Planning.)

If we value student success, the UW Colleges should absolutely be part of the discussion. We have statistics that show students who start with us do better once they transfer than students who start at the four-year UW System institutions. And we’re the institution of access–our arms are open wide–so we are working with many students who are seriously under-prepared. They’re in the same class with valedictorians, which presents some teaching challenges.

In Wisconsin, valedictorians can go to any state school without paying tuition. One year my own campus, a very small campus indeed, had six valedictorians. We’re doing so many things right–here’s a recent article on how happy we are to be an international campus.

The tenure-track colleagues who’ve compiled the dossiers that absorb my time and attention for those 80 hours are all over Wisconsin at various of our two-year campuses. If you’re in Wisconsin, there’s one close to you. And if you’re lucky enough to be in class with my inspiring colleagues, you’re in very good hands.uwc-map

Deadline: Epiphany

“Traditionally it is bad luck to keep your Christmas Decorations up beyond Twelfth Night – the last of the 12 Days of Christmas.” Plymouth Herald

Some years I can’t wait for the tree
to come down. I want it up
the day after Thanksgiving and then
everything put away before New Year’s.

My friend Bellamy left hers up
through Valentine’s. Probably more than once.
A real tree—brown by the time
she got it out to the curb.

But this year I’ve wanted Christmas
to last a little longer, for the event
part of Advent not to be here quite yet.
I’m not sure why. I had good holidays,

a nearly perfect mix of quiet and fun.
Maybe that’s why. Of course that’s why.
I’ve brought out other candles to use
because it’s still dark so early in the day.

It’s still cold. I’m still longing
for something to happen and yet not
wanting anything to change.
Waiting for the wise gifts to come.

Just a few of the non-holiday candles I've dug out.  On a clean stove!

Just a few of the non-holiday candles I’ve dug out. On a clean stove!

(I actually also think one of the reasons I’m not ready to be done with the season is that I love, love, love Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow. I’m not ready to stop listening to it. So I won’t.)

Gathering it up to put it away. NOTE THE HOLY BLATZ TRAY we use for the advent candles.

Gathering it up to put it away. NOTE THE HOLY BLATZ TRAY we use for the advent candles.