Feedback for Large Classes: New Ideas for the High School Writing Teacher

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When I first interviewed for my job 14 years ago, the interviewing principal told me something like,  “Our classes are pretty big right now, but that should get better.”

Or not.

I did have a few blissful years where my class sizes were really manageable, and then the economy went south.  School districts struggled to get the revenue they needed, and our class sizes increased rapidly.

As they have been doing all across the nation.

As an English teacher, I am painfully aware that I cannot provide adequate specific, individualized feedback on student writing to each member of my classes.  I know that my students want better feedback from me, and I am constantly wracked with guilt that I cannot do this for them.

However, I also know that I have to establish some boundaries in my life between my teaching and the rest of my life. Grading essays for hours on the weekend is not a healthy option for me and my family.

So I won’t be doing that.

My own integrity and my desire to see my students succeed in spite of the craziness that is public school class sizes have combined to create a sort of frenzied desire to figure out how to improve in my feedback-giving skills.

Here are a few links that have given me new ideas or confirmed ideas I have already tried:

“Assessing Large Classes” by the Centre for the Study of Higher Education

This link is from Australia, but you know I love things from Australia.  Here are some points I found helpful from this post:

  • Establish clear criteria from the beginning of the assignment.  I usually create a handout for each major writing assignment, but I can see how I could make those even more detailed as to which skills I will be weighing most heavily.
  • Providing examples/model assignments. I do try to provide examples, but I usually only provide exemplars for the highest score points. This article suggested providing exemplars from a variety of score points so that students can see the difference.
  • Carefully planned group work.
  • Provide a detailed grading rubric from the beginning. I could do a better job of teaching the rubric throughout the writing process.
  • Prepare a list of the most common errors in student submissions. Yes! I already do this.  Score one for me.
  • Use online discussion boards or forums where students can collaborate and help each other. I hadn’t thought about this before. We are a Google Apps for Education school, and I know that there are a lot of collaborative pieces in GAFE that I’m not fully implementing yet.
  • Use a website to provide basic information about the class and about assessment. I started doing this this year, but I need to do it better next year. I know more about how to make the website do what I want it to do now.
  • Briefly survey students early in the semester to assess their prior knowledge and predict issues that may arise throughout the year.  Good idea here. I usually take some kind of writing sample, but I also want to do a short reading level test and create a more focused survey.

Using Writing in Large Classes, Colorado State University

This particular document is actually geared toward content-area teachers who want or need to add more writing to their classrooms.  Some of the suggestions, therefore, don’t apply to teachers who are supposed to be teaching writing all the time. But a couple of suggestions that I liked were:

  • Introduce self-editing techniques. Teach students to create outlines after they’ve finished the essay. Next year I want to provide the checklist to students in their response groups and have each student self-evaluate.  I also really like the idea of students trying to create an outline from a finished paper.
  • Use peer groups to read and critique, both in class and electronically. Awesome. I already do this. Again, I’m interested in exploring the online peer reviewing groups.

Redesigning Written Feedback to Students When Class Sizes Are Large

Of the three links I found, this one was the most useful.  I found several great ideas, some of which I have to quote verbatim:

  • Ask students to “rephrase task goals in their own words before beginning an assignment (Nicol, 2008).”  This might really help a frequent situation teachers of writing face: the students who say, “I just don’t understand what you want on this assignment.” Also, having the students internalize the requirements before they even start writing will help with both the writing process and with understanding feedback afterwards. I’m thinking about taking some time to have students paraphrase the requirements either in writing or with partners.
  • “McKeackie (2002) drawing on Cambridge (1996) suggests asking students to attach three questions about which they would like to know about a written submission, or about what aspects they would like to improve.” I love this suggestion!  One thing I’m always trying to figure out is how to make students more conscious of their own writing process.  They know more than they think they know.  Attaching a list of specific questions would help me direct my feedback and make students more mindful of their writing process.
  • “the Pharmacy department at the University of Strathclyde is piloting the use of an assignment cover sheets. . . . The students are asked to rephrase the essay question in their own words, make a judgement about whether they have met a list of stated criteria (provided by the department) and then estimate the mark they think they will get.” Also love this–have the students reflect on and “grade” their own essays before submission.
  • “provide many opportunities for students to redraft assignments after receiving feedback comments.” This is so important. It’s not all that useful to write a lot of feedback if students won’t have the opportunity to do anything about that feedback.  I need to build this into the semester calendar–opportunities for rewrites.
  • “the main problem with written feedback is that it is mostly backward looking . . . . Knight (2002) for example makes a strong case for a re-conceptualisation of feedback as ‘feed-forward’ which is advice about improvement in future performance on tasks of a similar type.”  I love this.  I need to think about how to change my comments from “what you did wrong” to “what you can do better in your writing when you rewrite this or on the next assignment.”

This will be one of next year’s action research projects. Stay tuned and let me know if you have any suggestions for what works for you!!

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