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Category: Grading and Feedback

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Making Learning Visible with Video Assessment
Creating a ‘Build Your Grade' Course
Nonverbal Communication in Online Courses
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“Good job” “Vague” “Grammar” Do they look familiar? Students are used to getting the bulk of their feedback as these sorts of “margin comments” running down the side of their papers. Unfortunately, such comments are of almost no value to the student, because he or she does not understand them. All the examples above lack sufficient detail to be of help to the student. For feedback to have value, the student needs to be able to see what they did well or poorly in their work, and how to do better the next time around. But the examples above do none of that. A student who reads “good job” does not know what was good about their job, and thus what should be repeated the next time. Was the writing good, and if so, was it the spelling, grammar, or sentence structure that got the praise? Maybe the organization of the work was good, and so should be repeated next time. Perhaps it was the ideas that were good, and so the student should focus on critical thinking in their work. The student is given nothing with “good job” that can guide them to repeating the performance next time, or to building on it. The student might even pick the wrong thing as good and start repeating something that is not good, leaving the instructor to wonder why the student’s performance has gone down. The same holds true with statements like “vague.” Ironically, it is the feedback itself that is vague. The student does not know what is vague about what they said. After all, it was not vague to them. They knew what they meant, so why didn’t the teacher? They may even decide that it must be vague to the teacher because the teacher did not read it carefully. The student does not know what they did wrong, or how to fix it. Some instructors will circle writing errors and note “grammar” or “spelling” in the margin in order to send the student looking for the problem to fix it. But thinking that students will put time and effort into running down the error later, let alone even remember it by the end of the paper, is naive. The student who sees a comment like this, especially if it is part of a long list of writing comments, is simply going to ignore the feedback and move on. Justifying the grade Why do faculty provide this sort of feedback? The answer is usually due to a fundamental mistake about the purpose of feedback itself, which is the view that the purpose of feedback is to justify the grade. Instructors tend to view student work through the prism of grades. After all, we call the process of reading a student’s work “grading.” We don’t tell our spouses that we “need to spend the evening providing students with feedback on their work,” or that we’re “spending the evening helping students improve their performance.” We say that “I’m spending the evening grading,” usually followed by a long, arduous sigh. As a result, instructors tend to read a student’s work with a mind toward calculating the grade. The instructor simply goes through the work, mentally checking off the errors and noting them in the margins. The comments become no more than a means to justify the grade. The instructor thinks that since the student lost a bunch of points on writing, then they have to mark down a bunch of grammar mistakes to justify that deduction. Feedback of this sort is just a running count of grade additions and deductions. More important, there is quite a bit of evidence that grades actually harm student performance. First, grades tend to diminish a student’s interest in learning (Kohn, 2011). They become focused on the reward rather than learning. Grades also reduce students’ motivation to take risks that might lead to higher achievement, because risk-taking could also lead to greater failure. What is most interesting is that grades, like all external rewards, actually reduce the quality of thinking. Daniel Pink has noted that study after study shows that by offering someone an external reward, such as money or grades, you will actually lower performance on complex tasks (such as writing college papers). While grades are a necessary evil of teaching, they should not be the focus of feedback. The “justifying the grade” approach only reinforces in the student’s mind that the grade is the goal of the assignment, rather than learning. Many faculty complain that students are overly focused on grades, yet they encourage this mentality when they only give feedback in the service of grades. Faculty who want students to get past their fixation on grades, and want to see student performance improve, need to stop suggesting through their feedback that grades are the point of education. The most important thing that faculty can do is to conceptually distinguish grading from feedback. Grades are backward-facing because they are an evaluation of past performance. Feedback should be forward-facing because it is intended to improve future performance. Feedback and grading have fundamentally different purposes and orientations, and divorcing grading from feedback is a critical change in mindset for an instructor that will vastly improve his or her teaching. One helpful device for separating grading from feedback is to think like a coach. Coaching is an excellent model for teaching because coaching is fundamentally a form of teaching. A coach’s job is to teach a player how to do something, such as hit a baseball and work with a player until they are able to do that thing well. Thus, the best coaches are the best teachers. Importantly, coaching is done primarily through feedback. A coach spends very little time, if any, grading a player. A coach also spends very little time lecturing to his or her players. Most of a coach’s time is spent watching a player perform and providing feedback on that performance. The coaching craft is fundamentally about diagnosing player problems and providing feedback that the player will understand and use to improve their performance. In this way, coaching is fundamentally performance-oriented. Someone is not known as a good coach because they are a good grader. They are a good coach because they are good at improving player performance. Improving student performance should also be the goal of teaching, and we will return to the coaching metaphor at numerous places in this work to illustrate points, because it provides a powerful reminder of the purpose of teaching and feedback itself, as well as the methods that best improve performance.   Excerpted from Feedback for Learning.

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