Whole-Class Feedback: Making It Work at a Distance

It is well documented in the world of educational research that feedback is one of the most effective strategies for improving students’ learning in the classroom. However, whilst feedback can be a huge power for good it can also be a double-edged sword: Get it wrong and the damage can be lethal, in educational terms at least.

Whole-Class Feedback: A Popular Move

According to Dylan Wiliam, in order for feedback to be effective, it should be harder work for the student than the teacher and it needs to be productive: ‘If students do not use the feedback to move their own learning forward, it’s a waste of time’. Accordingly, in recent years there has been a widespread move among classroom teachers to use whole-class feedback. The advantages of whole-class feedback include:

  • It is time efficient, and this has positive implications for staff workload.
  • It allows the teacher to spot common mistakes and misconceptions.
  • It can inform your teaching in a meaningful way – the time you save making individual comments (which are often repetitive) can now be spent planning how to address the issues you have identified in lessons.

Whole-Class Feedback in Socially Distant Times

There is no doubt that whole-class feedback can be hugely beneficial for staff and students alike. However, there are also instances where it does not quite hit the spot, and with teaching time at a premium in schools, this is a loss we want to avoid.

An example of where whole-class feedback can potentially miss the mark is in the use of  feedback targets. For example, a teacher may take in a set of books and identify the common areas that need to improve for that class. In response, the teacher writes a series of targets and allocates one or two of these to each student. Following some careful whole-class input from the teacher, the students are then asked to improve their work by acting on their targets. This practice in itself is not problematic but, all too often, there are some students who need further and perhaps more specific support in identifying and working on their mistakes.

Unfortunately, useful in-class strategies such as live marking, especially the use of questions, and providing verbal one-to-one support for personalising feedback, are not available to us in current times. This leaves us with somewhat of a conundrum: What can we do in order to give helpful, personal feedback without descending back down a dark hole of slavishly writing comments in every book?

Mixing it Up

A possible solution is to combine the best elements of whole-class feedback with a teeny, tiny bit of old-school style marking. This could look something like this:

  1. Firstly, plan the lesson carefully so that only an ‘atom’ is being taught and therefore the focus for feedback is narrowed (see Deb Friis’s blog here).
  2. When students have produced a piece of work that would benefit from feedback, take it away to look at. This could be work in books, assessments or recorded performances.
  3. Look through the work to spot common errors and misconceptions. Make a first list of what you find and a second list of students who have good examples but who are also making these mistakes.
  4. At the same time, put a ‘marker’ of some kind next to the work where it needs improving, but nothing else! Use two markers if there is more than one mistake in that section, but a maximum of two is plenty. In the example below, red dots are used next to sentences that contain mistakes.
  5. When finished, plan how you will reteach the things on your list.
  6. In the lesson, start by explicitly teaching what has gone wrong.
  7. Next, use the selected examples to model how to fix the ‘markers’ by using what has just been taught.
  8. Then students can then improve their work by finding and ‘fixing’ their individual markers. The input from earlier in the lesson should make this eminently possible. 
  9. Crucially, give students a chance to work on these targets again to move their learning forward This would be an ideal opportunity for a metacognitive approach:
        • What did I find challenging last time?
        • How do I overcome this challenge?
        • What do I need to check for as I work today?

Finally, it seems fitting to end with these words from Dylan Wiliam who sums up how feedback is about much more than knowing how to fix a problem on a page:

…The thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to two similar students can make one try harder and the second give up. When teachers know their students well, they know when to push and when to back off. Moreover, if students don’t believe their teachers know what they’re talking about or don’t have the students’ best interests at heart, they won’t invest the time to process and put to work the feedback teachers give them.

Fran Haynes

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