Updated article originally published April 17, 2018.
Written feedback is a mainstay of educational practice, especially in liberal arts disciplines. Though popular, there is evidence that students can often misunderstand or misinterpret written feedback. Additionally, written feedback is commonly placed in the margins of a paper, which can lead to students focusing on the letter grade rather than the feedback. To redirect students’ attention away from grades and help students see feedback constructively, consider combining verbal and written feedback.
An Instructor’s Account of Feedback and Student Understanding
A student of the Humanities and Social Sciences, most of my assignment feedback was relegated to the margins of a Word document or ream of paper with the occasional paragraph at the end summarizing my grade. In many of my courses there was the opportunity to engage in dialogue with the professor or teaching assistant; however, being a typical student, I rarely used that opportunity unless I felt obligated.
As a teaching assistant, I can count on two hands the number of students seeing me during office hours to discuss the margin notes I laboured over to improve their writing and critical-thinking skills. Instead of a discussion on the content and theory however, office hours were often spent challenging or negotiating the letter grade in the margin or final page.
Combining Written and Verbal Feedback to Strengthen Student Understanding
To reframe grading and assessment as a collaborative, rather than confrontational, experience David Gooblar takes a different approach to both feedback and office hours by involving his students in the learning assessment process. After students read the margin feedback, Gooblar schedules 20-minute meetings where he reads the draft aloud and asks the students what they think of their work.
This query brings feedback that is often relegated to the margins into a formal discussion, giving the students agency over their work and encouraging them to engage in metacognition. After the discussion, students often leave thinking more about how they can improve their work rather than the graded test.
Practical Advice for Giving Verbal Feedback to Strengthen Student Understanding
As an instructor, I use this in-person dialogue to engage with students and help them understand and act upon the comments in the margins and—through Crowdmark—the graphical and textual feedback anywhere on their assignments.
I also use these individual and group meetings to instill the following meta-cognitive habits for writing:
- Read the completed assignment aloud in front of a mirror. This is one of the most effective ways to evaluate the flow of your paragraphs and identify awkward passages.
- Read the assignment backwards with a red pen. When reading your own work, it is easy to miss grammatical errors and typos. Going backwards makes common splices and homonym mistakes much more evident.
Final Thoughts on Effective Instructor Feedback for Student Understanding
Written feedback is most effective when taken out of the margins and brought into dialogue with students. While the specific techniques mentioned above may not be a strong fit with your courses, a little experimentation can lead to the right mix of verbal plus written feedback for your students.
No matter what form verbal plus written feedback takes, instructors interested in this technique need to set expectations at the beginning of the term. Inform students of the approach and explain the steps as well as timelines for written feedback and verbal followup. Setting the expectation for students that these dialogues will occur with their teaching assistants or instructors will encourage students to read the feedback in the margins and integrate them into future work.
Additionally, students will be prepared to have a collaborative discussion rather than a confrontational one, and that is when real learning can begin.