Individual feedback and birthday cards

We, teachers, are busy creatures and we dread the moment when essays to grade suddenly pile up. In my case, luckily, I’m only obliged to give students numerical grades (1-5), which obviously makes the process quicker and easier. However, like many of my colleagues, I also like to add a short verbal note that justifies my grade. This is a bit more time-consuming than just giving grades but although no two people have the same DNA, students do tend to make similar mistakes and struggle with the same language issues. So, what happens is that I grade the first essay, write a short comment and when I move on to the next piece of writing, I realize that I can actually copy and paste a line or two from the previous feedback. Logically, it gets easier and easier as I proceed.

I would say that there’s nothing wrong with the above approach. After all, people have written about comment banks, use them successfully and as it turns out, you can download them easily from the internet. Surprisingly, you can also purchase them. Who says you can’t buy happiness? 😉

So, there’s no doubt that comment banks and related apps are there to help teachers. I suppose they may be equally useful as other online tools, such as Google autocomplete, which, similarly to comment bank apps, performs a prediction of possible search queries and shows a drop-down list of related words and phrases and thus makes it faster for you to complete searches that you’re beginning to type. Or, take Grammarly, for example, which instantly gives you feedback on how your writing may sound to others, e. g. accusatory, friendly, formal, appreciative, etc.

But apart from saving the teacher’s time, comment banks can also help to accurately describe the problems a particular student should fix or they can lift the student’s spirits effectively by listing their strengths.

So far so good. Well, here’s the issue I have with comment banks – free or paid: they are pre-generated and although they are to a great degree tailor-made to meet each student’s needs, they still lack in uniqueness. And to be completely fair … so does my copy-and-paste strategy mentioned above.

Now, I may be splitting hairs here but let me explain what’s really bugging me: I guess I simply fear the moment when two students come together, look at each other’s feedback and find out that I used identical words to assess their work. I’m particularly talking about students who take schoolwork seriously and put in a lot of effort. What if they think that it was me who didn’t make enough effort?

It’s the same with birthdays cards – you can buy some lovely cards from a stationer but I always hesitate before picking one; what if the birthday person gets two identical cards? Or what if they already got this one last year? It’s always safer to make a card with your own hands, out of ordinary file paper, and give it a personal touch, isn’t it? It may be more time consuming and quite a challenge to come up with something unique but it may well be much easier – especially if you know the person really well. Then the words write themselves, so to speak.

Now, the sceptical reader may object … and what about grades? How unique are they? Not at all, I admit. Nothing can be more unfair than this type of summative assessment. If five people in my class may get grade 1, this doesn’t mean their essays are equally good. Also, I doubt that those five students will ever scrutinize what is behind that grade. They will probably accept it and happily move on. Will they learn much? I’m not sure. Complacency may be the enemy of progress.

Luckily, if one feels too guilty about grades, comment banks or any pre-generated type of feedback, there are other ways of evaluating students’ written work in time-constrained situations. I sometimes like to provide a class with generic feedback, which I wrote about some time ago here on my blog. This also brings me to the topic of peer review/assessment, which has been repeatedly discussed on two of my favourite blogs (Vedrana’s and Paul’s) and I strongly recommend reading them (if you haven’t already).

Well, I’ll sign off here and leave the reader with some food for thought. Or maybe there’s nothing to think about. Either way, thank you for stopping by and reading.

Do you practise what you preach?

Have you ever thought about the discrepancy between what you tell your students to believe and what you believe yourself? I mean, don’t you ever preach water and drink wine? I think I do, quite often, without even realizing so.

busy hands 2

For example, I often tell my students not to be afraid of making mistakes. However, I am terrified of making them myself. Regardless of the fact that my Teacher Self keeps telling me that making mistakes is an inevitable part of learning/doing practically anything, I’m not overly excited when I misspell a word when writing on the board or miscalculate a student’s test score.

Also, I constantly reassure my students that there’s no need to panic about giving a presentation in front of the whole class because nothing really disastrous can happen. The truth is, though, that I’ve rarely stayed calm in such a situation myself. I remember how terrible I felt when I had to give a 5-minute talk in front of a group of my fellow students at uni. I should add that it was supposed to be in German, in which I wasn’t exactly fluent, and it was only three years ago. Needless to say, my legs felt like jelly, my hands were shaking and I had butterflies in my stomach. What was worse, I had forgotten everything I had so laboriously memorized. Now that I think about it, my biggest problem was that at that time, I saw myself as an experienced English teacher, used to standing confidently in front of a bunch of teens. But all of a sudden, I felt like a schoolgirl again, which, under certain circumstances might have been exciting, except that it wasn’t.

I tell my students that it is learning that matters most – not the scores. I tell them that it’s primarily the process, not the result, which is the most valuable aspect of education. Still, I use grades to make my students learn. Obviously, there are many students who are internally motivated, and these love learning no matter the formal assessment, but there are some who just want to succeed. And it goes without saying that in their context, success equals decent grades.

I truly believe that it’s my job to help my students get used to accepting all sorts of feedback. Feedback is there to help them learn, after all. But I can clearly recall my exasperation when my German tutor gave me some rather unflattering feedback after the above-mentioned presentation. She was a little harsh, or, maybe, a tad too straightforward to my taste, but she was absolutely right. And I learned a lot from that particular lesson – mainly about myself and feedback.

Back then I felt it in my bones right from the start that my presentation wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but it was not in my power to change the state of affairs prior the actual experience, simply because I didn’t have the knowledge needed for that change. All I could do was to learn from the failure and keep the newly-acquired knowledge for the future. This is what we often forget to take into consideration when giving feedback to our students; we sometimes reproach and reprimand, even though we use soft phrases like ‘You should have’, ‘Why didn’t you’, or ‘Next time you could’. But it’s not fair; our students rarely mess things up on purpose.

What’s the point in all the preaching then? I know too well that my students must experience failure and anxiety because it helps them grow. Likewise, I know that my little son is unlikely to stop worrying about monsters in the dark just because I reassure him they don’t exist. All I can do is to be there for him and with him. By the way, I’m sometimes afraid of the dark too.

And what about you? Do you drink water or wine? In what situations?