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Productivity Strategies, Teaching Tips & Tricks, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 17, 2024

Feedback first: How 2 different teachers help students focus on learning, not grades

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Feedback first: How 2 different teachers help students focus on learning, not grades

By Angela Watson

Teachers spend so much time giving feedback to students, but often kids don’t internalize it.

They tune out the carefully-crafted written comments on their work, briefly register the grade they earned, and move on.

So, how can we help students care about improving their skills and take time to reflect deeply on their learning?

In this article + podcast episode, you’ll hear how two different teachers have reimagined their instruction to make that possible.

It’s a sneak peek at two sessions from the upcoming 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit, a FREE event that is focused entirely on saving teachers time, and helping you do your job more effectively and efficiently.

First up, you’ll hear from Andrea Clark. She’s presenting for the elementary Summit in a session called, “Feedback first: Shifting from traditional grading to reflection sessions.” As you’ll hear from Andrea’s description of her fifth graders’ reflection sessions, this is one of the most worthwhile ways she spends her time as a teacher because her students learn so much from it.

Then, you’ll hear from Tanya Jo Woodward. She’s presenting for the secondary Summit in a session called, “7 time savers for IB and AP teachers.”  She talks first about how she grades and gives feedback in her high school English classroom while students are working independently on a task or assessment. She also offers tips for helping students self-correct by providing editing stations or peer editing guided sheets.

Like so much of the Summit content, I think you’ll find value in hearing both of these teachers’ experiences, regardless of which grades or content areas you might teach.

Read or listen in now to hear Andrea and Tanya Jo share the exact processes they’ve used to transform the way their students think about feedback vs. grades.

Then, save your spot for the FREE live event: 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit.

All sessions are just 15-20 minutes long with no filler, fluff, icebreakers, or pitches. And, all the sessions are presented by current K-12 teachers, with bonus keynotes from me (Angela Watson.)

If you can’t attend live or the event has already passed by the time you see this, you can purchase forever-access to all the sessions (both elementary and secondary), plus get time-stamped transcripts, note-taking guides, and all the presentation links and templates in one document so that you can reference them easily. Forever-access is just $19, and helps cover the cost of running this event and compensating the teachers who share their ideas.

Thank you for your support, and for spreading the word about this event!

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Sponsored by Erikson Institute

This article + podcast episode features you’re going to hear a sneak peek from two of our sessions for the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit. Both of these teacher-presenters (perhaps not coincidentally) teach at International Baccalaureate schools, referred to as IB schools, and they have some really innovative ways of approaching feedback.

Andrea Clark: Feedback first: Shifting from traditional grading to reflection sessions

In Andrea’s Summit presentation, she shares her experience with getting her fifth graders engaged with her feedback instead of just focusing on grades. This is something she does just with big end-of-unit tests and other major assessments, because she wants kids to care about and engage with the learning process and self-reflect. I’m going to summarize here first, because this podcast is audio-only, and of course, her Summit presentation is showing you the visual examples.

When she’s grading these major assessments, she takes notes on the patterns she notices with the class, what they’re doing well and what they’re struggling with. She also takes screenshots or photos of outstanding work as she grades–not necessarily the most amazing work ever, but just things like “this person used some rich vocabulary here” or “the headings this person used are really clear and easy to understand.”

She puts these images and her notes about what the class did well and what was difficult, along with reflection questions for students to discuss with their groups, in a slideshow presentation. That sounds like a lot of work, but she’s using the same template every time, and it’s only about 6-10 slides. As you’ll hear from Andrea’s description of the process, this is one of the most worthwhile ways she spends her time as a teacher because her students learn so much from it.

Andrea shares,

Last year when I passed back grades, I would usually make some general statements about the assessment, how the class did overall. Usually, it was even more general than that, like everyone did really well or we did better on this assessment than the last one. Almost nothing specific about the content. I don’t know really how well the students were listening. They were all looking at me, but many of them were probably just wanting me to pass back the tests already. 

As soon as I told them to put their assessment in their backpack, they immediately started talking about their grades, but that was it, only their grades. Some were happy, some were disappointed, some shared freely, some didn’t like to share at all. Almost no reflection happened on the assessment other than general feelings of happiness or disappointment at their grades. No one talked about what they learned or how they were disappointed that they hadn’t given their full answer on this one problem, and that was a good day. On a bad day, I would pass back their grades as they left the room, so I wouldn’t even get those general feelings about their grades. 

The students don’t see their grades at all at first. The first thing they see is a presentation where I go through the assessment with them. Not every question, but the things that I think are important to highlight or might come back around in the future. Throughout the process, the students do a lot of talking, reflecting on the assessment with a group of their classmates, sometimes even sharing these reflections out to the whole group. Then I pass back the assessment with my written feedback on it, but not the grade. Students have time to read through the feedback. I’m walking around the room answering questions. They then do a short written reflection, which they show me before I finally give them their grade, and then all the usual check talking and sharing of grades happens. They’re still fifth graders. They’re going to talk and share their grades, but that’s not the only thing they’ve done. 

Now, that’s what my process looks like in the class. That’s what the process looks like when I’m doing this with my students, but I have to put in a lot of work before that. 

What I do before as I’m grading, I keep track of the feedback that I’m giving to students, especially the feedback that I tend to be giving over and over, and I try to not only focus on the negative things, but also the positive things. 

I like to grade one question at a time for non-writing assignments, and it’s easy to write down the kind of comments that I’m writing because I look at everyone’s question one before I move on to question two. 

I work at an IB school, so all of the grading is rubric-based even for math. I keep written comments on a separate page from the rubrics that have the grade on them, so I have the students’ rubrics, and then I have either as a separate page or sometimes even a separate document where I have the written comments on them. I have long typed comments in order to copy and paste similar feedback to different students, so this works really well with this process. 

After I’m done with the grading, I make the PowerPoint presentation that follows this general pattern: what went well for us as a class, usually three to five things, what was hard for us (again, usually three to five things) and examples of student responses that I want to highlight. Usually, they’re from our class, but I might pull a particularly good example from other classes if necessary, this is for questions or parts of the assignment that I want to highlight. 

These are for things I want to highlight. For example, a hook, good examples of hooks in English, or a well-designed poster that they might do in social studies. I use screenshots, photographs, or even typed-up responses if the assessment was written by hand. At this point, I am ready to pass back the assessment. 

Now I need 15 to 20 minutes to do this in class, so I can’t just tuck it in. This isn’t a five-minute at the end of class thing. This is often something I like to start a class with, not only because I think it’s important, but because I want to make sure that I have time for it and I don’t want to rush any of the reflection parts of it. So I have the grades, I have the PowerPoint, I have the time. Now I go through the presentation with them. 

I would ask the students with the people at your table, what went well for you? Share something with your group. It can be something from this slide or something else that you remember went well from the assessment. I give the students about a minute to do that. I’m walking around and then I ask if anyone is willing to share with the whole class. 

As the year has gone on, more and more people volunteer to share things that go well. Some read directly from one of the points on my slide. Others come up with totally different things that I hadn’t even thought of, which is also interesting feedback for me. 

Then I go through what was hard for us and I read through it and I do this with the same process. Talk about it with the people in your group. What was hard for you? Was it one of these things or was it something else? I walk around, I ask students to share. I’m even at this point in the year having more and more students sharing things that were hard for them, so they’re not only sharing the positives, but they’re also being risk takers and sharing the things that were challenging for them. 

I try to keep this part kind of light and funny, so not to dwell on how bad it is to make a mistake, but this is something that was hard for everyone. We’re fifth graders, we’re still learning. Here are some things that I noticed, the same kind of mistakes that we were just making over and over and over again, so you’re not alone. You’re not the only one making the mistake. I highlighted examples of what a good poster looked like, and then I asked the students, why are these good posters and I don’t say, “These are perfect posters. This is what I have. So none of these were the most amazing posters I’ve ever seen, but since we took time to talk about posters before the presentation, I wanted to make sure to highlight good examples of posters in this presentation.”

Then students raised their hand and told me, “Oh, this one had a big picture, balanced text, and words. The title was easy to see.” They point out whatever the kind of things that we talked about and that they noticed from this. 

Then here are some written responses that I wanted to highlight as well. At this point, I could ask students to read them out loud, what did the student do well, how does your response compare? But I try to keep this part moving along because I know at this point students are starting to really be thinking about their assessment and are wanting to see how they did compared to these answers. 

So then after, this is kind of the end of my presentation to the class, now the students take over the reflection. They take over the reflection part. They go into OneNote and open up a document that we have stored there and we’ve been using all year, and they fill out a reflection assessment table that they and I have access to on OneNote. They put in the subject, since I teach multiple subjects, it’s all in one document, so they have to say that it’s math. Then they list the title and they have two columns. What went well for you? What would you do differently next time, and why is that important? Those last two are in the last same column together. Once they have completed this table, I give them back their grades. 

I like to check through it, at least read through to make sure that they answer the question, why is it important?  I don’t just want students to say, “Oh, I should have written more details.” Why should you have written more details? Why is that important? Why is that important to you? Why is that important to someone else?

And once they’ve done that, I give them back their grade and then they start sharing their grades, but it doesn’t bother me the way that it did last year because it’s not the only thing they’ve talked about at this point. They’ve shared several things either to the whole class or even just to their group, and they’ve done some actual learning about this assessment, and it isn’t just so focused on what they did well on what they didn’t do well just on the grade. 

I like that students think about more than just the grade and that they see that many of their classmates make the same mistakes that they do. I think that really lowers the stakes on assessments, especially for anxious students who feel like everything they do is wrong or they always make a mistake.

Talking about the assessment is now a thing that we do. It’s not some secret thing where you’re only talking about the grade. It’s something that we do to learn and grow from each other and reflect on our own assessment. Passing back grades just feels more meaningful now because the number, the grade they get is attached to something. It’s attached to an actual conversation about what students had to do to get a higher grade. The students actually read my written, reflect my written feedback and reflect on it. A lot of what they put into their table on OneNote is something that I’ve written in the feedback. It isn’t always, but sometimes it is. And it’s going to be a great tool for student-led conferences. We’re about to have them coming up, and I’m very excited to pull this document up and talk about it with them and their families. 

You can check out Andrea Clarks’s full presentation on this topic during the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit as part of the elementary Summit on April 6th. Her session is called Feedback First: Shifting from traditional grading to reflection sessions and it’s aimed toward grades 2-5 but as you can tell, there’s applicability to much higher grades as well.

Andrea is providing her presentation template to you as part of the Summit to make it easy for you to get started with this topic. Sign up for the event here, and I’ll send you the link to join us live for free. If you can’t attend live or the event has already passed by the time you read this, you can purchase forever-access to all the sessions, both elementary and secondary, and get transcripts, note-taking guides, and all the presentation links in one document so that you can reference them easily. Forever-access is $19.

Tanya Jo Woodward: Time-saving tips for feedback and grading

In Tanya Jo’s Summit presentation, one of the time-saving tips she shares is making a shift around grading in her high school English classroom. She talks first about grading and giving feedback in class. While students are working independently on a task or assessment, you can pull individuals to provide feedback to them.

She also talks about teaching students how to better self-correct by providing editing stations or peer editing guided sheets, and a few other tips that help her manage grading and provide more efficient, effective feedback.

Tanya Jo shares,

I think it’s essential as we’re thinking about time-saving strategies to think about to make grading manageable and meaningful. 

One that we can do is grade in class. Many IB assessments are timed and I think it’s important to use that to our advantage and to give timed assessments in class that not only gives students time to practice the timed conditions, but also gives you a chance perhaps to mark. 

So in the next lesson you could try this. After students have finished some work, you could set aside some other independent work for them to work on and then mark their major assessment in a writing conference style. So while other students are working on an independent task quietly, you can have the student come to you and they can read aloud their writing to you, and as they’re reading it aloud, they’ll be able to catch some mistakes or grammar things that they need to work on or just even hear the sound of their own voice and the fluency in the piece that they wrote. 

And then you can ask the student as they’re reading, what are you proud of and what could you improve? And based on this rubric, I like to put the rubric right next to their work. What would you predict that you would get? And then I think using the same rubric that you would use for your IB assessment, explain again, what did they do well and where could they grow? 

It might seem more labor intensive, but I think it’s actually a really powerful exercise that I did when I was teaching college writing that actually really helps create classroom community. It gives you a chance to get to know your students in this one-to-one setting kind of tutoring style and give them a little one-on-one attention which they actually crave but they won’t ever ask for. And so that just kind of builds in that time for you. 

Another thing I like to do is give actionable feedback. So rather than marking every error on their paper, which is not effective, I like to share, “here are two things that you can work on and one thing that you did really well” or vice versa. I think it’s not an effective grading technique to correct every error in their essay. That’s not really the purpose who’s really editing them, you or them. And so I think it’s important to, if you notice a pattern of errors, you can make a note of that and have the student go back and correct their work. But really at that point there should hopefully be some different things in place for the student to be able to self-correct. 

And one way that you can teach students how to better self-correct is to give them editing stations or peer editing guided sheets. 

So what I like to do is take the same rubric that I’m going to mark students and pass it out to the students and have them trade and mark each other’s and give predicted feedback for a predicted score on the assignment and then they can revise and resubmit again. I think it’s important to use the same rubric that you would use so students become familiar with the criteria that they’re marked on or graded on, and that they also get familiar again with what they could do. 

And then I think it’s helpful for students to also reflect at the end of this assignment maybe keeping track or a little record of this, what are two things that they did well with this and something that they could work on. And so that’s quite effective. 

I also think it’s quite effective to give digital feedback where possible. I’m a faster typer than a writer, and while Google Classroom doesn’t have a rubric system I really love, I currently copy and paste a rubric onto a student’s typed work and then digitally highlight and type comments onto where their work landed. And so I find that to be really helpful. 

Another thing I think is quite helpful is to pick a time or a day to do grading. So again, Wednesdays are bad for me because of our block schedule, but Fridays are a bit better. So just knowing that I can work on it on Friday and I add it to my Fridays to-do list is really helpful for me. I also, again, to pick that specific day to work on the essay so it doesn’t bleed over into all my life. So I’m not marking essays on Saturday afternoon, which I don’t believe in doing. 

Another thing you can think about is only assigning what you have time to give meaningful feedback to. So if it’s possible at your school, just like we kind of narrow it down to the main thing per day as teachers, could you narrow down the assignment to just one main thing for students to work on independently in extended kind of capacity for themselves?

I also think you can ask questions. So research shows that asking questions instead of telling students things is actually better for generating ownership over their writing and also better at helping them improve their writing. I think asking students, why did you do this or what does this mean? Or connecting it back is one way that you can kind of show students that writing is intended to be a dialogue, not just a one way monologue, but a together kind of conversation. And so by having this sort of question-asking and dialogue, it really puts the teacher in the place of a co-learner instead of this sort of all-knower, which I think is helpful for students to see. 

And finally, another thing you could think about doing is to use contract grading. I did this more with university students, but I think there’s a real place for it in the high school classroom. And so perhaps you could change the way that you assess so that students just have to achieve a level of a pass or maybe a try again if they didn’t pass in the contract grading.

I think making work that’s more effort-based and equitable really helps our students who maybe aren’t our top learners, but really do want to learn and grow, which is really the core idea of the IB curriculum. It’s not about just everybody getting the top score and the seven — that’s really nice — but really we want to form these students as lifelong learners and able to encounter and communicate in various situations, which is really the purpose. 

You can hear all of Tanya Jo Woodward’s tips on April 13th during the secondary teachers’ online Summit. Her session is called “7 time savers for IB and AP teachers” and it’s aimed for Gr. 6-12, but as you can tell, is still a useful listen for teachers of younger students as well.

Join us live for free at the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit

The elementary event is April 5-6 and the secondary event is April 12-13. You can choose which event to sign up for and we’ll only notify you about the event for your grade levels, but you’ll still have access to all the sessions.

The Summit features:

  • 30+ presentations and roundtable discussions
  • Opening and closing keynotes by 40 Hour founder Angela Watson
  • All presenters are current K-12 classroom teachers
  • No fluff, filler, or pitches: each session is just 15-20 minutes long
  • hat with other teachers during the live sessions and get personalized advice

Join us for the FREE live event!

The 40 Hour Online Summit for Elementary Teachers
is happening April 5th and 6th, 2024.


Join us for the FREE live event!

The 40 Hour Online Summit for Secondary Teachers
is happening April 12th and 13th, 2024.

If you can’t attend live or the event has already passed by the time you see this, you purchase forever-access to all the sessions, both elementary and secondary, and get time-stamped transcripts, notetaking guides, and all the presentation links in one document so that you can reference them easily. Forever-access is $19.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak peak from the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Online Summit–these are just two of 30+ sessions, and while these are focused on streamlining how you give feedback, the rest of the Summit will give you tips for organization, lesson planning, and more.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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