Meditations on Feedback

I am taking part in a “Talking Teaching and Learning” group, and my homework this week was to think about the last few details of my new assessment structure for Euclidean Geometry. In particular, how will I handle the “regular, daily feedback” part of the process?


So, if I am to provide regular feedback to my students at “assessment opportunities” they take, how shall I do it? I want this to be meaningful and effective. And it would be nice if it didn’t consume my working time.

I think I will try a format beloved by politicians: I will ask and answer my own questions. If any of you wishes to play investigative journalist and ask other questions that I should be forced to answer, go hit the comment box. I would like to play.

What counts as an assessment opportunity?

Any student presentation, meaningful engagement in class discussion, a discussion with me outside of class where I learn something. Those things count as opportunities for me to assess student performance that don’t necessarily have written feedback attached to them. In each case there is plenty of verbal feedback from classmates–but I don’t always participate. In fact, I prefer to leave it to the students.

Why are written papers not on this list?

Students will get feedback in the form of a referee report on each paper. I am not as concerned about providing more structured feedback here because I feel it is adequately covered.

Why do you prefer to leave the process of verbal feedback to the students?

One of the skills I am trying to encourage is the ability to evaluate arguments critically and thoughtfully.

If there is a reason to leave the verbal feedback to the students, might written feedback from the instructor corrupt this process?

Oh, yes. That is my main worry.

How can you avoid this trouble?

um. uh. [blink. blink.]

I hope this writing will spur me to some ideas about that…

What are the goals for this written feedback?

I want to focus student attention on some aspects of what they did. Ideally, quality feedback should help speed up a student’s process of improvement by directing his or her attention to something concrete.

What kind of constraints are you going to impose upon yourself?

I am a constructivist at heart. The student must come to grips with the material and how to do it. Each one should do this on his or her own terms. One idea would be to give feedback by asking questions.

I am just not sure what kinds of questions I would ask that are detached from the process of running a class meeting. We handle lots of things in class, and I almost always do it by asking questions. Maybe I will just reiterate some of the unanswered questions. That doesn’t feel like a very good answer.

Another idea is to use a sandwich approach: mention something positive, make a suggestion for improvement, reiterate the positive outcomes. And be relentlessly optimistic.

Now I’ve run out of questions. So.

I think whatever I do will have to play to my strengths. I am at my best when I split my time as a cheerleader, mentor, and coach. Students are capable of amazing things, and sometimes they just need for me to believe in them and expect it out of them. Sometimes they just need a little bit of commiserating about how frustrating it is to do mathematics. Sometimes they need a concrete suggestion of what to do when they are stuck and at their wit’s end.

That was unsatisfying.

Here we are. 500+ words in, and no answers I feel wonderful about.

Never mind, time for some unbridled confidence.

When I got into IBL teaching, I recognized that a major asset I had was hubris. I just believed that I could do this. Usually it works.

What? So I will have to help each student in as individual a way as possible, thinking on
my feet and being careful about everyone’s feelings? Why should I worry? I can do that.
I’ll think about this some more, and just try to roll with it.

I don’t feel like I finished my homework.

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9 thoughts on “Meditations on Feedback

  1. I read this post and the previous one. Some questions I would raise are: Could you act as the scribe for the comments of other students on presentations in your blog, and would that serve as the feedback on presentations? Is there an opportunity for students to show that they have learned from your feedback, for instance via revisions or a portfolio?
    What are the goals of the face-to-face meeting, other than letting students know where they stand? Also, in all of this I don’t see anything that ties in to one of my biggest goals in assessment: letting me know what students know so that I can react, either on the spot, or by giving follow-up tasks to help students confront their issues in the next week or two of class. So, in that light, what questions will drive the face-to-face that will let you know what the students know?

    [I am a veteran IBL user and I know Dana Ernst and Ed Parker.]

  2. I personally don’t feel like there is an inherent conflict between feedback from the instructor or from peers. When it comes to providing verbal feedback in class, I actively assume the role of peer when I interact with students, and when possible I give neutral feedback on process as well as feedback on mathematical thinking. I also regularly play devil’s advocate, so students are never quite sure if I’m praising them for being on the right track or encouraging them to flail around a bit. And since they are usually working together, this feedback often stimulates a productive student conversation.

    It seems like there is even less of a conflict when it comes to feedback on mathematical writing. Unless they are writing and peer-reviewing every single day, there just isn’t enough time in a semester for peer feedback alone to produce the kind of quality mathematical writing you want. I think pointed, clear, expert feedback is exactly what is required in this case.

    And here’s a question for you: Do you provide feedback on how your students provide feedback to each other?

  3. As I was reading this, I inferred a hesitance to provide verbal feedback during a class. I also think that a goal of providing verbal feedback to everyone in the class every day might be overwhelming, especially when you want to provide helpful, critical feedback to a students. How can you do that carefully and in a safe way?

    Have you considered letting the flow of the classroom continue without your in-class feedback, but during the class, take notes that you can use to provide feedback by email immediately after class. A few lines of praise for something done in class, or a question to help steer the work of a person or group could give you the results you’re hoping for.

    In addition, you can track your feedback (you’ll have copies in the ‘Sent’ email box) and make sure you’re attending to all of your students over time. And you can praise all members of a group in a single email.

    Other benefits: repeated providing feedback this way will ‘train’ students to check their email accounts, something they don’t always do (these days). Also, questions you ask in this way will provide motivation for students to interact with you outside of class (e.g., office hours) which will give you additional opportunities to provide them feedback.

  4. Like Patrick, I do not necessarily see a contradiction in giving students written feedback outside of class. Is there some reason that that I might not be aware of? For instance, does your written feedback somehow replace another student’s feedback? If not, I do not see any problem—any type of good feedback is valuable for the student, and there is would be no loss in terms of students getting practice validating mathematics.

  5. Matt– thanks for the comments.

    The face to face meetings will be centered on the reflection assignments I ask them to do ahead of time. These come in two types: (1) think back on a problem you found challenging. What did you do to ultimately succeed, or if you didn’t, what kept you from succeeding? (2) think about your progress on “the standards.” How do you think you measure up?

    The “On the spot” stuff happens in class, just like any instance of a Moore Method course.

    I have some more thoughts about the “daily” feedback in a bit. First I want to process some comments.

  6. Patrick,

    I do all sorts of stuff in class meetings, and some small portion of it might count as feedback on giving feedback.

    The conflict I really have is with the concept of who is the arbiter of correctness in the class. My students won’t willingly take up that role unless I very obviously vacate it first. I have to demand they do this part of the process. Their default mode is to expect me to do that job.

    I really don’t want to ruin this. It is important!

  7. Jason–
    Your second and third paragraphs are actually what I am planning on doing. Students get lots of feedback from class conversation after each presentation.

    I am noodling over what kinds of things I want to try to say in those comments.

  8. Bret–
    Yes. I just want to be careful about what I am doing, and make choices for reasons, and not some other choices for other reasons.

    I am trying to find some framework of “reasons” to guide me.

  9. Today we had another “Talking Teaching and Learning” Meeting. After describing my bit of circular writing, I was reminded that one of my main reasons for coming up with a new structure is to try and be transparent about my standards.

    So I think my guiding principle is this: the feedback on a particular assessment will address what ever comments I have about whatever progress toward a standard. It is likely that I will only have one or two standards to address from a given presentation (like “most pressing need for improvement or opportunity for growth” and “best part of what just happened”).

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