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Feedback on student work: a sinkhole or an opportunity – Finding time to write

Students expect and need feedback on their work. The basic goal of feedback is to enhance student learning. An anomaly of feedback is that more is not necessarily better. Research tells us that students may not even read your copious feedback (sigh) and may not understand what to do with statements like, “cite more references” or “this is confusing”. However, giving a judicious amount of feedback in a timely manner will make a difference in student learning. The purpose of this article is to describe how to refine, clarify, streamline, and improve your feedback practices with an eye toward spending less time on the task.

What is feedback?

In university and college settings, feedback is a written or oral response to student work. Feedback is divided into two categories: “formative” and “summative”. On the one hand, formative feedback is given on drafts of a paper or project to help students develop skills over time. Formative feedback is like coaching, giving enough feedback to modify performance but not so much to overwhelm the recipient. On the other hand, summative feedback is a final evaluation like a grade for the completion of a manuscript. There is no opportunity to revise or improve the final product. In this article, I will focus on how, where, and when to give formative feedback from two perspectives: managing the time when students can seek feedback, and managing your time when giving feedback. The goal, of course, is to find some time-savers in these practices so you can devote more time to your own writing.

Manage the time when students can seek feedback.

Both office hours and email interactions are important parts of providing feedback to students. In reality the wasted time in these practices is not in the interaction itself; the hidden pockets can be found in your practice of setting up the office hours and reading student emails.

Office hours: Having office hours and talking with individual students are positive practices. Yet, the time it takes to schedule appointments and the length of time any student may need can be endless time gobblers. Here are some suggested practices:

1) Cluster available office hours in a large block or two. Post those blocks of hours in your syllabus. Tell your students that you will fill those blocks first. Exceptions can be made on a limited basis.

2) Use a scheduling app for signups. Having a scheduling app like immediately simplifies scheduling. The scheduling app will also limit the time you spend scheduling the block. I put the appointment app link on the signature of my email and on my syllabus and direct students to it. No more back and forth about when the student and you are both available.

3) Manage your appointments. First, limit the time to say, 15-30 minutes. When the times are in a block, students will see that the next student is waiting. Have a clock visible. After greetings, start the appointment with asking the student directly, “What is your goal for this meeting today?” This helps you understand their needs without making erroneous and time-wasting assumptions. In addition, it places the responsibility on them.

Responding to student emails: Students can inundate you with email questions and concerns. Luckily, there are a couple of practices that can help you be more responsive but not overwhelmed and, once again, save you time.

1) Expect students to use a formatted subject line. Email programs can direct incoming mail into discrete folders. Instruct your students to write the course number and term in the email subject line, like “CI345 Fall 2021”. All the email for that class will automatically go into one folder. You can check that folder regularly, but not all day long. If a student forgets, just send the email back to her and have her correct the subject line. If there is an urgent request like the student needs a signature on a scholarship application, tell the student to put URGENT in caps in the subject line along with the course number.

2) Limit the length of emails. Tell students that emails should be no longer than three sentences. Establish the rule that if their email requires you to scroll down, then, their concern may need closer attention and they need to book an appointment.

Manage your time when giving feedback.

To get a handle on managing your time when giving feedback, we need to look at modifying your response practices.

1) Focus and limit your written feedback by using a rubric. The most time-consuming feedback is the line-by-line feedback on student work, as students often repeat the same mistakes. Because criteria for assignments are consistent across student work, you will save yourself a lot of writing time by scoring the work on a rubric.

I still may put notes in the manuscript itself, but the rubric keeps me focused on the larger issues. I often have a section of the rubric labeled “writing conventions” where I list editing points like “pages are numbered” or “references use APA formatting”. By putting these expectations on the rubric, you alert students to their importance.

In addition, if you teach students how to attach the rubric to the last page of the paper, you will not have to print the rubrics, and attach it yourself.

2) “Divide and conquer”. What would you rather give feedback on, a small stack of twenty-five one-page assignments or a larger stack of twenty-five 15-page assignments? Giving thoughtful feedback on all of those long assignments in a timely manner can be daunting. One way to lighten the load while at the same time improve student work is to “divide and conquer”. Divide the larger task into sub-tasks like, for a term paper, assign three introductory paragraphs that end with the purpose of the paper, or an annotated list of the references. What are the advantages of assigning sub-tasks? Students receive feedback on the sub-tasks and can focus on developing those discrete skills. They cannot plagiarize when they are building a paper or project like this over the term. You have less paper to read each week.

Read part 1,  Finding time to write: Important, yes! Impossible, no! Reviewing your student assignment practices

Dr. Dannelle D. Stevens has authored numerous journal articles and five books. Her most recent book, Write More, Publish More, Stress Less! Five Key Principles for a Creative and Sustainable Scholarly Practice, is based on working with national and international faculty on the complex tasks associated with balancing teaching, writing, and publishing.