Thoughts About Feedback

I started writing this post a while ago, and then got distracted by other things…winter break, Christmas, not working for two whole weeks, you know…

Grades.

I am waging a silent war against them. This consists mainly of a somewhat passive-aggressive stance in which I deny any mention of a grade to cross my desk—both in writing and out loud—until I am forced to by the man mid-term comments due date.

However, I broke down and gave students in my Math 1 class points on their first Journal assignment. These weren’t skills-based, you-don’t-quite-have-this-down-yet SBG über-points, which some might argue have redeeming value. They were just your standard, jump-through-the-hoop, gotta have ‘em, crack points from days of yore. I feel a little ashamed about that.

In fact, since writing this paragraph I have compounded the issue and done the whole lame-points thing with each of my classes on their major assignments. Now, in my defense, the lame-points are coupled with some rather detailed feedback comments. One thing to confess though. I feel like I’m really good about giving comments designed to help students think of ways to improve when they didn’t do so well and not anywhere near as good about giving comments on what makes their good work good. Is it just that they got the right answer? Or was their explanation really clear? Did they make me think about something that didn’t occur to me when I read through the problem? Did they make me laugh? All of these things happened when I read through my Math 3 class’ problem sets. But I don’t think I mentioned any of them in the feedback comments I gave to students. This is a problem.

My mom gave me a book when I first started teaching that contained essays from teachers who were reflecting back on their first year teaching. I enjoyed reading it, even though most of them were written by English teachers. And by “most” I mean probably 95% of them. I think there was one written by a science teacher; no math teachers contributed. Since apparently we can’t write…

Anyhoo, one of these English teachers wrote about how he realized that his job was to help his students “recognize the difference between their regular work and their best work” (I’m paraphrasing here; the book is in my office at school). This resonated with me, because, OMG students actually do write in math class! And the writing that we do in math is different, and less familiar, than the writing we do in other venues. I remember tearing my hair out writing my senior math thesis trying to figure out how to write this math paper and not sound like a stilted version of the textbook that was my reference. It’s hard. And it would be a lot easier if students knew specifically why they had succeeded when they did well. Instead of just that they got 5 out of a possible 5 points. Argh!

So, I guess I’ve worked my way round to a goal of sorts. Though in the process I worked my way round away from the topic I had intended to write about. So, more on grades next time. Unless something more interesting occurs to me in the meantime.

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