Fixing the Feedback Loop

As I stated last week, I was pretty confident in my abilities as an online teacher at the outset of this Covid-19 journey.  But lately I have felt less confident.  Or maybe what I’m feeling is exhaustion.  

Due to the overwhelming task teaching has been these last 6 weeks, I have had to practice a more mindful way of being.  I cling to that mental image from my Malibu Club Summer Staff days of the sign on the tree outside the Capilano lounge:  BE HERE NOW.

When I start to think of all that needs to be done, all the planning that will come with a new school year, all …. Wait.  Stop.  Breath.  Be Here Now.

Last Sunday I spent 5-6 hours checking to see if work was done, entering comments in the gradebook, and then sending emails to each student on what they still needed to do. 

It was exhausting.  I felt broken.  I felt overwhelmed.  I went for a walk to gain perspective and insight on what needed to change.  I needed to see where we had come from, so I could have a better Now.

At Global Online Academy, we do much to prepare our students to be self-reliant and proactive in their first weeks of online learning.  

  • We meet one on one with each student to get to know our student’s work flow, to discuss expectations, and explain how we will communicate feedback throughout the course
  • We spend the first week of class learning how to learn online, as well as do activities to boost community and at the same time, self-reliance.  
  • We reflect a lot.  We ask students to reflect on what they are doing each week.  Not so much about content, but about the skills they are rocking, and the skills in which they need more practice.

When we moved online with our students at my Brick and Mortar school, I did none of this.  I figured they have been with me all year.  I know their flow, they know mine.  I know their quirks, they know mine.  They know how to navigate my PowerSchool pages.  They know how to email.  Why waste the precious time we don’t have on this stuff.

And that is where I made the big mistake.

Although I have done my best to make my students courageous self reliant learners, the truth is they are not.  By nature, a brick and mortar classroom is a place of reliance on the teacher.

Now I’m not saying that you, or I, or any teacher out there intentionally makes kids reliant.  We are always looking for ways to build their self reliance.  But as long as I am in the room to ask, “Where is the stapler?”  “What do I do when I’m done?” “Can you help me with A, B, and C?”  Students will always defer first to me, rather than relying on the knowledge they have inside them to find the stapler, read the instructions on the board, or try to solve the problem first, before asking me first.

As we saw the Covid closure looming, I did begin to spend a part of each lesson, each day, troubleshooting.  I would ask, “If you were using this app at home and you knew your assignment was due and the app wasn’t working, what would you do?” 

I set tasks that were more digital to give them more experiences where things might go wrong when we were still face to face, in order for me to train them for what to do when we aren’t face to face any longer.

I thought I had done enough to prepare them.  But last Sunday proved that I obviously had not.

Don’t get me wrong.  My students are working.  They are enjoying the lessons. I have had great parent feedback on their son/daughter’s excitement for the projects we are working on.  The problem I was facing was the feedback loop.

I’d forgotten where I had come from.  I forgot to teach them about their responsibilities as a learner in the online classroom.

When I got back from my walk, I immediately switched tacks to come up with a new feedback plan.  I met with my classes on Monday and talked about my responsibilities as their teacher and their responsibilities as my students.

We agreed my job was to:

  • Place stars in PowerSchool grade book at the end of each week.  *** is complete, **1 thing missing, * 2 or more things missing, -not attempted
  • A comment will be next to the stars. If * or ** it will say in the comment what needs to be done.
  • More detailed feedback on the quality of your work and what to improve on will be updated in your Feedback Doc attached to your assignment in Google Classroom.  This will usually be done Monday or Tuesday the following week.
  • I will send one group email to let you know when stars and feedback have been updated.

We agreed that the student’s job was to:

  • Check PowerSchool after an email is sent at the end of the week.
  • If a * or **  then complete the work that is missing, then write to me to let me know it has been done so I can go back in and look at it and update the grade.
  • Check the Google Doc attached to assessment for more specific feedback when I send email that feedback is ready.  
  • If the feedback shows something is missing or incomplete, complete the work. Then email me that the work is done so I can go back in and look at it and update the grade.

So far so good.  Students are taking more responsibility.  Students are reading their feedback, adjusting their work, and asking for me to update their grade/feedback.  This group email reduced my time giving feedback from 5 to 6 hours, to 1 to 2 hours.  

Rather than sending out 40 emails like, “Hey Steve, can hit the publish button on your website so I can view your work?” I was sending only 3 to 4 emails out to specific students who were very behind and at risk.  I was able to meet one on one with my most at risk students to work out plans for how to stay on track. And I even had a couple of discussions with parents on how to help their child better manage the feedback loop.

And I know I said I needed to BE HERE NOW, but sometimes we can find relief by looking to the future.  As I plan for next fall, I know things will look more like now and less like what the first weeks of school used to look like.

One thing is for sure though. My first week online or in class will be about Community, Feedback, and Self Reliance. 

As we work in what will probably be a hybrid model of in school, and distance learning, it will be even more important to get the year started with clear expectations for this new hybrid learning journey.

In order to get to know our students and help them reflect as learner I must:

  • Give them vocabulary to express what they can do and what they struggle with.  
  • Give them opportunities to solve problems and make choices on their own.
  • Give them opportunities to fail and correct course and succeed.
  • Give them opportunities to explore the digital space and take ownership of their feedback.
  • Give them opportunities.

And now it is time for Saturday. Time to power down, close the lid, hide the phone and BE HERE NOW.

Want more Feedback inspiration?

Progress, not Praise: How to Design Feedback for Competency Based Learning by Susan Fine

Six Strategies for Using Feedback to Build Community by Jason Cummings

All that Jazz: Using Feedback to Make Learning Visible by Jeff Schwartz

The Secret of Effective Feedback by Dylan Wiliam

4 replies

  1. Thank you for the suggestions! I love the strategies. I am curious about what you mean by the “feedback doc” attached to their learning in google classroom. Do you have a cumulative feedback specific doc that kids use all year, no matter the assignment? Or do you mean adding comments on the assignment via google docs?

    • They had a google doc with a series of single point rubrics. Each week as students added to their project portfolio, I would give feedback for the week on the rubric. The students did their work on Google sites. Then I put the feedback doc on the private comments for the assignments.

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