Providing timely, useful feedback in English Classes

Last semester Professor X in English 305 designed a very good essay-grading rubric that helped TA’s offer timely, useful feedback to students.  The rubric provided guidance to graders and to students over six categories, organized along the y-axis: quality of thesis and strength of analysis; use of textual evidence; use of research materials; structure, organization and logic of argument; quality of writing; and MLA format.  On the x-axis of the rubric, the professor delineated what would be the features of papers with grades A, B, C, D-F.  Other TA’s told me they found rubrics too confining, but I did not find that to be a problem at all with this document.  In fact, the rubric helped me to organize my thoughts about individual papers and come to conclusions on grades quickly; it clarified for me what is often a vague, time-consuming process.

Using the rubric helped me provide fast, specific feedback to the students.  They received an understandable rationale for why they were graded at a B or C-.  I often put a few extra hand-written notes on the rubric, which did not take long to do and furnished extra explanations to the students. Ambrose et al. say that rubrics take time to develop but that they pay-off in saved time over the long run (231).  I agree.  This particular document was not developed from scratch last year but was the result of years of use and tweaking by Professor X; I feel the rubric was one of the most successful aspects of that course.  I should mention that last week the other English 307 TA’s and I decided we would assemble our own rubric for the essays we will be grading at the end of this semester.  As Ambrose states, a common rubric will assist us in ensuring “consistency across graders” (231), which the four of us recognize we need to attempt.  The English 307 professor supports this idea.

I have tried to leverage my weekly office hour to sit down one-on-one with students.  This permits time, albeit not much time, for students to speak with me directly.  I did not make it mandatory for students to come see me at least once a semester, though other instructors did.  My colleagues appeared to find the mandatory sit-down helpful to establish personal relationships.  However, in my case, I encouraged students to visit any week or weeks they liked.  Probably half of the students came to office hours, and to them I offered various kinds of assistance.  There were significant volumes of homework in the class; the students would visit me at office hour sometimes overwhelmed by the work and the detailed assignment instructions.  On these occasions, I would offer diplomatic commiseration (i.e. providing sympathy to the student without throwing the professor under the bus).

For the future, there are several ideas I would like to implement — not all of which originate from Ambrose — to make feedback more relevant to students in both large and small classes.  I like Harvey’s idea to assign students a reflective cover letter.  I admit this will require extra effort from the students, but it will also cause them to think about their papers a bit more, leading perhaps to revision and more recursive writing.  For me, the reflective cover letter should point to what the students are attempting to do (or not attempting to do) in their essays, saving me time by helping me organize my thoughts on the work.

Ambrose echoes Bass in calling for a prior knowledge assessment to “target an appropriate challenge level”.  I like this idea for a first-class activity and plan to do it in the future.  I can think of nothing more useful than to get to understand students’ prior knowledge and their strengths and weaknesses early in the semester.

The whole idea of scaffolding is problematic for large classes, but it can be made more manageable if assignments are shortened.  One could design a staged approach to writing a longer essay, too. However, in this case, one must be explicit in modeling to avoid the problems Cox encountered in modeling more than the instructor and students could scaffold (Ambrose 134).  Scaffolding is difficult in larger classes, but without it progress in knowledge acquisition can be slow to the point of being almost nonexistent in some classrooms.

Finally, I think providing models of target performance and models of what you don’t want to see are two great ideas from Ambrose Chapter 5.  Showing beginning university students what success looks like can make academic essay writing seem less daunting, and spotlighting what failure looks like indicates what they should not be doing.  I have a spectacular example of failure: my own first, jejune undergraduate English essay from 1984.  I plan to present it with the name removed and offer students a grading rubric.  After the grading is done, I will reveal to them who wrote the piece, and give them a copy of the original, complete with the professor’s perceptive marginal comments.  My hope is that the exercise will encourage students to start thinking about the writing process from the reader’s point of view; simultaneously, the assignment should show them that the “expert” in front of the class had fits and starts at the beginning of his own academic career.  Rather than being overwhelmed near the outset of their university careers by the task of writing literate academic papers, the students should get a boost of confidence.  It is a strategy worth a try at the very least to mitigate the ill effects of  “imposter syndrome” that beginning undergraduates often face.

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2 Responses to Providing timely, useful feedback in English Classes

  1. fhalpern says:

    Some great ideas here, Jon. I think the idea of giving out your own flawed essay is a good one. I also love that you show students the kind of comments that helped you get better. But tell me why you think scaffolding is more problematic in large classes? My sense of scaffolding is that it’s not usually individualized, so could be applied to large classes just as it can to small ones. But what aspect of scaffolding are you thinking about?

    ~Faye

  2. jonrozhon says:

    Hi Faye,
    When I wrote the blog post, I was thinking of the problems Professor Cox (Ambrose 121) was having providing enough practice and feedback for each of the three kinds of essays he asked the students to write. The case study doesn’t say his was a large class, but when Cox mentions he was spending “an enormous amount of time grading and writing margin comments”, I felt he must have had a large class. Anyway, he was unable to find the time to offer students the kind of recursive practice and feedback the students required. He simply gave out three distinct assignments and perceived no general improvement from one assignment to the next, while increasing his own workload. The scaffolding was a problem for him.

    There are solutions, of course. We spoke about a few of them yesterday in class. One can integrate into the scaffolding tools like “Top Hat”, for example, for almost instantaneous feedback (both for prof and students) about students’ problems. One can change the nature of the assignment, too, perhaps making 6 shorter assignments (for an extra practice opportunity for each essay type). Or maybe the instructor could still assign the three essays but have shorter assignments done in-class or on-line, and have peers evaluate the shorter assignments.

    Though there are solutions to the issue of providing adequate practice and feedback, frankly, almost everything is more problematic in managing large classes. I have certainly seen this with the large survey courses that I have been a part of. Professors must juggle several balls at once — these courses require foresight, preparation, and continuous thought. Otherwise, to mix metaphors, the instructor can look like a chicken with its head cut off attempting to juggle all those balls! I think that was what happened to Professor Cox.

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