Eureka and Middle School Math · UDL in Practice · Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Building a Culture of Feedback

In the course I taught over the winter, one of the assignments was to develop a feedback tool; I’ve been asking teachers to think about asking students (or parents or whatever) for feedback since pretty early on in the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) courses I’ve taken.  Dr. Novak always asked us to think about gathering feedback and also modeled it as our instructor, so I’ve included a feedback assignment in most of the courses I’ve taught.

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This time, one of the participants responded along the lines of, “Well, I’ve been doing this for years and I’ve never had good luck and I mostly get responses like ‘everything is fine’ or I get nasty responses from a student who wasn’t engaged anyway.”  Reading that post made me realize that I was working on some assumptions around the ability for teachers to dive into engaging in a culture of feedback; as the instructor in the course, I needed to step back.

As I write this blog post, I’ve been referring to a printed copy of the responses to the most recent Google Form survey I gave to students (December 2019) and copies of the Exam Wrapper we gave for the Percent Module Assessment (January 2020).  The stack of feedback is almost an inch thick!  The kids are not rude in their responses, but they have no problem at all telling me their opinions, even when the Forms ask for their names.

The kids tell me what they think should be changed, what isn’t working for them, what could be better.  There are very few who want nothing to change and those that do are equally as explicit about that–please leave it all the same, Ms. Durling.  So when I read the post from the teacher in my class, it really brought me up short.  I’m not warm and fuzzy, so what had I done in my class that had moved my students from the “everything is fine, don’t change anything” kind of response to the “constructive criticism” response the teacher had been looking for, but hadn’t been able to get?

In order to answer that question, I realized that I needed to do some thinking around how I had first started gathering feedback from my students, around how I gather feedback from my students now, and around how I deal with cool and warm feedback in order to be able to best respond to this teacher.  My reflections and memories turned into this blog post.

homework-2521144_1920I think the first thing that my colleagues and I did when we started gathering feedback was to use exam wrappers.  It’s a little ironic because our use of exam wrappers has diminished this year, partly because we have shorter classes and so we are guarding the time that we do have very tightly.  It’s also partly because I think we have so many exams one after another in rapid succession that it started to feel like we were getting canned responses from the students.  So we stopped using exam wrappers on every assessment this year.  I loved the exam wrapper that we did give and felt that I got some very specific pieces of feedback from a couple of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have given me that feedback, a reminder for myself of why exam wrappers are valuable.

Screen Shot 2020-03-08 at 6.43.07 PM.pngI think that I would now say that doing the exam wrappers is sort of like a trial run for a larger/more detailed survey or Google Form.  Even this year, where we have had a limited number of feedback opportunities, the exam wrapper was sort of like a first stab versus the much longer and more drawn-out survey.  So I think that’s a recommendation I can make, that is, to start with an exam wrapper as a lower-stakes attempt at getting feedback.  Also, if you do exam wrappers more than once, you’ll be talking with kids about their feedback and returning to that conversation on subsequent wrappers, which will model for them that you value their opinions.  Demonstrating that for the kids leads to more authentic responses, in my experience.

Another thing I would now say is that a combination of short-answer and open-ended questions seems to be effective.  Students can answer quickly on some and take more time (or not) on others and, as the teacher, you can get fast accumulations of numerical data but then also hear commentary from students.  I also use a combination of required questions, usually the multiple-choice or “choose all that apply” type that include a cool feedback option, and optional questions, usually the open-ended ones.  I think going back and forth between the two types can help, i.e., giving a “choose all that applies” followed by an open-ended opportunity to expand on the topic.  I also end most of my surveys with a combination of “The best part of this class was _______” (open-ended and optional) and “For next time, Ms. Durling could consider _________” (also open-ended and optional).  Kids might choose not to answer, but they are invited to speak and to be heard.

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Thanks to the amazing teachers in my GCVS course for getting me thinking about this topic!  Your students are lucky to have you.

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