The importance of feedback … and agricultural learning …

My blog has been cold since the last article for my #UWSMTeach students. Similarly, I haven’t been rabidly tweeting the hashtag and haven’t added lecture notes for the April 12th lecture. Why not? Well, every time I thought about the UWS students I was wracked with guilt because I hadn’t finished marking their assignments.

I had a lot of good excuses for having not done this. I spent the whole Easter break working, every day of it, and have worked every day since. I have just handed in a 9,500 word paper for my PhD review, taught a full time teaching load, have done assessments and reports for over 100 year 8 to 10 students, helped out very much in the background with the school production (do click for photos) and a number of other less exciting things.

But there’s really no good excuse. Because you need two things when you’re a student and you hand in work. And neither of them are the mark, although that’s useful in both cases. You need feedback, and you need that feedback:

  1. as quickly as possible so you when you get it you remember the process of doing it and learn from it, and
  2. you need detailed feedback, especially if you didn’t ‘get’ everything, so that you can complete learning this thing, or go back to it and continue on where you left off.

On both fronts, I’m afraid I let down my students. Ironically, I let them down on 1. because I was trying to get 2. right. Last year I had several emails from students thanking me for the detailed feedback I gave them and saying it was the most useful learning experience they had at university. I was proud of that, but also wary of trying to do it for 38 students (in the past it has been about half that).

James waffling on to Simon about his project
James waffling on to Simon about his project

So, with this in mind, I used my webcam and as I looked at each assignment, I would make comments to it, pausing in-between as I read, downloaded, watched and listened. I made some 25 videos every Sunday for the past 6 or so week. That’s a lot of time reading websites and speaking to a webcam. Unfortunately these only covered 22 of the 38 students, and today I had to give in, and just fill in the usual feedback sheets with brief sentences, like they get in every other subject, because on Monday assignment 2 is due, and I will be in big trouble if I don’t submit their marks before then.

Not to mention being a crappy teacher for taking so long that even the ones who get the good feedback will not remember what it was about.

So what is to be done? Obviously I haven’t got the format right. For a start, it usually takes me 30+ minutes to read the work (we get paid to mark 3 assignments an hour, and at a much lower rate than lecturing and tutoring – seems to encourage not giving feedback and not reading student work properly, but I didn’t say that in public, right?). More if the students work hard, less if they don’t. Then there’s the feedback time, which should have been shorter with the video. And maybe it was.

But maybe the assignments need redesigning, and the feedback given in a more immediate way – for instance, if, on hand-in day, the tutorials were not as a group but as a 10-minute meeting between every student and the tutor, so the student shows and explains the work, and the tutor comments in real time and fills in a feedback/mark sheet there and then. If the tutor hasn’t understood anything, the student can explain it, and if the student hasn’t fulfilled the objective, or not as well as they would like, they can go away with a new task immediately.

10 minutes multiplied by 38 students = 380 minutes = over 6 hours of meetings. Without a break. So basically 2 weeks of timetabled tutorial time which would otherwise be used for valuable hands-on lab experience. That’s not an option, really.

It’s not a question I have an answer to. In fact, it’s a question that creates just more questions. I don’t know how many of you noticed, but Ken Robinson’s new TED talk was released yesterday. In it, he suggests that it’s not education reform we need, but an education revolution. The key to said education revolution he believes is to change from an industrial model (all children on the same path, taught the same way, to do the same things) to an agricultural model (each child given differentiated learning based on whatever will make them grow best).

Now in theory, I know very few teachers who would argue with this. I had a good giggle at Ken’s usual funny anecdotes, and nodded when he talked about differentiation, but since have been trying to work out how this could possibly happen. For a start, it brings up that role-of-the-teacher idea again, doesn’t it? Are we activators? Facilitators? Or still chalkers and talkers? What do we need to be?

But more than that, how can we fit it in? Those of us who are passionate enough to consider giving up 6 Sundays of our own time to try to give our students better feedback – even if we fail them in the process – how can we really give every child the personalised attention they need to do their best? How do the structures of education and each individual institution need to change to allow the teachers to do this?

I think the most valuable thing for me would be more time. We’re all very, very, very time poor. The institutions can change their structures to allow children of different age work together where their interests and ability are the same. The system can change to remove the treadmill of learning and develop plans for each and every child. But what the teachers need is the paperwork to be made as simple as possible and the time with the student to be given every priority. And where we don’t have it, perhaps the technology steps in. Maybe speaking to the webcam wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe I just need to learn to read faster.

3 responses to “The importance of feedback … and agricultural learning …”

  1. Hi James,

    It really does seem to be the scourge of teachers at all levels. I’m almost finished with my prac and can’t remember how many times I’ve heard teachers saying that the most stressful part of the job is the paperwork. I recently assisted a teacher in marking a class of year 10s and we found ourselves (despite taking notes at the time of the performances) scratching our heads, trying to conjure up the memories of the performances in order to give appropriate feedback. This was simply because we didn’t have the time to mark them until a few weeks after the performances. Sometimes you have to wonder what the point is if teachers aren’t allowed the time to provide accurate feedback.

    And though bashing UWS is the fashion du jour, I have to – to an extent. When teachers ask about what we learn at uni, the general reaction is one of shock and pity (which is not to disparage your contributions in the slightest). It isn’t even really too much about the content. It is simply the face to face hours that we have in lectures and tutorials. The amount we recieve currently is ridiculous. I’m studying 6 units, which is technically a full-time-and-a-half workload, and I’m in class, maybe, 10 hours a week? It just doesn’t add up.

    So as a tutor, and called upon to mark that many assignments, your task is nigh on impossible. It is testament to your professionalism that you attempt to do it in such a thorough way. If the students and tutors were afforded more face to face time together, the hideous backlog of marking could be negated to an extent. Assessments could be carried out in class. Feedback could be immediate. Students could have more one on one time with tutors, which in turn could allow the tutor to individualise pedagogies more effectively.

    Wishful thinking perhaps, though I don’t think simply having more time in class is that outlandish.


    Dan Shaw

    PS. I’m still waiting on other assignments from other tutors that I handed in before I handed in before the 1Y assignment, so you’re not alone…

  2. You have gone above and beyond what is expected of you and we are all very grateful for your efforts.

    Last week I saw how powerful a strong student/teacher relationship is. All but 2 out of 30ish students attended a year 10 class because an excursion was on and many were away. In one hour I had taught them way beyond what I was planning to teach in a lesson and also developed a great rapport with my students.

    These were kids that struggle immensely with attention and theory side of things, and they blitzed it! It was an amazing experience.

    If only every teacher had to teach a couple of kids at a time – we would be making huge progress…but alas

    Argh gotta go – 30 year 7’s are waiting!

  3. Thanks for your feedback, Dan and Nick, and your kind words. Made me feel better. Made me a little more worried about your education as well as our students education too.

    I’ve now emailed the feedback grids out and links to the videos where I’d made them. Your responses make me want to home school my own children!


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