Tag Archives: pedagogy

“Feedback is what happens second” Part I

Gearing up for spring semester begins late in fall semester for me. That’s a practical matter–if I waited until the fall semester was over to gear up for spring, I’d be behind schedule immediately. It’s more than a practical matter, though. There comes a time in every semester, the deepest, darkest time (which in fall corresponds with shorter days and longer nights) of a semester, when it’s easier to see what’s not working rather than what is working.

One of my ongoing goals as a teacher is to return student work faster. I struggle with it for a number of reasons:

  • I don’t like delivering bad news. I absolutely love sitting down with students and providing feedback on drafts and revisions, but at that point, the possibilities for success are still wide open. With a final draft, some doors are shut. I’ve wondered if switching to a portfolio system would help me here because of how much I enjoy giving feedback early in the process.
  • I’m a master procrastinator when faced with unpleasant tasks.
  • There isn’t a clear deadline for when student work has to be returned except in terms of when they need to turn in the next assignment, or at the very end of the semester. This is one reason I think a portfolio system might work better–I’d be grading final drafts at the end of the semester when the deadlines are very firm and real.

I’m not saying these are GOOD reasons, but they’re reasons I’ve discovered.  I just realized earlier this month that I’m always slower about returning student work in spring semester & one reason for that is probably because I tend to have more problems with anxiety and depression in the spring (ironic, because I love light and love when the days begin to grow longer). I discovered it because I keep track of when student work comes in and when I return it (I call it TIR for turned-in-returned rate) on a spreadsheet & I have numbers going back several years. The good news is that overall, I’m doing much better than I used to. The bad news is that my numbers have gotten ugly the last couple of spring semesters….

Anyway, I’ve decided that I’m going to try something I’ve never tried in relation to solving this problem. (Other things I continue to do: keeping track, rewarding myself if I meet my goals at different points in the semester, reporting to someone on how I’m doing–which is what I was doing earlier this month when I discovered the WORSE IN SPRING PATTERN.  I was putting my numbers in my yearly activity report.)

I’m problematizing the problem. I’m going to do research first, on feedback, and see what the research says.  That’s where I am right now, and at least at the moment, my plan is to report on the research at different points in the semester.

I know it’s important–feedback is the thing that an instructor can do in a real class that an instructor can’t do in a MOOC, and however good AI gets, it still seems to me we’re a long way away from computers being able to give good feedback to writers on much beyond sentence complexity, vocabulary, spelling, and some grammar. Feedback is what makes instructors invaluable.

The first article I’m tackling is called “The Power of Feedback” and it’s by John Hattie and Helen Temperly at the University of Auckland.

One of the first quotes that struck me in the article was this one, “Feedback has no effect in a vacuum; to be powerful in its effect, there must be a learning context to which feedback is addressed.”  That’s why they say “feedback is what happens second.”  Instruction has to happen first.  When I read this quote I thought immediately of my discomfort when a student in creative writing asks me for feedback on something they wrote before the class.  I tell them it feels weird because I don’t know what they were trying for, whereas if they wrote in response to an assignment, I know what they were supposed to be trying to do.

I appreciate Hattie & Temperley’s article for their definitions & clarifications, among other things.  Here’s one:  “The claim is made that the main purpose of feedback is to reduce discrepancies between current understandings and performance and a goal. ” To me this emphasizes the importance of backward design–if my students and I don’t know what our goals are, I just don’t stand a chance of providing effective feedback.

These three questions seem so crucial: “Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)”

I particularly appreciate the emphasis on the role students play in the feedback process. Here’s the good news:  it’s not a passive role. Here are some things students can do. They can

  • “increase their effort, particularly when the effort leads to tackling more challenging tasks or appreciating higher quality experiences rather than just doing ‘more.'”
  • “develop effective error detection skills, which lead to their own self-feedback aimed at reaching a goal.”
  • “seek better strategies to complete the task or be taught them, or they can obtain more information.”

So I dived into this article hoping for motivation for returning student work faster, and it does address that several pages in, and I’ll get to that as I post on the topic, but for now, it’s met a goal I didn’t even realize I had–get me pumped up about a new semester.

What can I do with this enthusiasm? Lots.  “Teachers can also assist by clarifying goals, enhancing commitment or increased effort to reaching them through feedback….More generally, teachers can create a learning environment in which students develop self-regulation and error detection skills.”

I need to model self-assessment and self-regulation by setting goals, monitoring them, and then making adjustments (all processes discussed in the article, but also widely discussed any time metacognition comes up).

So my goal for returning student work in terms of promptness is this.  By the end of Week 5, I want my overall average to be below 7 days, and the average for longer assignments to be below 10 days, but I want the standard deviation to be 2.0 or lower–this past fall my averages met those goals, but the standard deviation was too high (I was still keeping some longer assignments wayyyyyyy too long).

a little poem I wrote with big feelings

a little poem I wrote with big feelings

Beyond that, I’m setting some goals on the quality of feedback. I want to set the questions and good points from “The Power of Feedback” in front of myself as I start to communicate with students about their work, which I’m less than a week away from (classes start on Monday and the first assignments come in next Friday–sooner, since some students will want me to look at rough drafts, more than likely).

My plan is to report on my turned-in-returned rate after Week 5, or sooner, and I’ll also write more about this article & others I’ve found and will find.

Meanwhile–it’s back to finishing up syllabi & schedules for next week!

 

Pedagogy Stew: August 2013

I’m headed to my 30th high school reunion this month, which causes me to reflect on many things, including my overwhelming urge to find a copy of The Preppy Handbook (pretty sure there were no Southern Illinois locations mentioned in it, also pretty sure I didn’t catch that it was satire when I got it for Christmas, circa 1981, along with some knock-off Topsiders and a belt with little ducks on it).

I was ranked 5th out of a graduating class of about 400. I remember that because I’d been tied for first until my junior year, when I flaked out and could muster only a B in Advanced Algebra/Trig, the same in Chemistry. This coincided with the onset of that whole “imagine this graph/molecule in 3-D inside your head,” which I pretty much totally sucked at.

But overall, those pretty-good-but-not-excellent marks were just further manifestation of my lifelong urge to avoid certain sorts of difficulty.  I’m drawn to some challenges, primarily those of my own devising. Stepping off the valedictorian track involved a rejection of mastering the challenges of classes someone else chose for me. I refused to take calculus my senior year, and as I remember it, my Dad called the man who would’ve taught it (who had taught algebra to my Dad at a local community college) and they grieved together.

I can’t help wondering what kind of challenge students anticipate when they sign up for a MOOC.

MOOC is short for Massively Open Online Course, and they’re all the rage in higher education. They are available online, usually for free, from some terrific universities and professors.

The good part is having free access to lectures, assignments, and tests from some superstar professors.

The bad part is, typically, having zero access to that professor, or to feedback that isn’t automated.

The good part is how easy it is to sign up and participate.

The bad part is the incredibly high dropout rate.

The good part is that a highly motivated student can learn a lot, for free.

The bad part is that a student who is motivated to avoid the challenge of sitting in a traditional college classroom, or taking what now seems like a “traditional” online college course…this student may not be up for the challenge of learning in a less structured, less obligation-driven environment.

In general, as a college student, I’d have crashed and burned in a MOOC, especially if I were taking it to speed through requirements I didn’t see the point of.

But what if taking a MOOC were my own idea? And not required?

It might be like my sophomore English class, at that point. I insisted on doing my book reports on the silliest books—a biography of Colonel Sanders and one I still remember the title of, Sherlock Bones—Pet Detective.  But I was reading Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis and Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ on my own. A challenge of my own devising.

(This column appeared originally in Voice of the River Valley.)

Pedagogy Stew: July 2013

As I write this, my husband and son are in the living room, reading Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.  We’ve spent a lot of 2013 so far reading those books, just plowing through them.  (I almost said “burning through them,” but that sounds bad.) With summer here, the pace has increased, well, apace.

In one way, I’m jealous of my son. Remember how long we had to wait between each book? But in another way, I’m sad for him. How amazing it must have been to be a child when the first one came out, and then grow up with Harry, with a book coming along every year or so, just when you thought you couldn’t possibly wait any longer.

On the third hand, wow do I love to binge through TV and book series.

Late May and June were Maisie Dobbs weeks for me this year. I read all ten of Jacqueline Winspear’s mysteries featuring the “psychologist and investigator,” quickly, not exactly in order, but saving the 10th for last.

Leaving Everything Most Loved is in some ways a summary of the previous novels, mentioning their plots and characters, and serving as something of a “final accounting” for the whole series (though it doesn’t seem to be final—I’ve scoured the interwebs, and there’s no word of this being “THE LAST Maisie Dobbs novel.” Whew).

What is a “final accounting?”   Winspear defines it as what Maisie does as she makes “the essential visits to places and people encountered,” and calls it “a task that brought work on a particular investigation to a more settled close.” It’s more nuanced than our clichéd use of “closure.” When Maisie has wrapped up each case, she prepares a report for whomever hired her and then returns to locations crucial to solving whatever mystery there was.

It’s easy enough to end a semester as a professor by turning in grades, cleaning up my office, making a to do list for the summer, and no more.

But I’ve long tried to spend some time reflecting—what went well? Not so well? Why? And what can I do differently? I keep track of how promptly (or molasses-slowly) I return student work in an Excel spreadsheet, and I give students grading feedback on Excel, so I can run reports that way, too. Looking at the data for multiple years if sometimes almost a revelation.

This time, in addition to all the reflecting I typically do, I think I will visit each classroom I taught in, and my son’s classroom, where I volunteered, and see, like Maisie Dobbs, what each room has to say to me.

It also can’t hurt to think of all my semesters as mysteries, most of them solved (a few cold cases, I have to admit, still lingering).

What about you? What season has just ended for you? What case have you just solved? How will you do your final accounting?

(This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)

Pedagogy Stew: June 2013

June’s a hot month for ceremonies—weddings and graduations all over the place.

I’m not so big on ceremonies.

When I got married, I eloped. I did attend my high school graduation and baccalaureate programs (skipping would never have occurred to me at the time), but I was thrilled to miss my own Bachelor’s Degree commencement at Southern Illinois University. My Mom was graduating the same day, and it would have taken major logistics to get to both ceremonies, so I said, “Let’s just all go to Mom’s!” We took a picture of me in her mortarboard.  Then for my M.A., and M.F.A., I just didn’t go.

But I tend to enjoy graduation at UW-Richland.

First, I like looking at the UW-Richland faculty and staff on graduation night, in all our robes and signifiers. “We clean up good,” as my Uncle Earle would have said. Also, we look just the tiniest bit like Hogwarts teachers on that night. (I call dibs on McGonagall.)

And then there is always at least one student who crosses the stage that makes the whole ceremony worthwhile.

After the 2012 ceremony, I asked one of our first-year students, Darryl, to do a pinky-swear with me that he’d be crossing the stage in 2013. 

I learned about pinky-swears from my son. They seem to be a mix of “let’s shake on it” and “cross my heart and hope to die.”  You hook pinky fingers and promise, and for my son, it’s nearly sacred. If he does one, I know he’s serious. This Bible verse comes to mind (from my favorite book of the Bible):  Ecclesiastes 5:5 “It is better not to make a vow, than to make one and not fulfill it.”

Darryl seemed to have the same attitude. He wouldn’t do a pinky swear with me last year.

But he did cross the stage this spring. You’d have noticed him if you’d been there (or if you stumbled across the video on cable access television). He’s hard to miss—tall, long dreadlocks, LARGE personality. I was so happy for him, personally, but even happier for other students following him. He is a leader, and more students will follow him, students who might not follow anyone else.

In last month’s “Pedagogy Stew,” I talked about how important it is for students to be able to tell their own stories to themselves. If they feel in control of their own narrative, they are more likely to tell stories about overcoming obstacles, rather than giving in.

There’s so much we don’t know when we look at a student. We don’t know where they are in their narrative arc. We don’t know what story they’re telling to themselves about the present moment, and whether “graduation” or “grade in this class” or “using spell check” shows up in the story at all.

I hope “education” is part of how their stories end happily. Or how their stories begin well. I promise I’ll keep working to make that happen. Pinky-swear.

 (This column originally appeared in Voice of the River Valley.)

 

 

 

Pedagogy Stew: May 2013

When I teach plot in a literature or creative writing class, Freytag’s triangle is usually part of the lesson. (Picture a scalene triangle, with a long slope upward
on the left, and a shorter slope coming down on the right.) Good old Gustav came up with his triangle in the 19th century as a way of describing the structure of Shakespeare and Greek tragedies, and as it’s taught now, it’s typically labeled with terms like “rising action,” “climax” and “denouement.” (The last always gives me pause, since, as a Southern Illinois native, I grew up hearing Beaucoup Creek pronounced “buck up.”)

Asked to teach a unit on storytelling to each of the four classes at the River Valley Elementary
Studio School, I wanted a way to translate this triangle for younger students. Here’s what I came up with:

Hello.
Uh-oh.
Oh no!
Now we know.

I’m pleased to say the teachers at the Studio School have found this useful as they’ve continued to work on storytelling. Students will be writing and performing plays to demonstrate what they’ve
learned about the Oregon Trail.

When I told some of my UW-Richland students about my translation, a couple of them said, “Hey! How come you never explained it to us like that?” I will, henceforth.

We do need students to be able to tell stories well. Not just to demonstrate what they’ve learned. Not just to sharpen their analytical skills. Not just to make sure they transfer smoothly into upper-level creative writing courses and move one step closer to publication. All those things are important, of course, but what seems most important to me is that we want them to be able to tell their own stories, to themselves.

We want them, as Brené Brown says, to own their own stories. “If you own the story you get to write the ending,” she says in Daring Greatly. As UW-Richland’s psych professor, Dennis Carpenter, explained to me, the technical term for this is “cognitive appraisal.” Our reaction to what happens depends a great deal on the story we tell ourselves about the event. When students own their stories, they’ll be able to decide whether a week of insults was the uh-oh leading to full-scale bullying, or the oh no! in which they put a stop to the insults. Students will be able to decide if a few weeks of falling behind in assignments meant they needed to buckle down and finish strong, or admit that the story of a particular class ended with dropping.

I go back again and again to the end of Robert Penn Warren’s book-length poem Audubon:

“In this century, and moment,
of mania, / Tell me a story.”

We all need to do that, right? We have a lot of different stories (and, gasp! that triangle doesn’t always work for the telling), but I know what kind of story I need the most right now. It’s the very last line of Audubon:

“Tell me a story of deep delight.”

Pedagogy Stew: April 2013

Objects in Motion

I’m so glad dance is part of my son’s education.
Sometimes, sure, an object at rest remains at rest,
But tonight an object in motion continued in motion—

A whole school of molecules kept dancing,
From slow solid to wavy liquid to hyper gas.
I’m so glad dance is part of my son’s education,

unlike mine. When I dance I’m like a squirrel on the ocean.
My grade school almost never danced—toomany Baptists.
Just like the law that keeps all those objects in motion,

he’ll continue to feel what he’s learned, not just emotion—
it’s embodied learning at its cellular best.
I’m so glad dance is part of my son’s education,

not just text and audio, not just construction
paper, more than dioramas, more than tests.
The law says an object in motion continues in motion,

and here’s proof. Still dancing, past bedtime, way past.
Those filthy feet look like a month of dirt amassed.
I’m so glad dance is part of my son’s education.
An object in motion continues in motion.

At least every quarter, the River Valley Elementary Studio Schoolin Spring Green has what is called a “culminating event,” where students display what they’ve learned in the previous unit. We’ve seen art galleries, tableaux, singing and now dance. Students worked with local professional dancers, along with their regular teachers, to choreograph the states of matter and the laws of motion, and at the end of February, we got to see them dance to “Solid Liquid Gas” by the band They Might Be Giants (as well as more classical works).It’s not just what you learn—it’s how you learn it, where you learn it, and how you demonstrate it. All of it matters.

Or, as one of my former students said recently, “You don’t break with your arms. You break with your butt.” He had just executed the most authoritative break I have ever seen. The pool table in the UW-Richland student center always has a mix of some of our most and least diligent students. This particular student has not had the most straightforward path through our traditionally-takes-two-years Associates Degree, but he has some solid momentum going now. It has been interesting, and encouraging, to watch him at rest, in motion, and exerting force—not necessarily in that order.

There are so many ways, and so many places, to learn the laws of motion.

Pedagogy Stew: March 2013

I’ve invented the most amazing computer game for my
composition students.

When I comment on their essays, which they’ve turned in online, I use “insert comment” to give feedback. There are pros and cons to this, of course, but one major PRO is that I’m now confident students can read my feedback. (I have handwriting issues. Lowest grade I ever got in my life? Penmanship. Fourth grade. At the time, I was sure Mrs. Cox had it in for me, but on reflection, I
think, no, that “C” was generous.)

Here’s the game: After I’ve finished grading the essays, their next assignment is a short exercise in which they should copy/paste one of the comments I’ve made, and then describe what
resource they looked to for help (online grammar site? our textbook? class notes?) and what
they plan to do to improve before the next essay.

All right, so…not so hot as a game.

It is, however, a fairly good test of their ability to navigate the online environment of digital essays and professorial feedback. Fairly often I have a non-traditional student who struggles online. (Drop-down list? Double-click? What’s that?) It’s not just non-traditional students. We think of Millennials (those born between 1980 and 2000) as being 100 percent wired, but I don’t
find them to be 100 percent proficient in computer usage that helps in the classroom. They can text,but word processing? Maybe not. They all use Google, but they may struggle when online research involves a database that uses Boolean logic or traditional Library of Congress Subject headings.

This round of essays, in each final draft, I am burying a link to an article in Nature
on the subject of “distributed thinking.” In “People Power: Networks of Human Minds Are Taking Citizen Science to a New Level,” Eric Hand describes how a group of scientists came up with Foldit, an online game in which “players compete, collaborate, develop strategies, accumulate game points and move to different playing levels, all while folding proteins.”
Computer models were thorough but slow—when gamers got involved, things went faster because, as Hand points out, “humans[are] blessed with a highly evolved talent for spatial manipulation, [and] can often see the solution intuitively.”

Beyond gamification (which means structuring learning, or anything else, like a game, with rewards—like giving chocolate for correct answers), what distributed thinking makes possible is
turning those skills our students use in gaming (and, um, some of us might possibly, occasionally, use in something girly and ridiculous like “Candy Crush,” a game that reports results on Facebook) into skills that could help solve real-world problems.

It isn’t just that I would like students to bring some of that persistence to their academic tasks. I would. But I would also love to figure out how to translate challenges (inside and outside academia) into the LANGUAGE and CULTURE of gaming, ina deep and serious way. Maybe then, when my son grows up, all his app-addled gaming hours will be a real asset.
______
6/15/13 NOTE: I ended up putting the link to the Nature article inside some Extra Credit directions–three students were very excited to find it. Next semester, I’ll think of more ways to make their hunting & clicking more rewarding.

I was talking about this to a student as we were searching EbscoHost (and online service with multiple databases to find articles) for sources for one of his papers, and told him I wished someone could structure searches like this as a game. He got it instantly: “Well, sure, like EbscoHost is a hallway, and….”

I can’t wait for the iOS version!