by Johann Koehler, Legal Studies (Home Department: Jurisprudence & Social Policy)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
Writing rarely improves without feedback. But even the most carefully prepared feedback, if offered a certain way, may remain unheeded. Take, for example, a common course structure: students endeavor to produce a long, meticulously and elegantly composed research paper upon concluding the semester, which instructors then devote considerable effort to critiquing. The idea is that students will reflect upon the instructor’s comments and this will improve their writing in the future.
Unfortunately, after some time doing things this way, I was dissatisfied with the results. Students I had taught in previous semesters consistently committed the same errors, ranging from the basic to the complex. Evidently, the feedback process I had been using was imperfect. I vividly recalled my own time as an undergraduate, when I would retrieve the comments to my end-of-semester paper. I would promptly deposit the manuscript, laboriously prepared comments and all, in some soon-to-be-forgotten folder upon inspecting the grade. If feedback is going to be integrated as an essential component of the writing process, rather than merely as a congratulatory reward upon completing an essay, then instructors ought to re-consider how we typically provide it and monitor progress. Indeed, the lack of opportunity and incentive to incorporate feedback into future writing efforts may frustrate improvement, so that we counter-intuitively end up in the position that more effort results in less learning. The ambition and effort poured into a large end of semester paper could be channeled in such a way that the same effort, arranged differently and divided over multiple papers, can result in achieving more learning with less effort. To meet this need, I devised an approach that I call the Feedback Loop.
At the start of the semester, I informed students that they were scheduled to submit a short paper to me every two weeks. Upon receipt, I graded papers and provided detailed feedback, and I’d return them to students within a week. They then had to consider and incorporate the feedback I provided into the next paper that was due to me seven days thereafter. There was no reprieve during the weeks they had a mid-term or when they took their final exam. The speed was break-neck and the intensity formidable (for both the students and me), so I assigned a simple check, check-plus, or check-minus, to mitigate the students’ preoccupation with the grade and re-direct their focus to the feedback. I made it clear, however, that they were being graded not only on the typical criteria (composition, clarity, analysis, etc.), but also on improvement. If a student committed an error that resembled one I had flagged up to them in a previous submission, I made it known that this had resulted in their reduced grade. They were thus held accountable for incorporating feedback in a bi-weekly loop of student-submission–instructor-response.
The results from the mid-semester evaluations I distributed to students were shocking. I had anticipated resentment and despair, but students were almost uniformly grateful for both the attention and the noticeable improvement in their writing. The sense of their own improvement was justified: by the end of the semester, students were tackling more ambitious arguments, and they were doing so with precision, argumentative force, and elegance that had been absent when the semester began. There was also a happy surprise. I originally devised the method with the intention of benefitting the students. But I had entirely overlooked the possibility that the quality of my feedback, too, would improve with students’ commentary. The fact that the Feedback Loop had created an assessment dialog between instructor and student enabled them to tell me what they needed from me to help provide tips to refine their writing. The consequence was that the semester concluded with my having acquired a personalized vocabulary, for each of my students, with which to communicate according to their individual styles and to meet their individual learning needs.