Alex Warren

Voices from the Field: Giving Feedback

In this new monthly blog, National Geographic Learning’s in-house teacher trainer Alex Warren explores what’s going on in the world of ELT in his work around the region.

With schools and universities going back to business and new adoption cycles at private language schools, it’s fair to say that September has been a busy month for trainers all over the world, myself included. Abu Dhabi, Cyprus, Holland, Malta, various UK cities, and webinars to Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Turkey. I even filmed a classroom lesson using National Geographic Learning’s latest learning program, the Learn English with TED Talks mobile learning app So, yes, a busy month!

But this is what it’s all about – getting to meet teachers and students where they are busy, learning what challenges, issues, and concerns they’re facing in the classroom. And yes, learning from them. It was especially interesting being in Cyprus this month and talking to some teachers about the pressures they face in a changing teaching environment. I was there to do some workshops on how to provide effective feedback on written work and, while my ideas were welcomed, the same issue came up – the time.

“How can we mark over 25 pieces of written homework per class in so much detail?”

“This is all great, but when are we supposed to it? We have no time. We already have so many out-of-class duties and responsibilities.”

But this is nothing new, teachers have been dealing with this issue the world over, from Cyprus to China and from Argentina to Abu Dhabi, since the dawn of education. On top of course planning, lesson planning, departmental meeting, giving students feedback is one more responsibility of a  teacher. Personally, I would argue that giving effective feedback on written work is as important as the other out-of-class teaching responsibilities. As educational researcher Professor John Hattie noted in his 2009 publication, Visible Learning, “Research shows that feedback has double the impact that regular teaching strategies have on student achievement.” DOUBLE the impact. That’s huge! In other words, we really need to make sure that we make marking matter. Simply giving a few ticks here and there, along with a final score really doesn’t cut it. How is that ever going to help students improve?

Teaching is not just what we do in the classroom, it’s how we help our students outside the classroom.  And that is what feedback is all about. As the Australian Society of Evidence-Based Teaching points out, “In all aspects of life, feedback is the breakfast of champions. It lets you know how you are going while also telling you how you can improve.” Therefore, effective feedback – feedback that is understandable, specific, balanced, forward-looking, contextualized, understandable personal and timely – is clearly vital for the success of our students, just as much as a well-planned lesson is. They need to know what they did well, as well as what they need to improve on and how to do so. As such, I would suggest that teachers need to give as much time to it as we possibly can.

I’d also suggest that we need to make feedback as transparent as possible. What does 19/20 or 12/20 actually mean? What criteria is that marked on? Giving student access to marking criteria is one way of providing this transparency, as well as providing teachers with the foundation on which to base their feedback. In turn, it can help students become more responsible for their own learning, and to develop their own autonomy,  as they become better at assessing their own written work.

Delayed Marking Approach

Giving detailed feedback can also help them become less fixated on ‘the score’.   How can we get students to read the feedback? Something I do is use a delayed marking approach, whereby I leave feedback on the written work, but without a score. This encourages students to actually read the feedback, digest it, and hopefully apply it to their writing. In any case, if the feedback is detailed enough, students should get a good idea of what their mark actually is, before giving them the grade or score in the next lesson or later in the week.

Reflection Box

Another technique that I’ve used to do this is called a reflection box. This is simply a box underneath my own feedback in which students respond to the feedback that has been given to them. Apart from forcing them to read the feedback, it helps promote ownership of their own learning and motivates them to continue to improve.

Giving meaningful feedback is about being as good a teacher as we can be, in the same way we want to help our students be the best they can be. And giving effective feedback, no matter your teaching context, helps students close the gap between where they are now and where they could be. So, I urge you to create time to make marking meaningful. You won’t regret it.

Author: Alex Warren

Alex Warren is a DELTA trained teacher trainer with over 14 years’ experience of working in ELT as a teacher, academic director and teacher trainer. Working for National Geographic Learning, Alex is driven by his passion for developing teachers on a global scale and helping them to reach their true potential. A firm believer in a communicative approach to language learning and student centred learning, Alex enjoys working with innovative, thought-provoking materials and presenting on a wide range of ELT-related topics.

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