Pick simple feedback method for online teaching

If you are going to teach online, whether you teach online occasionally or regularly, you need to plan to spend far less time presenting material and far more time getting student feedback. In the online classroom, you need to deliberately solicit student feedback multiple times during each day’s class. Even if you have technology that lets you see every student, it’s not easy to scan 29 photos to see who didn’t understand a word you said. It’s much better to have some way to get feedback in writing from each student during each class.

Identify two or three ways of getting feedback during class so you can experiment to find which work best with your students and your subject. Look for the simplest technology, not the sexiest. You want something that students can have open at the same time they have your instructional program open.

You could have students use something as simple as a text file in which they can respond to questions you pose during class. If you give students a standard way of slugging those files (last name and class date might work), you can pull all submissions from one student into a folder. Then, without spending a lot of time or effort, you can respond to each student individually on a regular basis. One personal response a week to each student may be all you need to keep students engaged.

Explanation and apology

Readers of this blog and/or my GreatPenformances blog may have encountered posts that are obviously incomplete. Since both blogs are hosted at WordPress.com, I suspect the blog host is experiencing problems. Unfortunately, I don’t have copies of every text document and graphic image, so in some cases there’s no way for me to repair the posts. I’m sorry if you’ve looked for items and found they weren’t all there.

©2021 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Feedback is only half of teaching writing

Until students write competently, most teacher feedback is usually more of a hindrance than a help. That’s not because the advice is bad, but because the writers are already drowning in advice that they aren’t yet capable of following. What keeps a student from writing better isn’t lack of information; it’s lack of practice.

Like beginning basketball players or beginning clarinet players, beginning writers know basically what to do, but they don’t know how to get their eyes, ears, muscles, and brain working together to make it happen. Giving feedback is no substitute for giving students adequate time to practice writing.

Students need both.

Ball player and musician each practicing .
The best advice is worthless without practice in applying it.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Feedback is central to online teaching

I’ve been teaching online courses for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve taken dozens of training programs about how to teach online. The one thing I can’t recall anyone ever talking about in one of those trainings is how much time giving feedback in an online classroom takes.

I’ve been fortunate (although I didn’t feel fortunate at the time) to teach 3-credit college writing classes in half the length of the same course in a physical classroom. I prepared with the knowledge that, in order to give students enough time to do a semester’s worth of writing, I had to eliminate more than half the material I typically presented in a semester.

As a general rule, you can’t see students in an online classroom, at least not well enough to tell whether they are getting what you’re presenting or not. I’ve been fortunate to teach primarily asynchronous classes in which instruction was delivered in writing, students learned at their convenience, and I delivered feedback in writing at my convenience. All that writing took time, but it didn’t feel pressured.

By contrast, a synchronous classroom requires you to “teach” less, dropping the presentation of non-essentials entirely, because unless you strip the curriculum to essentials you won’t have time to receive and give feedback as you deliver information orally. It is feedback that teaches, not presentations. Feedback makes learning personal. It also puts a lot of pressure on teachers.

Recently, I’ve participated in some training sessions for online teachers given by Russell Stannard of TeacherTrainingVideos.com. Russell is a marvelous teacher. He has great information, logically arranged, and well-presented. He also understands that presenting is really the smallest past of online teaching. During one training, Russell spent over an hour on material that participants probably have read in ten minutes if it had been written. He worked at getting feedback from participants and  delivering feedback to them so that everyone finished the session able to do what Russell said he was going to teach us to do..

If you are going to have to teach online in the future—and you probably need to be prepared to do just that—you must develop mechanisms for getting feedback so you aren’t teaching blind. And you must prepare to devote a great amount of time to getting and giving feedback. Just because you’re live on screen doesn’t make you an entertainer. Feedback is what distinguishes teachers from performers.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

How to give feedback on writing that says nothing

For me, giving feedback to a student who has something to say, no matter how bad the mechanics are, is much easier than giving feedback to a student who has nothing whatsoever to say but spells it correctly.

My strategy is to dodge the issue of providing feedback on the writing until I can determine why the student writes empty essays — which is my semi-polite term for writing that sounds like it was written by a moron having a really bad day.

In most cases, establishing a relationship with the student provides all the information I need to provide feedback on the student’s writing tactfully and supportively.

Empty essay example

Here’s a sample of the kind of shallow writing I mean:

There are a lot of places where I can go to be alone and relax. I personally like to go to my room. I like to listen to music to relax. I also like to go on my computer to be alone and relax. These are some places and some things I like to be to be alone and relax.

I mostly like to do to my room. I mostly like to do to my room because; in my room I can be alone and think quietly. I also like my room because it’s a place where I can always go to think about things. I also like going to my room because it’s one of the only places I feel most comfortable in. This is why I mostly like going to my room.

Another thing that I do is, listening to music. I like listening to music because certain music makes me feel good, and makes me feel like I’m relaxing in a way. I also like listening to music because of their lyrics. The lyrics relate to my everyday life, which in a way makes me remember some good memories.

Although this essay has some writing mechanics errors, they are relatively minor. The real problem is that author began writing before he/she had anything definite to say.

A glimpse of empty essay authors

Giving feedback to the authors of empty essays requires a gentle touch. Often the students who produce empty essays are timid and unsure of their abilities. They take refuge in safe ideas that they think cannot draw negative attention to themselves.

Empty essay writers may be students whose reading is so limited they don’t recognize a platitude when they pen it. They may actually think they invented a phrase they’ve heard but never seen in print.

Other times they are bright, savvy kids who have figured out how to milk the system, putting down words they know the teacher won’t bother to read past the second sentence.

And sometimes the students who write empty essays really are just plain dumb.

From a writing sample, you won’t be able to tell to which category the writer belongs. And it is possible that a student might fit into more than one category.

What empty essay writers need

A student who writes empty essays needs writing prompts that allow him to write about what he/she knows, preferably without saying to the student, “You’re a loser who knows nothing.”

The best way to provide students with writing prompts that allow them to use information they have is to have them write about class topics or on writing prompts that are related to topics discussed in class.

Once you start looking for ELA-related writing prompts, you will often find students have experience outside of class with issues centering on language, writing, reading, and media. Such topics allow students to merge their classroom learning and their outside experience, giving security to the timid and ideas to students with limited reading experience.

Besides authentic writing prompts, empty essay writers need strategies for planning and developing content. They often do not know how to go about getting started writing something that’s meaningful.

In my experience, most students who write empty essays are delighted to be given templates and strategies that allow them to do real writing providing those templates and strategies are not a great deal more work than they are used to.

Giving feedback to an empty essayist

You need to be careful giving feedback before you have a chance to sound out the empty essay writer. A thoughtless comment could hurt a student emotionally and quench any willingness he or she might have had to stay in school.

Giving feedback in ways that won’t damage a genuinely timid student’s ego is a challenge, but it’s a small challenge compared to responding to a student who has been getting A’s based on her (it’s almost always a female) legible handwriting and good spelling and has no clue she is churning out garbage.

As you are giving feedback on the early papers you are using to establish baseline performance, I suggest you keep your written content comments to a minimum. Write just enough to show that you are attentively reading the material.

You can, however, ask questions that indicate indirectly the type of content you’d like to see.

For example, instead of noting that the student wrote the same idea in three different sentences, the second time it appears you might write in the margin, “Could you give me a specific example?”

Have a conference with the student

A private conference is usually the best way to get a sense of why students are writing drivel. My initial conference with any student is not so much to discuss the student’s writing, as to find out how to support that student’s attempts to write better.

When the student writes empty essays, at the initial conference I try to get a sense of why a student writes drivel and whether the student realizes the essays are awful.

You can often get useful information by asking open ended questions such as:

Would you share with me how you go about writing an essay like this?
What do you think is the most important thing for a writer to be able to do well?

It could be that your student has the impression that grammar is the most important part of writing and content is just the platter it’s served on.

Or perhaps your student is doing what worked in Ms. Inky Finger’s class but would rather do something more interesting.

Disagree if you must, but don’t criticize.

Confer, don’t confront. Even if you think you’ve psyched the kid out just by watching her in class for two weeks, let her tell you about her writing experience.

And listen — really listen — when she tells you.

Rather than criticize the student’s work or the methods of other teachers, I prefer to say things such as, “I know that works for many people, but I’ve never had good luck with it,” or “Most of my students find there’s another way that’s less trouble and seems to work just as well.”

Share your plan to help the student succeed

I usually end a conference by giving students some information about what I plan to do to support them in their writing. Usually I phrase that information in terms of psychological factors.

The kids trying to milk the system are usually risk takers. I tell them I’m going to give them some work that will challenge them.

If the student is timid, I stress that I’m going to give structure and strategies for writing so that they can be confident that they haven’t overlooked something important.

The dumb kid and the kid who doesn’t read get that same message. Timid kids, non-readers, and dumb kids find just getting to school is challenge enough. They each need assurance somebody is going to help them out once they arrive.

Having a personal conference with a student is a good way to connect with students so you see them as individuals, not just as essays to be graded. Then, when you are giving feedback, you are more likely to phrase negative comments in ways that are respectful and supportive rather than disrespectful and discouraging.

This content was first posted at you-can-teach-writing.com on 2008-02-06 and updated 2011-12-28 by Linda Aragoni.

Writers need rapid feedback from writing

controller in hands of gamerThe kid who hates to write may also be the kid who is enthralled by video games. The games are probably more complicated than writing, but they appeal to kids because, among other things, they give rapid feedback.

Anyone attempting to learn a skill wants immediate feedback. Would you learn to knit if you had to wait until the end of the grading period to know if you were correctly applying the directions for knit and purl? I don’t think so.

The strategies writing teachers teach their least experienced writers should provide feedback apart from any feedback the teachers provide. That maxim is particularly important in what English teachers with self-destructive tendencies call the “pre-writing stage,” practically guaranteeing that students will skip planning entirely.

For planning strategies to be effective for struggling students, the strategies must have a quick pay off. Struggling writers cannot wait three days or a week to learn whether their plan worked. They need to know NOW.

The popular writers’ workshop strategy that has students write and rewrite to find their thesis does not give positive reinforcement soon enough to be effective with struggling writers or with writers who have learning difficulties.

If the first sentence Josh writes is a sensible working thesis sentence, that initial success makes it more likely that he will go on to prepare a three-sentence ¹writing skeleton™.  Applying writing skeleton™ strategy reinforces Josh’s writing effort and makes it likely he will attempt another step in nonfiction process process.

How do you build feedback into the writing strategies you teach your beginning and struggling students?

¹ A writing skeleton™ is a list of main points of a piece of writing, each point formed by the working thesis statement plus the word because and a reason for believing the working thesis to be true. Such a skeleton keeps novice nonfiction writers from losing sight of their main point: As they plan they actually make their thesis statement part of their body paragraph topic sentences.

When Learning Gets the Silent Treatment

Last week, a teacher I know slightly asked me what I’ve been up to. I said I’d just taken a wonderful course in Data-Driven Journalism that had opened my eyes to all all sorts of new (to-me) ideas and tools. I said the course was so exciting I wanted to take learn more on the topic.

The teacher said nothing.

Not one word.

Absolute silence.

I don’t think I could have been more shocked or more hurt if the teacher had kicked me. Her silence felt like a total rejection of the value of my learning, my values, and me.

If that’s a sample of how that teacher responds to students who are learning interesting things outside her classroom, I’m awfully glad I’m not her student.

Confidence and illusion in education

An excerpt from Daniel Kahneman’s forthcoming book Thinking, Fast and Slow was published today in the New York Times Magazine under the title “Don’t Blink! The Hazards of Confidence.” The article has applications to the current discussion about education.

Daniel Kahneman, emeritus professor of psychology and of public affairs at Princeton University and a winner of the 2002 Noble Prize in Economics, tells about his personal experience evaluating the leadership potential of candidates for army officer training.

The evaluators’ rigorous methods consistently failed to select candidates that the commanders at the training school viewed as officer material. Despite that regular negative feedback, Kahneman and his colleagues continued to hold confidently to a belief in the validity of their predictions.

He says their error in attempting to predict behavior from a short artificial situation is a common fallacy into which people slide when faced with a difficult situation. “We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is,” Kahneman says.

That’s why people who are gung-ho about using tests to predict students’ future behavior in totally different real life situations are willing to believe in the validity of those tests even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Before the anti-test folks start to crow, they might want to read the final paragraph of the piece. In it Kahneman talks about factors that lead to development of what we might call “gut-feeling expertise”: the ability to accurately intuit a judgment. That ability, Kahneman says, is developed from “prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.”

Two factors figure into such experience, he says.  First the environment needs to be regular so the observations are not merely anecdotal. Second is “the professionals’ experience and on the quality and speed with which they discover their mistakes.”

Those two factors suggest reasons the confidently expressed observations of the educator can be as flawed as the scores of the standardized test. Classrooms are not noted for their regularity, and mistakes made by teachers may not show up for years, perhaps decades.

In general, Kahneman says:

you should not take assertive and confident people at their own evaluation unless you have independent reason to believe that they know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this advice is difficult to follow: overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

Teaching writing without worksheets

Overwhelmed by all the material on teaching writing at You-Can-Teach-Writing.com, a man who described himself as “just a dad, concerned for his 8th grade son” asked me how to entice his son to start writing.

“Do you have simple worksheets from 1-10 (A to Z) that he can start, practice, and systematically go through to comprehend your writing topics?” he asked.

His question is one I get regularly in one form or another and not just from parents. Even those of us who teach writing have days when a simple worksheet sounds awfully appealing. But writing is not a task that can be learned from worksheets.

Writing is a complex skill like playing trombone or driving a car or swimming. You don’t expect a trombonist to develop skill and enthusiasm for music by doing worksheets about correct lip placement, do you?

Of course not.

Can you learn to drive by practicing turning the ignition key until you do it really well?

Of course not.

Can you teach swimming without getting in the water with students?

Of course not.

People learn complex skills by doing an entire process repeatedly and getting feedback as they go through the process. The feedback is not just some observer saying “good job” or “you better try that again.” Feedback is built-in to the task.

If the clarinet squeaks, that’s feedback.

If batter misses the ball, that’s feedback.

If the writer cannot add an assertion to a topic to create a sentence, that’s feedback.

Writing is not just about memorizing strategies or recalling processes, although strategies and processes are part of a writer’s toolkit. Writing is also about developing a feel for writing, an intuitive sense of what’s likely to work well. Those feelings and intuitions are learned from the feedback that occurs in the process of writing.

If my correspondent wants his son to learn to write, he will have to get him into the writing process, just as he would get him behind the wheel to learn to drive.

Photo credit: A Driver by Cylonka