Managing timely feedback and marking

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Most teachers would agree that marking assignments and giving students feedback are crucial aspects of educational practice that contribute significantly to student learning. However, most teachers would also agree that marking and giving feedback are among the most exhausting and time-consuming tasks we do in our work. In this article, I reflect on the changes I implemented to improve my own practice in terms of managing a large marking load and giving timely feedback to students. In doing so, I will draw on examples from EDSE2003: Literacy and Diversity, a core unit for pre-service secondary teachers at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work (SSESW).

I coordinate EDSE2003 in Semester 1 each year, which usually has approximately 130 enrolments. Most years I am the sole staff member involved in the delivery of this unit. I carry out all coordination duties, plan and deliver the weekly lecture and all 14 hours of tutorials, and am responsible for the entirety of the marking of student assignments. EDSE2003 has two assignments of 1,500 and 3,000 words each. I mark these assignments on my own, which equates to roughly 195,000 words in the first assignment and 390,000 words in the second assignments – but who’s counting? In addition to the 15 hours I teach on EDSE2003 each week, I also teach four hours on a separate unit and I coordinate a third unit. Needless to say, it is a busy semester for me.

After some critical reflection on my workload and pedagogical practices, I abandoned the idea that feedback is most important around the time of marking. Feedback on assignments is important, but is not necessarily the most important feedback we give to our students. After all, the most powerful feedback helps students learn, and as an educator I want most of that learning to take place before they do their assignments, rather than after.

After all, the most powerful feedback helps students learn, and as an educator I want most of that learning to take place before they do their assignments, rather than after.

Therefore, most of the feedback I give students take place in tutorials. It is not feedback on the assignments themselves, but formative feedback based on students’ learning. For example, a lot of time in my tutorials is spent on critical thinking and collegial discussions about key concepts. Students have ideas they bring to the table and we then engage in in-depth, critical conversations about these ideas where we seek to evolve them and push them further. No idea is too small or insignificant. This approach to feedback has been a huge success, as evident in USS comments over a number of semesters. One student summed it up saying that “In tutorials Janica gave us great feedback on even the smallest of tasks and was always there along the way to ensure we all knew what we were doing”. As an added bonus, this approach to feedback raised student responses to USS Q6 (I have been guided by helpful feedback on my learning) from 3.94 in 2016, to 4.79 in 2019.

Of course, I still give feedback on assignments as well. However, to allow for timely feedback to 130 students, I usually only give 2-3 comments per submission. Indeed, I argue that too much feedback can be counterproductive and overwhelming for students. Furthermore, I also discovered quickly that more general and overall feedback comments were rarely appreciated by my students. So instead of lengthy or overall feedback on assignments, I focus on targeted, direct, and specific comments for improvements. I choose two or three of the most pressing issues, and I write a short but targeted comment addressing that issue only.  Importantly, I have also found that phrasing my comments as questions about specific aspects or parts of their submissions can be a particularly powerful way of providing feedback, because questions engages students in critical thinking of their own work. That is, it shifts focus from what they did wrong, to what they could have done differently.

asking students questions about specific aspects or parts of their submissions can be a particularly powerful way of providing feedback

However, it must be said that marking also fills another purpose beyond student feedback. As Professor John Hattie points out in this Vrain Waves podcast about visible learning (at about 26 minutes in), feedback is not just for the students but is also about telling the teacher where to go next. Marking thus forms an important aspect of my own critical reflection on my teaching practice which allows me to consider what I have taught well, and what I might need to improve.

Overall, letting go of the assumptions that marking requires extensive feedback and instead focusing on feedback elsewhere in my teaching has significantly eased my marking load, as well as remarkably improved my student experiences and satisfaction.

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