Richard McDonald, Director of English, Driffield School and Sixth Form, UK; English Subject Lead, The Education Alliance, UK
At first, my opinion of whole-class feedback (WCF) as a substitute for written feedback was similar to that held by other critics of the approach, as I agreed that it was not ‘individualised’ and could hinder some students, especially high attainers (Riches, 2019). Written feedback, on the other hand, had appeared to have a significant impact on students’ progress across the department in my previous school. However, it’s important to recognise that, although written feedback may have a positive impact, the cost in terms of teacher workload might mean that it is inefficient or detrimental, in that it takes a teacher’s time away from more impactful practice (such as planning lessons).
This led me to look into WCF as an alternative, as I recognised that this approach could still be effective for formative assessment in its impact on future teaching (Black and Wiliam, 1998). I also wondered whether WCF could even be more effective than written comments alone, as it would enable students to ‘embed’ feedback into their learning rather than merely ‘receiving’ it (Lad, 2020).
Given the potential impact on workload for the other English teachers that I lead, I felt that this could be a powerful approach; however, the findings from UCL’s Verbal Feedback Project highlight how whilst WCF and other forms of verbal feedback work ‘when applied well’, it’s important to build in effective professional development so that it is implemented effectively (UCL, 2019).
This case study focuses mostly on my own research into effective WCF and the approach that I took with my classes as a result. Across this year, I aim to then use these findings to collaborate with other English teachers in our trust, in order to develop an approach that covers the active ingredients of WCF.
Thanks to the wealth of English teachers who engage with Twitter, there is a plethora of examples of WCF, mostly in the form of a summary sheet that is shared with students (either on the board or as a resource for students to stick into their books). An example of this ‘crib sheet’ approach is explained on the ‘MrThorntonTeach’ blog (Thornton, 2016) for history lessons, though there are a number of examples that have also been shared by English teachers subsequently (such as Foster, 2017 and Riley, 2020).
Though it’s difficult to evaluate these without seeing their use in the classroom, I had trialled something similar with Key Stage 4 classes before (using a list of target codes, where students copy their target out for a set piece). This did save my time versus individual written comments, but it still involved a substantial amount of time in terms of typing up my notes. Moreover, my students struggled to deal with the amount of information that they were presented with, mirroring the possibility that these summary sheets can become ‘overly complex and crowded documents which are cognitively overloading’ (Hill, 2020, p. 39).
Given that cognitive overload was an effect that I’d already seen with my Key Stage 4 classes, I decided to use a crib sheet as a framework for my own notes but not as a resource for students. When it came to delivering this feedback, I then considered how I could show students how to improve through direct instruction and modelling (similar to Facer, 2016), considering the principle of feedback being a ‘recipe’ for improvement (Christodoulou, 2019). For this reason, I considered my WCF approach to centre more on the planning of subsequent teaching than the delivery of feedback.
My approach to WCF
Recently, I started to use an exercise book for each class, as a means of storing modelled responses and shared annotation (to refer to in future lessons or as a resource for students who were absent). It made sense for this to also be the place to record WCF. In terms of laying this out, I used the crib sheet in Figure 1 across a full A4 page (mostly as a prompt for what I needed to look for when reading the responses). The opposite page would then sit under my visualiser, allowing me to refer to the crib sheet (only visible to me) whilst using the other page to explore examples/non-examples and model how to meet the targets.
As I read students’ work, I made notes on my observations within this crib sheet. I could then use these notes to identify ‘what’ to change before I considered ‘how to offer feedback’ (Fletcher-Wood, 2018). As Fletcher-Wood states that students can only benefit from feedback if they understand it, I considered principles of effective instruction/explanations to ensure their understanding of the feedback (influenced by Rosenshine, 2012 and Tharby, 2018).
An example WCF lesson for a GCSE literature class (after students wrote a single analytical paragraph on Mr Birling in An Inspector Calls) focused briefly on refining our approach to topic sentences before unpicking how to write up an analysis of authorial methods, using the process below. I purposefully didn’t address the SPaG issues here (I chose to address these later in order to focus students’ attention on the analysis skills initially).
An example of a WCF lesson
- retrieval of what makes a good topic sentence, exploring examples and non-examples
- verbal summary of successes/targets, using exemplars to illustrate these, whilst students take notes using the Cornell method (Cornell University, nd)
- modelled annotation of the quotation most students used in their responses (narrating the thought processes to model the planning stage)
- students annotate a new quotation, with feedback through mini-whiteboards
- modelled analytical paragraph (using quotation from step 2), referring back to topic sentence knowledge and the thought process in step 2
- students write their own paragraph, using their plan from step 3.
This approach worked well across different age groups, especially in terms of managing the cognitive load for their improvement (since the notes I used as a prompt weren’t all displayed to the students in one go). Students found it beneficial to see the feedback illustrated through models that I’d put together (live and pre-prepared), rather than a list of ‘dos and don’ts’, as they felt that it ‘explained how’ to achieve their targets instead of only telling them ‘what’ needed to be improved. Though this did lead to some students mimicking my models, I didn’t see this as a drawback (since mimicry is an important initial step towards mastery).
Though a small number of students did not embed all aspects of the feedback into future practice automatically, the fact that they were able to refer to a recording of the feedback on Microsoft Teams made it easy for them to redraft future pieces. In this sense, the feedback lived on beyond the initial delivery as a resource, without me spending time on typing it up.
That being said, collating my crib sheets has been useful, since it’s allowed me to plot patterns in a class’s feedback over time (especially when it comes to reflecting on whether my subsequent explanations were effective in developing students’ understanding/learning). Having one exercise book for each class’s feedback has made this process much more manageable than checking back through targets written in individual students’ books.
If anything, the main barrier was around students’ attitude to the feedback (some felt that their work hadn’t been read because there was no writing from me on the page – despite me ensuring that all feedback I gave included something for all students to improve). As the emotional response of students to feedback can impact the extent to which they improve (Fletcher-Wood, 2018), I am now looking to pre-empt and reduce the reaction by explicitly explaining the benefits of WCF versus written comments to students, highlighting how this process allows me to check their understanding of what they need to work on as well as increasing the thinking that they do, which supports their improvement more than reading a written comment (Fletcher-Wood, 2018).
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