Saving Time and Saving Face – an Alternative Form of Feedback
Tomes have been written about the importance of feedback in effective education. This past semester I took this to heart and increased the amount of feedback I present to my students, be it test feedback, exam review, or feedback on their written work (a capstone project). Reviewing material and test responses was easily done in class, as I could address the group as a whole and elicit quite a bit of interaction from my students. The students appeared to appreciate this feedback, as many of them expressly told me how much they enjoyed the collaborative review of complex questions and answers in class.
Student writing, however, offered a wholly different feedback challenge. This semester, I designed the capstone project to be a written article in which students had to (a) send me their results, followed by feedback; (b) send an outline, followed by feedback; (c) send a first draft, followed by feedback; and then, at last, (d) send me the final version of the article. I saddled this crazy horse because I felt the process would best mimic the true process of writing. I expressly wanted to give students individualized feedback, as experience has taught me that most students blissfully ignore generalized feedback on assignments.
But honestly, who has the time for individualized feedback on four different assignments, with over a dozen students? So, I tried something different. On my iPad I have the Notability app – a very handy little tool that allows you to write on electronic documents and also do a voice recording linked to that specific document. With each student’s assignment, I marked it as I usually would, but then spent 5-10 minutes on scribbling all over the electronic assignment, while recording my thoughts and suggestions. Then, I would export this PDF and voice recording in a zip-file, and upload it onto Blackboard: one file per student. Perfect individualized feedback. My expectations were low: I was aware that students could still ignore me and plead digital ignorance.
It worked much better than I’d hoped. Some of my students received – and deserved – more than 90% for a complex written article, at third-year undergraduate level! And then my class evaluation revealed something that I simply did not anticipate. One student candidly wrote that she appreciated the recorded feedback, because it was easier than having to face me when she was failing the assignment. I suddenly realized that perhaps my face-time with them is not as brilliant as I’d thought. Meeting me in the intimidating environment of my office, students may simply concentrate on saving face, and not making any more obvious mistakes. Hyper-awareness of failure means that they just don’t take in what I’m saying. In fact, the distance enforced by the voice recording helped them understand my message.
I’m not saying that face-to-face feedback is outdated. I will keep doing it myself, since that is an important way of picking up conceptual and technical misunderstandings between you and your student. Students did visit me in my office (I had to force them…) and I encouraged them to visit the campus’s Writing Centre. But maybe it is time to consider the value of technology for student feedback. It’s more than just track changes in Word; technology can be a way for students to truly hear you. And maybe we can save a few trees in the process.