Recalibrating the feedback machine

It’s been a long time. I shouldn’t have left you without a dope post to step to.

I’m actually super busy at the moment so this will hopefully be a short post. Although it might end up being long a la Mark Twain’s letter.

One of the things keeping me busy at the moment is preparing for the KOTESOL National Conference in Wonju next weekend. My workshop is entitled  “Lessons from Behavioral Economics for EFL Teachers” (and you can read the abstract here if you wish). I will touch on some of themes (and add a lot more) I’ve treated on the (currently hibernating) “Teach like  Freak” series on this blog. That is not my main focus today or of this blog post, however.

My focus at the moment is on delivering feedback on students’ writing. This particular round of feedback is on end of course projects and I am doing my best to provide whats I think and hope will be meaningful and helpful feedback. A series of thoughts gnawing away at my mind are “What if they don’t read this? What if they don’t care? What if they ‘checked out’ at the end of the course and this feedback is just for me to feel like a diligent professional?” Yet I soldier on. Now I’m wondering if there might some ways to better balance my effort and spend more time on the feedback for those who are interested in reading what I have to say even after the course is finished.

My amazing and earth shattering idea is…wait for it…to ask them. I’m thinking I could ask students how interested they are in the feedback that might be coming. If students say they are very interested in reading it and very interested in taking it on I might recalibrate my feedback machine and give more attention to the work of these particular students.To those students who state their lack of interest I would gladly do the minimum.

feedback machine

The Happy Feedback Machine by Anh Nguyen

I can almost hear and even feel some readers recoil at this idea. Some might say it is not fair and all students should get a balanced amount of feedback and attention from the teacher. And that the teacher should do their best for everyone. I can see that side of it.

The idea of balance or fairness is probably not the main reason I won’t pursue this idea. I’ll probably not do it because my sense is most students would automatically tick the box which  says “I want the most and most detailed feedback possible” even if they actually will not spend much time reading and considering the feedback. I think students might make this choice because they think it’s what students should do and wouldn’t want to hurt the teacher’s feelings. They also might be optimistic in thinking they will take on the feedback but might change their mind when it comes.

Another thought bouncing around for me is if students were asked to make a statement on how much they want the feedback it might have a spillover effect on how deeply they consider the feedback. My guess is if students say they want feedback it might end up being more meaningful to because the students already stated this. Just a thought, really.

I guess what I’d be interested in (in general and not just in the one instance described above) is asking students to take one small step to prove they are interested in the feedback (and honestly if they are not, that’s no problem at all) then making my decisions and time and energy allocations from there.

Come to think of it, I guess I have played around with similar ideas in the past. In a previous course I asked students to email me if they wanted my feedback on their presentations. Since it was a course on professional communications I thought the extra email practice was a good selling point. If I recall correctly, I got a feedback request on around 60% of presentations. It was fine from me and I didn’t lose any sleep over students not asking and I am sure they didn’t lose much from not getting my feedback. I had my notes ready to go even a few weeks later if they suddenly got curious. Only a few students asked for feedback every time. I think this is in and of itself interesting, just to see how how often students would take the opportunity to ask for written feedback.

Some might think I was shirking my duties but I’d argue I was just trying to meet my students’ needs as students saw them. I’d also mention there was lots of feedback swirling around the course (including peer and self-assessment and teacher feedback on spoken and written tasks) Of course some students might have been to shy to email and thus missed out on the feedback on the presentations and the opportunity to practice writing requests.

I think I can see some shades of Do Nothing Teaching (per Kevin Giddens) here. Maybe instead of providing feedback and doing stuff the default mode for teachers could be more like doing nothing until something is needed or asked for. This might help ensure the feedback falls on willing ears.

I will never do this (and certainly not this round) but it is fun to think about.


  1. Eric18

    Thank you for sharing reflections on possible applications of behavior economics and providing written (often unread) feedback on final research papers. For worse or for better, I have had similar taboo thoughts. This semester I decided to provide the most detailed feedback – at an almost end of the semester personal conference on the third draft. Students received detailed, focused feedback and corrections, questions, and suggestions.

    Several students responded with equal or greater hard work. Some did far less. Reading and evaluating the fourth and final version from those less engaged students took less time. Those students received less feedback if they chose to ignore previous corrections and suggestions. On the other hand, deeply engaged students received more detailed feedback to reward their dedication and commitment to improving their academic writing skills in English. This semester this balance felt right. Next semester, it might be different because each writing class differs, but university students remain adults. Considering their choices and openness to feedback seems reasonable.

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the comments Eric. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I had a presentation the following week and then time sort of slipped away. I think you offer some nice insights here. The thing that jumped out at me most was “Reading and evaluating the fourth and final version from those less engaged students took less time. Those students received less feedback if they chose to ignore previous corrections and suggestions” as this sort of fits into what I was thinking would be ideal. I think putting time in on their work is a great signal that students might be willing to use more feedback. Thank you again for the thoughtful response. I will think about this for next term!

  2. Jo Gakonga

    Have you tried ‘Kaizena’? It’s a brilliant (free) tool that allows you to give written or oral (recorded) feedback and allows students to reply to each comment (and for you to them reply back etc). This way, you could give not-too-detailed feedback but tell them to ask by rely if they don’t understand anything or want further clarification. I’m just starting to work with it and I really like it. Just a thought….

  3. robertjdickey

    I think the “Do Nothing Teaching” target is laudable. How do we empower learners, what is the possibility for the student-led classroom, when the teacher micro-manages? In terms of feedback, is it better to spend 6 hours on written feedback, or 2, plus chatting up invitations for students to visit for more feedback. Include “See Me” in feedback notes@

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for the thoughts here Rob. I appreciate it.
      I like the idea of “see me” where the meeting can convey ideas that would take ages to type!

      Thanks again for commenting and sorry for the slow response time.

  4. Rhett

    This blog post has being something I have been thinking about since I first started giving homework as an English teacher for young learners since I started in 2002. The more you give the more it takes to create and correct. It is also unclear about the return on the investment because the homework may never be able to be used again (or sold due to IP). Young learners also prove to be difficult because parents are directly involved in the quality control of your courses (paying customer) and will make different request than the children themselves. So, what does most of this mean for feedback? It means that a lot of schools used very templated writing books that get teachers and students to follow patterns, making for easier evaluation and feedback critereas. Schools that don’t are often stressed from homework correction and massive amounts of feedback that can’t be delivered back to the students in a meaningful(helpful) manner but will continue to give /correct homework based on the perceived notion of it being “the best’.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Rhett,
      Thanks for commenting (and sorry for the long delay in responding).
      I liked your thoughts here and I think it can be too easy to just assume homework or more homework is a good thing.

      Also, I didn’t even really think about the standardization of feedback/correction or the closed answer type questions that would be quickest to correct and check and all.

      Thanks for the food for thought!
      It is so easy to think about just my own situation(s).

  5. Clare

    It’s great to read your reflections on this! I often have the feeling I’m wasting my time doing detailed feedback sheets when students only want to know the grade! And so I’ve been working with “learner-driven feedback” recently, which is basically asking them what they want feedback on, and how they’d like to recieve it. So far the response has been really positive! I’m in the review stages of publishing an article on it… so watch this space! 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Thanks for this Clare! I like this idea and might feel better knowing exactly what they were hoping for.
      I will look forward to reading more about this!

      You wrote, “I often have the feeling I’m wasting my time doing detailed feedback sheets when students only want to know the grade! ” and that reminded of some ‘tricks’ I have done in the past which included requiring a response to the qualitative feedback before seeing the score. I am not sure how much I like the idea but it was an attempt to remind students that the score is not the only thing.
      (And of course the score is the far less time consuming part!)

      Thanks again, Clare!
      (and sorry for the long delay to respond!)

      • Clare

        Yes, I’ve also thought about the requiring-a-response thing. Sounds like it might be more work (or at least reading) for me?

        I’m really passionate about the topic of feedback, so even after a slight delay, I’m still really happy to read your comments and responses!!

      • Clare

        Hi Mike, sorry for delay. I had to think of you yesterday…. am stuck in marking a big stack of essays which are taking a LONG time because there are so many problems and I want to give as detailed & helpful feedback as I can. Then I realised that maybe detailed alone isn’t really helpful. And maybe I’m wasting my time? I think I will try out getting them to respond to me, in the hope that it might make them engage with what I’ve spent so much time writing for them…. Watch this space!

  6. mikecorea

    Hi Clare,
    I am so happy that my post came to mind. I hope you managed to get through things and that you were happy with the results. I think it really can be a balancing act! I think I tend to trend to more detailed and sometimes the most important stuff can get ignored in the river of comments.

    No worries about the delay. I know how it goes. 🙂

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