Most teachers who are successful at teaching remotely find ways to dissolve screens, making their online classrooms feel like their physical ones.
These teachers do not fetishise technology and new ways of working for their own sake – instead, whether it is communicating means of participation, checking for understanding or anything else, they identify what they do when they have pupils in front of them and then seek out ways to organise this over the online platforms available to them.
They find what works well then aim for consistency, which makes sense given how well we know most children respond to predictability and stability. It’s easy to appreciate why this works well – we want our pupils focused on learning, not on how they should hand work in and get it marked.
Fewer methods done well seems a good rule to follow when deciding how best to give feedback. There are many options and in the attempt to encourage our pupils to continue submitting work it is easy to end up responding in lots of different ways without providing any guidance on what work to send in, or how and what sort of feedback those in our classes should expect.
This isn’t too much of a problem in the early days of remote teaching but as pupils become more accustomed to it and we start expecting them to hand more work in, it is important to make some intentional decisions about how work should be submitted and fed back on to avoid confusing and overloading ourselves and our pupils.
The rest of this post is a summary of the different ways I’ve seen teachers feedback on work submitted by their pupils. All have strengths and limitations. Whichever methods you choose it is important to be mindful that the principles of giving feedback have not changed; be intentional about what work you want handed in, why you will give feedback and what you will do differently as a result of what you learn. For anyone wanting a recap on these principles, this excellent blog post from Harry Fletcher-Wood is a good reminder of the things we should think about before we decide whether and how to give feedback to pupils.
Self-marking quizzing apps.
While it is a very thin one, the greater use of subject specific self-marking quizzing apps produced on external platforms and those produced by teachers themselves in programmes like Google and Microsoft Forms have been a silver lining in the remote learning cloud. These are extremely useful both for retrieval practise and for gaining a quick understanding of what pupils know and don’t know. Perhaps the greatest benefit of these is the way in which the can provide pupils with automatic feedback without any involvement of the teacher beyond setting the quiz in the first place.
These are powerful tools which will remain with us beyond the end of the pandemic, but alone cannot be sufficient. If teachers do not provide more personalised feedback too, it is likely all but the most intrinsically motivated pupils will gradually become less and less concerned about how well they do in these, making other forms of communication and feedback necessary too. In addition, the nature of quizzing apps means they are not effective in helping pupils to improve their work in all tasks and in all subjects.
Pupils email work in and get individual responses in writing.
This might be the least technologically intimidating method for most teachers and pupils. It involves setting a deadline and then asking pupils to email what they’ve done, be it a photo of their written work or an attached document. The teacher then reads this work and writes feedback in an emailed reply.
The main advantages of this method are its simplicity and its immediacy. It can be much quicker than marking books as there is no time wasted finding the right work. Teachers should not, however, assume that pupils will know how to address and format the email so they will need to be taught. To make all this more efficient, teachers should be clear with pupils about whether they are expected to submit work in the body of the email, whether they should attach a file or whether either method is fine.
One inherent irritation of this method is pupils do not submit their work at the same time. This means it can be very distracting as emails fill up inboxes, and can also result in inconsistent feedback as the teacher responds at times when they have varying levels of time and energy. To avoid this it is sensible to plan time when work will be read and responded to, and set up folders to place work in, rather than trying to reply to all work in real time. Pupils will be fine with this as long as they are told when they will get feedback on their work. The issue with always replying instantly or near enough instantly is this then sets the expectation this is the norm, which then causes frustration when feedback ends up being delayed.
Another disadvantage of this method is that teachers may well find themselves repeating almost identical feedback again and again, which can be a waste of time. Teachers who find themselves doing this may want to consider whether whole class feedback would be a more appropriate.
Pupils email work in and get whole class feedback
Whole class feedback might also involve pupils emailing work in by a deadline, but instead of all receiving individual feedback the teacher could identify key areas of strength, gaps in knowledge, misconceptions and areas that need re-teaching. This can be done through a PowerPoint presentation, handwritten notes placed under a visualiser or one feedback document shared with the whole class. Teachers might also screenshot examples of good work and with pupil permission share it with the class to provide more models. A significant positive of this is the way in which it helps create and sustain a feedback loop and so embedding the principle of responsive teaching.
Whole class feedback is of course no panacea and there is no reason it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done in conjunction with individual feedback – this works very well so long as pupils are very clear on what sort of feedback they should expect, when they should get it and what they should do with it.
Pupils submit work via the online platform they use for lessons and receive verbal feedback.
Some teachers may find it easier to keep on top of submitted work if instead of being emailed it is placed in the online platform pupils use, for example Teams’ Class Notebook Function. This avoids the irritation of hundreds of emails and is neat in that work is all stored in the same place, making it easier for teachers and pupils to look back through work done over sequence of lessons. Teachers who wish to pursue this option would be wise to spend a bit of time explaining to their classes how they want work organised to avoid pupils becoming the electronic equivalent of children who write work into whichever page in their exercise book it happens to fall open to.
Feedback can then be provided in the same way as it is for work e-mailed in.
Or – and this is quite exciting – the teacher can use their computer microphone to add voice notes to a pupil work. This is fast and feels more personal than marking. In Microsoft Teams all that’s required is to click on “Insert” and then “Audio”. Recording begins automatically and after clicking stop the audio file appears as a clickable file in the document.
The “Dictate” option in Teams also allows the option of having verbal feedback converted to text, which may be attractive to some, but as with any new way of doing things teachers should consider whether the associated faff makes it worth it. Sometimes, as Nintendo’s Genpui Yokoi well understood, sticking with what everyone is familiar with is a better choice. Only those who knows a class well will be able to decisions around what will work best for them.
All that’s left to be said is while some experimentation will be necessary in the early stages, it is usually much better if teachers decide what they are going to do intentionally, communicate this clearly and keep the focus on feedback not format. That last thing anyone wants is to have lots of poorly conceptualised systems going on at the same time, resulting in work arriving in many places at many different times with no clear idea of what will be done with any of it.
Whether remote or face-to-face, the principles of giving feedback well are the same whether we have pupils in our physical classrooms or not.