What is the link between feedback and teaching?

Perhaps the most useful aspect of using whole class feedback is how it can inform future teaching. In an ideal world, feedback on extended writing should not require extensive remedial work or lengthy commentary because by the time students are asked to apply specific components to longer pieces, they should already have reached a state of accuracy and fluency and the errors, problems and misconceptions should have been ironed out during the earlier stages of instruction in more restrictive practice activities.

If after having read an essay, there are so many problems that you don’t know where to start (poor sentence constructions, misunderstanding about content, lack of paragraphing or whatever else) then this might be a massive alarm bell that there are serious issues with long term planning or sequencing. While it could just be a student not trying hard enough, it is far more likely to be an issue with the teaching.

Did you spend enough time on the components? Did students practice enough beforehand? Have students been taught and asked to apply a specific thing in gradually wider and freer contexts? Did you gradually build up complexity from paragraph to section to whole essays? Did you spend enough time on building knowledge before asking them to write?

If an essay is riddled with problems, writing extensive feedback is probably a massive waste of time. If students cannot do something, then writing you need to write better sentences; your paragraphing needs some work is not going to magically turn them into a coherent writer.

Students don’t need to be told what they cannot do; they need to be taught how to do it.

Looking through student work and noting down omissions, problems and common errors can be really useful. Firstly, it may draw your attention to the fact that there are wider sequencing and teaching issues that need addressing. Secondly, it can help the teacher realize what they need to teach next. An effective and carefully sequenced curriculum will teach students everything that they need in order to succeed at GCSE and beyond and the components of the final performance (mostly essay writing in English) will be sequenced and taught so that students gradually develop their expertise. 

The Link Between Feedback and Teaching

In How Learning Works, the authors discuss how feedback and practice are part of an important cycle:

Practice is followed by performance, allowing feedback. This feedback then guides further practice.

Despite our best efforts at sequencing instruction, students often exhibit a range of problems with their work. When completing whole class feedback, it can be useful to sort issues into ‘tell’ or ‘teach’. Sometimes you just need to tell students something they have forgotten; other times (and this is probably more common), you need to teach them how to do something. There is often a difference between chronic and complacent errors and we should react to these differently.

What to focus on?

Future teaching and practice should be focussed on the highest utility components, bits of knowledge and skills that are transferable and that students can use in future essays, units, years or key stages. This could be vocabulary, analytical components or essay planning.

How to fix problems

  1. Retrieval Practice across many lessons

Spelling errors or basic knowledge problems can be fixed through retrieval practice questions, ideally repeated over a number of lessons to aid retention. If students can’t spell Shakespeare or Priestley(so common!), then put this question into a quiz. If students mucked up or forgot an important quote, you could ask them about this here. If students wrote the wrong thing in a particular GCSE question, asking them to repeatedly list the 4 things that make up a good answer might help. 

  1. Distributed Practice across many lessons

Asking students to correct the errors within a single piece of work that you have marked will probably not result long term improvement. For lasting improvement to be made, students will need distributed practice across many, many lessons. Initial instruction should involve lots of worked examples before students engage in guided and then independent practice so that they become fluent and are able to apply what you have taught them to the widest range of possible tasks.

An example of a feedback lesson: 

My year 7 class have just completed a piece of extended writing on Antigone, writing in response to a short extract and exploring how she is presented.  When ‘marking’ the essays, I note down problems, sorting them out into tell or teach. I also choose the best two answers: these both exemplify what they should have included.

This is the process for the feedback lesson:

  1. All students write Feedback Lesson as a title
  2. All students then note down a list that describes a good answer:
  • Labelling Language (How is the writer expressing their ideas)
  • Short, embedded Quotations
  • Zooming in on interesting words/phrases
  • Fully developed ideas
  • Multiple Interpretations (3+ ideas about each piece of evidence)
  • Zooming in on words
  • Writing about socio-historical context

Each of these components has been taught, extensively modelled, practised and combined across the school year, initially through drills and shorter writing tasks and so I expect them to be meet these success criteria. I ask lots of questions about this list: What techniques did Sophocles use in the extract? Complete the rule: If the quotation is embedded…..CHORAL RESPONSE: The sentence makes sense. Tell your partner three tentative phrases to begin interpretations. Why is the word Patriarchal important when exploring this extract?

3. All students then note down what not do to (these are some of the tell problems):

Some students are writing I know this because it says…

Some students are unnecessarily defining words they are using when responding to the text: Antigone is defiant. Defiant means she is rebellious and doesn’t follow the rules.

I explain that these are 1) the wrong style for this type of writing and 2) a waste of time. I reinforce the second one with what they should do instead: Don’t explain the meaning of ‘defiant’; instead, explain why or how she is defiant and why this is interesting.

4.We then look at 2 brilliant answers under the visualiser and I annotate and highlight where these students have done the things from the list that describes a good answer.

5. Students are then given back their papers and have to highlight where they have done the good things.

This is not enough though. This is just one lesson and the process above merely serves as a reminder that students should be including certain things. Subsequent lessons will involve lots of distributed practice on the common errors and gaps in their writing.

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Teaching AQA Language Question 3

Here are some useful approaches for teaching the structure question:

  1. Start with literature texts that they know well

Beginning with texts from their literature GCSE reduces the difficulty: students already know the content and can instead entirely focus on the elements needed for success. This approach works well with question 4 too.

Providing an abstract representation of what an answer requires allows students to develop a transferable mental model that they can then apply when practising.

More often than not, structural analysis can be expressed through reader response. In order to answer why a thing is in a certain place or why a certain order occurs within a text, it can be helpful to think of the effect on the reader. Perhaps we realise something? Perhaps we are encouraged to make a link to something else? Perhaps there is an interesting contrast or difference between two bits? Because structural analysis often deals with larger components (the descriptive opening/the fast-paced dialogue/the linked beginning and ending), students don’t necessarily always need to use quotations and can instead make indirect references to the text in order to substantiate their ideas.

2. Use films and the camera analogy

Structure can be explained by drawing an analogy with camera work in films: what the writer is focussing on or foregrounding is similar to what a director has chosen to shoot.

Car chase scenes often have cliched and predictable cinematography and there are certain camera shots that are almost ubiquitous in such sequences:

The teacher can model lots of oral or written examples of these:

The writer zooms in on the driver’s hands gripping the wheel, so we realise that she is concentrating hard and struggling to manoeuvre the car due to the high speeds.

The writer focusses on the front car wheel which is turned and smoking, allowing us to realise just how fast they are going and that the edge of the road.

The writer changes the focus to a panoramic shot, describing how the car is weaving through a traffic jam, making us realise how dangerous the car chase is and that one error will result in carnage.

Students can then complete half models provided by the teacher, each one with less of the steps completed:

The writer zooms in on the speedometer so we realise…….

The focus changes to smoke coming out of the bonnet……

The writer changes the focus to……..

3. Address common misconceptions

Students often drift away from structural analysis into language analysis and it is worth addressing this error up front. It is also worth being explicit about avoiding vague explanations.

4. Guided Practice

Initial practice should be guided and the teacher can remind students of the what is required in their response:

This support should be faded out as quickly as possible and the goal of guided practice is accurate performance. Students will begin to develop their fluency and later trials should require students to finish in incrementally shorter time periods. Guided practice should involve students making specific checks when they finish the task. Students should label their answer, demonstrating where they have included the three elements (structural phrase + text reference + why is that bit there).

5. Lots of distributed independent practice

Once students have demonstrated accurate performance in guided practice, they need to do plenty of distributed, independent practice, writing in response to as wide a range of relevant texts as possible. The goal of this part of an instructional sequence is fluency and generalisation and this practice seeks to increase the flexibility of their knowledge. Overlearning is important here and students should continue to practice beyond the point that they are able to perform well within a sufficient time limit.