Using Verbal Feedback: The Ugly Truth

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management).

Illustrated by my new illustrator!: Tikumporn Boonchuayluea

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YouTube video accompanying this article

I started my conquest to save my ‘marking time’ when I moved to Thailand, back in 2008.

Starting out as a relatively new teacher in one of Bangkok’s most prestigious international schools, I was first struck by the fact that expectations were very high and students, parents and line-managers required the very highest levels of service.

Feedback, being a key game-changer when it comes to student performance, has always been a personal priority of mine. However, I have always wrestled with the problem of giving high quality feedback without sacrificing too much of my free time.

This was a difficult balance to control at first.

The fresh-faced Richard in 2008 (who didn’t need to use as much facial moisturizer, or drink as much green tea, to look young back then) would respond to the school’s ethos of promoting excellence by taking home piles and piles of student work every weekend and covering every page with red-inked scribble after scribble.

The kids would get their work back and the process would repeat itself the following weekend.

It just wasn’t sustainable, and life became a struggle, rather than a happy experience (which is what life should be, when designed properly by the person living it).

Shortly after this I vented my concerns in the staff room. One of my colleagues suggested doing more peer-assessment, and that was a real life-changer for me.

I’ve written a separate blog-post about peer-assessment here (highly recommended if you’re struggling to cope with your marking workload).

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An AMAZING Book!

After putting peer-assessment and self-assessment strategies into place for a few years, I then learnt about the idea of giving ‘verbal feedback’. The idea was to simply sit with each student, talk with them about their work and write ‘Verbal feedback given’, ‘VF’ or even stamp the work with a special ‘Verbal feedback given’ stamp. No need to physically ‘mark’ the work.

It sounded great in theory – the teacher saves time and the student gets good feedback.

After 10 years of actively seeking the best verbal feedback methods, however, I’ve discovered the ugly truth about verbal feedback: that it is not as simple as it seems to be.

So make a cup of tea, sit back, and enjoy the ride as I tell you the ‘iron rules’ of using verbal feedback with your students.

#1 – The stamp is useless, unless it’s followed up

The idea of stamping a student’s work after having given some verbal feedback is a nice one for teachers – it means that we cut down on our marking dramatically. However, what we’re not told is that any feedback we give is useless unless the student actually remembers the feedback that was given.

Try this – stamp a student’s work with ‘Verbal feedback given’, and then 3 months later ask that same student: “What did I tell you to improve for this piece of work”.

Most students will only be able to remember a few things, if any.

This is why, crucially, we must tell the student to write down the verbal feedback we have given, with a different colored pen (or using a different colored font/style if it’s ICT based) immediately after we’ve given the feedback.

When we force our students to delineate the feedback we have verbally given them, we ensure that they:

  • Have to think carefully about the feedback we gave (i.e. process the information)
  • Remember the information (because by processing and thinking about the feedback, this will automatically create cognitive associations and memory)

One of my favorite quotes from a pedagogical book is this one:

Memory is the residue of thought

 Daniel Willingam, ‘Why Students Don’t Like School’, Jossey-Bass (2010)

So we must get our students to remember their verbal feedback, and one great way to do this is to make sure they write it down. Always collect their work in (again) to check that they have actually done this.

#2 – Combine ‘Live Marking’ with Verbal Feedback

Do you know what ‘Live Marking’ is? – it’s real-time marking done in-class, as opposed to at home. There are two main ways to do “Live Marking’:

  • Walk around the class with a colored pen in-hand and mark the students’ work as they are doing it
  • Call the students to your desk one-at-a-time and ‘live mark’ their work in front of them

I wrote a whole article about ‘Live Marking’ here. You may also like this video I made.

It is also possible to combine verbal feedback with ‘Live Marking’. Try these ideas:

  • As you are walking around the class and giving verbal feedback to your students, why not train your students to write ‘Mr Rogers told me this……(use your name, obviously!)” in their books, so that they record the feedback you’ve given them?
  • Again, call the students to you desk one-at-a-time and look through the work with them. Point out areas of strength and weakness. Get each student to write down what you have said in a different color.

Using this technique brings a number of benefits: you build up rapport with your students, save time when marking and you provide high-quality feedback that the students will remember.

#3 – Give reasons for the feedback

Students need to know why they need to improve, not just what to improve.

Always tell your students why – “It’s really important that you make your diagrams large and neat because in the exam the examiner needs to be able to clearly see every piece of apparatus”

By giving reasons we allow our students to see the ‘bigger picture’ – the final destination. This can, when used frequently by a range of teachers in the child’s life, allow the student to formulate goals for the future.

Conclusion

Verbal feedback must be internalized – students must process the feedback they have been given. Get them to write down what you have told them. Write questions in their books for them to answer. Check that this has been done.

It is important to remember that it is still necessary to use ‘traditional’ marking from time to time: e.g. when marking large tests and when collecting in books. Students still do need some acknowledgement for their efforts with encouraging comments, but these do not need to be strewn throughout every page of the notebooks.

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

2 thoughts on “Using Verbal Feedback: The Ugly Truth

  1. Hello Richard! Firstly, thanks a lot for your effort to make these posts. Secondly, sorry for my English, I’m Russian. I have been reading every your new post. It’s awesome! I’m not a teacher by profession, but by education, and I think that may be in the future I will be and I need to be ready. Your posts is the most incredible what I have read for all time. I wish you all the best!

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