Grading is feedback.

Rationale and Motivation

EDIT: Like the printing on post-it notes method I described at the end of this post? Check out another similar method I’ve developed that was inspired by this!

I’ve kept a mantra on nigh endless refrain in the fore and backgrounds of my mind for months now: grading is feedback. Grading is feedback. Grading is feedback. Grading is feedback. Say it with me! Grading. Is. Feedback.

It’s taken a lot of mental reprogramming to see grading as a formalized method of communication and feedback. I’m constantly having to move away from the idea that a student’s grade is not compensation for them complying to a set of behavior expectations. Grades are not a product that students have to pay for by completing the work so that they can obtain a “good” grade. Grades should be a communication on how a student’s current understanding of a standard compared to an acceptable level of understanding, be that limited, proficient, or advanced.

I’m no saint, though. Not yet, at least. However, I’ve begun taking steps to bring me closer to my ideal. The first and most obvious step was to find a way to provide thorough feedback for students. Sounds simple, right? Sure, had I a single class of 10-15 kids, I wouldn’t need a formalized system. I might as well go try and ride the unicorn I’ve got hidden in my supply closet[0].

But I’ve got over 100 kids, and each of them deserve to get thorough feedback from me. But what is good feedback? What should that look like?

Defining Feedback

Let’s look at what Google defines as feedback:


I see two critical bits here:

  1. Feedback is information about reactions to a person’s performance of a task.
  2. Feedback is used as a basis for improvement.

In general, if feedback that you’re giving doesn’t cover these two bases, then it’s not good feedback. There’s another component to good feedback that’s missing from this definition: feedback should be clear, thorough, and specific. So, then, good feedback contains three elements:

  1. Good feedback communicates to a student my opinion on their performance of a task.
  2. Good feedback communicates to a student how they can improve upon that task.
  3. Good feedback communicates these ideas in a clear, thorough, and specific manner.

So, let’s look at some examples. First, an example of me giving poor feedback:


Let’s break this down and examine exactly why this is poor, no, terrible feedback:

Communicating my opinion on their performance – The only communication on their performance this student received was that they got 21 out of 35 possible points. 21/35 =  0.6, which is 60% of the total possible points. That’s all this communicates to the student. Notice that nowhere in my communication was there any information on an opinion on their performance outside of a number. 60%

What does 60% even mean? 60% of what? Well, 60% of 35, which is 21…. and that’s it. Completely useless information other than communicating “you failed.”

Communicating how they can improve – Nothing here.

Communication that is clear, thorough, and specific – Nothing about this communication is clear except that the student got 60% and that they failed. Underlining phrases, the question mark, or short 1-3 word phrases are not clear to the student. If a student looks at this feedback and says “I don’t understand what I did wrong”, then the feedback is likely not very clear. Nor is this feedback specific or thorough.

The crux of this feedback is that it communicates only one message: you failed. No wonder kids get so anxious about grades! If all they get are numbers and things crossed out, the messages they’re getting are either you did well enough to not fail or you failed. That’s not the message I want to send to my kids!

So, what does good feedback look like?


Communicating my opinion on their performance – The first thing I do is point out something  that the student has done well. Remember, I’m “communicating my opinion on their performance” not simply “telling them what they did wrong.” This is a much more fleshed out opinion than just a number can communicate.

Communicating how they can improve – Once I affirm what they’ve done well, I ask them a question to poke them in the right direction and give a reminder to help guide them towards where I want them to be. Notice that I communicated how I thought they could improve without pointing out directly what they did wrong; I sent the message without saying “You did this” or “you were wrong here.” It may seem like I’m splitting hairs, but I think it’s essential to send a positive, affirming message any time I can.

Communication that is clear, thorough, and specific – My opinion on their performance (“so far, so good!”) and how they can improve (“think about this question here”) is explained, well, clearly and specifically. It’s thorough because it communicates where they are and how they can move further along with a hint to get them there.

I could be more specific, though. Instead of simply saying “great explanation”, I could give a reason as to why it’s a great explanation. I should follow my own advice and provide evidence for my claim!

What’s my system?

I’ve believed much of what I’ve written about feedback for some time now, but I’ve had trouble finding a system to efficiently carry out my ideas. My biggest problem is that I hate writing by hand. I have a childish, irrational distaste for writing more than a sentence or two at a time. I suppose I am a true Millennial in that regard, though don’t get me started on how absurd such generalizations are.

Anyway, my strong dislike of writing by hand is no excuse to not give my kids the feedback they deserve. I’ve seen others’ ideas for efficiently digitizing handwritten student work, but none of them sat well with me. And then I saw this video:

Woahdude. It’s so simple. I feel a bit silly for not thinking of it myself! Here’s the free template, courtesy of Janice Malone.

When I receive work from a student and I don’t have the opportunity to discuss it with them 1-on-1, I look it over, type my feedback in the template, print it, stick it to their paper, and then return it. Not only am I not filled with immense resentment towards a world in which I have to use my hands to write, but I’ve also found that my feedback is much more thorough. I’m not tempted, even subconsciously, to write less simply because I hate writing. It no longer feels like a chore, so my feedback is much better on all fronts.



This illustrates the importance of having an efficient system that works for you for providing timely feedback. Knowing what to do is entirely different from how to do it well. Do you have a system for providing good and timely feedback? Ideas on how I could improve my system? Share them!

[0] Disclaimer: I don’t actually have a unicorn in my supply closet.



3 thoughts on “Grading is feedback.

  1. Pingback: 017 – HW Check, Feedback and More | ANuetzel 180 Days of CP Physics

    • Their initial reaction is “OMG, how did you do that?!” Last year, before I started using lab notebooks, I’m pretty sure that most kids lost them after they read them the first time. This year, I started using lab notebooks, and I tell them to put the post its in their notebook to save for later.

      An additional thing I changed about this year that works well with this post-it thing is that I stopped putting their grades on their papers and, instead, I only put them in the online gradebook at the end of the day. This way, kids focus on reading the feedback instead of looking at a number and tossing it away. I got this idea from a math teacher’s blog, and I wish I could remember where otherwise I’d link you to it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s