How Much Feedback to Give

Is there the perfect amount of feedback to give a student? Probably not. Is this because “more feedback is better” in which case there does not exist a finite amount of feedback that is best? I do not think so. If anything, I often think that less can be more in regards to feedback. I am not saying this to try and convince myself that I don’t need to write as much feedback. We should, however, keep in mind logistical constraints. We do not have the time and willpower to give all of the feedback we would like to every student.

I would like to propose a philosophy for feedback that I just discussed with my colleague, Anne. The amount of feedback to give an assignment is directly related to the quality of the assignment. For the purpose of this philosophy, I am considering an assignment to be sufficiently complex to merit such feedback, for example an essay. Let me elaborate, a student who receives one line of feedback on an assignment did worse than a student who receives a paragraph. This having been said, the student who receives less feedback is being given bigger picture feedback, e.g. “There is no thesis in this paper.” In comparison, a student who receives more feedback is being given more fine grained feedback, e.g. “The second point in paragraph three is not as well developed as it could be.”

A goal in giving feedback would be to give an amount of information to the student to learn and improve their work without overwhelming them. I want my students to be receptive to the feedback I give. This means that the critiques need to be manageable and often I need to offer suggestions of how the student can improve their understanding. Last year, I was assisting a number of different students in their abstract algebra and analysis proofs. Students from both classes were struggling with developing proofs for general properties, i.e. a cyclic group is abelian or a closed and bounded set is compact. Their attempts at proofs were riddled with errors of all sorts with little to no substance. The feedback I gave them was to play with more examples. That was it. I did not critique their proof structure, logical reasoning, grammar, or anything else. The students were not ready to work on those ideas yet and I did not want to discourage them with an avalanche of things they needed to work on.

Last year I inadvertently used this system in my own class. I was teaching multivariable calculus, an upper division course in my department. As part of my course I had assigned regular paper assignments focused on big picture reflection of the material. One particular paper I received stands out in my mind. It stood above every other paper I had received that term which became clear about halfway through reading the paper. I shifted my mentality on reviewing the paper from providing feedback to editing. After I finished, I looked over the paper, aghast. There were more red marks on this paper than the rest of the class combined. I couldn’t give this back to the student, she would be devastated. To ensure that didn’t happen I wrote up a cover sheet for her paper where I explained that the reason her paper was covered in red was because it was beyond the realm of big feedback. The paper did not require any major work, in which case we could focus on the small things (and there are always a ton of small things). I also talked with her before the following class to make sure that she understood. She did. I intend to make a policy in my writing course this year that more feedback means a better paper.

Where does this leave us? The proper amount of feedback varies based not only on the student but the individual assignment? That is the idea. How does this fit in our limited time as educators? Most students will only need one or two comments on their work. Make sure you focus on one or two big things that the student could work on. Less often will more feedback be necessary. How do I decide how much feedback to give to particular work, then? Think about the student and what they will perceive is within their grasp. Remember, the goal is for them to learn and often this is done through revision. Don’t give so much feedback that they don’t revise.

A few last thoughts on feedback:

  • Grades distract from feedback. Try to separate grades from feedback as much as you can.
  • Feedback should be focused on the work and not the student. “There is no thesis in this paper” vs “You did not include a thesis in your paper.”
  • Feedback should focus on how the work would be improved and not whether the work is good or not.
  • Feedback should be given when there is opportunity to improve. My colleague, Sunil, emphasizes to his students that his exams are not a single chance, but a process to show mastery and develop. He allows his students to come to his office after exams to review and revise their exams. The feedback he gives on the first attempt is appropriate since there is an obvious and emphasized developmental learning process.

Planning a First Year Seminar

There are three weeks between now and the start of term. This year, I am slated to teach our First Year Seminar(FYS). This is an intensive year long course intended to serve as the course that teaches students writing, discussion, critical thinking, critical reading, presentation skills, and all-around introduction to college. Talk about an important course!

As a mathematician, I feel like a fish out of water teaching what is essentially a humanities course. This having been said, I have bought into the liberal arts ideals. Writing is an important skill for students to develop. Reading is an important skill for students to develop. Just like mathematics is an important skill for students to develop. So I will take on this monumental task of preparing these students for college through an intro writing course.

The first step in preparing for FYS was selecting a topic. Most people who teach FYS choose a topic in their wheelhouse. Historians pick topics related to their historical research interests. My colleagues in theater have done theatrical themes. What can a mathematician do, though? There are not a lot of approachable books on the subject of algebraic geometry. I have worked heavily with the director of the FYS program so I can regularly ask him for assistance. His joking suggestion for my topic was calculus. Not very helpful, however, we had worked together on developing a new curriculum for the school over the past year and it hit me that education would make for a nice theme. I already have one foot in the door of education with my interests in curricular development and the scholarship of teaching and learning. Kyhl, the director of the FYS program, did help me pick a title, “What’s all this book-learnin’ good for anyway?”

I spent the summer reading voraciously to build a fuller understanding of the subject and determine texts I would want my students to read. I should say, I read as much as I could. In May my wife gave birth to our son, Finley, so I have been quite busy with learning how to be a father.

Fast-forward to now. I am happy with the four books I have selected for the Fall term: “Mindset” – Dweck, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” – Díaz, “In Defense of a Liberal Education” – Zakaria, and “What Does it Mean to be Well Educated?” – Kohn. I have a rough idea for the four papers I want my students to write, two reflective papers and two argumentative papers (one with extra sources they will find on their own). The rest of my course seems to be coming together as well: homework assignments, presentation topics, discussion questions, etc. What helped me get here is the immense support I have received from a large number of friends and colleagues. A million thanks to all of them.

What is left to do? I am going to have the FYS director go through what I have so far to make sure everything seems appropriate. One of the most difficult parts of planning this course is determining the appropriate level. How much reading do I assign? How many papers? How long? Etc. The other big task to work on is the day-to-day nitty-gritty details that I need to start hammering out. Ideally(though I know it will not happen), the course will be all planned out on day one and I essentially take the course with my students. I won’t exactly get there, but I want to develop as much as I can. The most important thing, though, is that I still have my other class to prep for: Introduction to Probability and Statistics.

Three weeks… I can do it.

Welcome to the HAByss

There is a building at the College of St. Benedict called the Henrita Academic Building(HAB). The HAB used to be the academic building of the old St. Benedict’s High School, which closed in 1973. Through a few renovations, the building was given a number of classrooms and faculty offices. The original design can still be seen, mainly in the basement. The round cement gym’s walls are now the walls of subterranean classrooms. The locker room was used by duplicating and is now a room for MapCores women to hang out. My personal favorite relic is the old Fallout Shelter sign on the northwest stairwell. Located in this cold war era labyrinthine basement is half of the math department at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University(CSBSJU). We have lovingly and aptly named this space, the HAByss.

The HAByss is home to the “New Kids on the Block” NKOTB members of the math department, Drs. Bret Benesh, Anne Sinko, Sunil Chetty, and myself: Robert Campbell. The four of us regularly engage in pedagogical discussion in the HAByss. The goal of this blog is to synthesize and publicize these conversations. I hope to receive feedback and advice as well as spread wisdom. Each of the NKOTB have our own style of teaching, but collectively have experience with many pedagogies and assessment strategies.

I want to close with a wonderfully cheesy line I included in a letter of recommendation I wrote for Bret, “The basement of the HAB is a hive of pedagogical discussion.”