September 17th, 2014

When to Use Whole Class Feedback


Whole class feedback … you know, when the teacher returns a set of papers or exams and talks to the entire class about its performance, or the debriefing part of an activity where the teacher comments on how students completed the task. I don’t believe I have ever seen anything written about this feedback mechanism, even though I think most of us use it pretty regularly. Is it a good way to provide feedback? Do students pay any attention to feedback delivered in this way? When is whole class feedback most effective? After an exam? During group projects? Is it better to provide the feedback verbally or post it online? Should students be involved in this discussion of how well the class did or didn’t do?

Efficiency is the first thing this type of feedback format has going for it. The teacher can deliver the message once instead of multiple times. Also, it might help students to know that what engendered teacher criticism on their paper garnered the same comments on other papers, or that a problem they struggled with was difficult for by many of their classmates. Maybe they can be persuaded to help each other on these areas targeted for improvement? On the other hand, there may be issues of ownership with collective feedback. What’s to prevent students from inappropriately concluding that they aren’t guilty of one of these common errors?

What’s probably least effective is a teacher “lecture” (referencing here one of those finger-pointing, sharply worded, negative critiques). If it sounds like something a parent would say to an errant child, what’s the probability of an 18-year old taking the prescribed action and what’s the probability of adult who is as old as the teacher taking offense?

More effective are future-focused discussions. Based on their performance, what do they need to do next time? The discussion should identify specifics; things done well that they should continue doing, along with things to stop and start doing. Maybe some proposed actions become class goals—measurable ones that will be revisited after the next exam, paper, online discussion, or in-class activity.

I think there is a role for students in these feedback conversations, especially for those activities where they’ve seen the contributions of others, like a class discussion, for example. They were present for that exchange, maybe they contributed to it. Did it engage and involve them? What did they learn from it? What do they think might have improved the interaction? I’ve always been taken with Hollander’s observation that grading individual class contributions encourages disconnected discourse—students making a comment so they get credit, not because it connects with what someone else said. Hollander proposes that the interaction changes when we grade the discussion rather than individual contributions to it. I’ve tried this and it does encourage students to think about discussion as an entity and to exchange feedback, both before and after they have the discussion. I’ve also been impressed by how effectively peer pressure motivates participation and how well the class supports those first-time contributors.

The role of students is less clear when the feedback involves individual performances, like an exam or paper. Students know how they experienced the assignment, but not how it affected others. They have to ascertain how relevant the feedback is to them and how representative their feelings about the experience are.

I don’t have as many ideas on this topic as I think it merits. So, please share your thoughts, experiences, and strategies. If we’re offering feedback to the entire class, we ought to be thinking about the best ways to do it. I have tried ways that didn’t work. Once in a developmental English course I came to class with a collection of very poorly written sentences lifted (anonymously) from a set of papers. My idea was that we’d fix the sentences together and then students could look for similar sentences on their papers and correct them. But the students responded by arguing that the sentences weren’t bad, what the writer meant was perfectly clear to them, and it was teachers who couldn’t understand students. It quickly became one of those them-against-me situations where I responded defensively and abandoned the task in a grumpy frump.

Reference: Hollander, J. A. (2002). Learning to discuss: Strategies for improving the quality of class discussion. Teaching Sociology, 30 (3), 317-327.

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