Implementing Formative Feedback: Strategies for Addressing Time Management Challenges
By Breanna Simpson and Vanessa Evans
Perhaps the greatest challenge in moving from a summative to a formative feedback approach is the time commitment it requires both to implement and to maintain. Once the new formative terminology is learned, it becomes easier to apply. Nonetheless, thinking in specific terms within each assignment about how the student could improve their essay and formulating these suggestions effectively takes more time than simply pointing out “errors.”
Establishing feedback priorities
One way to make formative feedback more manageable from the instructor point of view (and less overwhelming from the student’s viewpoint) is to establish feedback priorities and modalities. These can vary from course and assignment and can be agreed upon in advance among the instructors and TAs. In the context of our second-year literature course, deciding to center feedback around substantive rather than copy-editing issues lightened the feedback load. The substantive focus highlighted key issues students needed to address to significantly improve their writing (and grade). It was not necessary to suggest solutions for each small issue. Moreover, format and copy-editing issues could be dealt with through group communications to students over eClass.
Documenting recurring feedback
Another useful strategy was to create a document with recurring suggestions that could be quickly copied and pasted as comments into students’ work. The formative feedback guidelines provided a starting point with several common examples. During the marking process for each assignment, as it became evident that students often experienced similar difficulties around setting out their thesis or structuring their arguments, formulations for solutions could be fine-tuned and then reused. The feedback guidelines also called for a summative comment that appears with the grade on eClass. The purpose of this comment was to give students an overview of the main areas requiring improvement and how they might undertake revisions. Keeping a list of these general comments for reuse, as appropriate, also saved time.
Constructing the summative comment during the grading process
Ensuring that the overall comment to students in the assignment feedback box remained consistent with the specific in-text edits and comments is a further time management issue. For formative feedback to be effective, it should be specific and easy for the student to understand. Alleviating any discrepancies between individual in-text suggestions and the summing-up comment is important so that students have a firm idea of how to proceed with revisions in that assignment or in future writing assignments. One helpful approach here was to note recurring types of in-text comments in a draft summative comment while working through the student’s text. This reduced the time needed to write the general comment but ensured that it remained in line with the detailed in-text comments students would be reading.
Another strategy consisted in setting up a timer to remain conscious of how much time was being spent on each paper. Having a reference for time spent was helpful. Certain parts of a student’s paper can require more thought to articulate a potential solution. It is easy to get slowed down. Keeping track of time spent on each paper is a way to maintain feedback momentum. The timer also alleviated a tendency to overdo feedback by setting a fixed time for commenting. Once the time was up, one can assume (and this was usually the case) that enough feedback has been given.
Formative feedback and office hours
Formative feedback redefines the instructor’s approach to pedagogical processes and how they correlate with assessment strategies as much as it reimagines the student’s role in their own learning process. Under the summative model, formative feedback is often left to office hours, displacing the responsibility for feedback from the instructor to the students: if they want to know how to improve moving forward, they should make time to meet with their instructor. While visits to office hours should certainly be encouraged, relying on them as the primary means by which students receive formative feedback does not address issues of accessibility and how such a reliance on office hours might help some students while disadvantaging others. Issues of accessibility and equity became particularly apparent through the move to online teaching and learning modes during the pandemic. Formative feedback offsets these issues of accessibility, by providing individualized, issue-focused feedback through eClass, whether the course is given online, in blended or traditional classroom form. Moreover, formative feedback may take some load off office hours. With clearer indications on how to improve their work students may feel less need to consult. At the same time, should they do so, instructors may have more effective tools to discuss feedback with students. This may make office hours more productive for both students and instructors.
Institutional and pedagogical support can greatly alleviate time management challenges and encourage formative feedback. Possibilities for flexible configurations of instruction tasks and responsibilities can be particularly helpful. Having the time commitment required for carrying out effective formative feedback factored into the TA workload contract hours (a realistic amount of time was allocated per paper) kept formative feedback manageable. In essence, the instruction and assessment aspects of the TA role were combined. The time that would ordinarily be devoted by TAs to tutorial and office hours was partially redirected to providing detailed, actionable feedback within the students’ assignments. The instructor assumed responsibility for office hours and communication with the students. Furthermore, the formative feedback guidelines and the pedagogical support available during the implementation process were invaluable tools for making the shift in assessment focus and technique. Without this intentional modelling in the course creation and structure, and the accompanying support of the course director, implementing effective formative feedback strategies might prove difficult within a traditional TA workload configuration.
Flexibility in formative feedback implementation
The formative feedback guidelines in our course called for a revision option. Students could take the comments, revise their essays, and resubmit them to improve their grade. Revisions were assessed by the instructor. As mentioned in part one of this blog, a substantial percentage of the class took advantage of this option and achieved significant improvement in their grades. However, students choosing to apply the formative feedback only to future assignments also showed improvement in their overall essay writing skills. Formative feedback is itself a process that depends on student participation in their own learning experience, but also requires instructors to recognize and facilitate students’ agency in that process. By reframing the conversation to focus on the student’s learning process, rather than the instructor’s evaluation of their work’s apparent quality, the role of feedback in the pedagogical experience becomes part of a collaborative approach to learning and can reinforce the relationship between learning objectives and outcomes. Within this dynamic process, depending on the time available and the format of the course, formative feedback can be implemented in different ways. It can be part of a revision option or implemented partially (for example, only within summative comments) or for only some assignments. Whatever the situation, and despite the challenges its implementation represents, formative feedback has been proven to contribute substantively to student retention, success, and satisfaction and merits a closer look.
Some helpful references on using formative feedback
Sambell, Kay and Anntain Hubbard. “The role of formative ‘low stakes’ assessment in supporting non-traditional students’ retention and progression in higher education: student perspectives.” Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, vol. 6, no. 2, 2004, pp. 25–36.
Winstone, Naomi E. and David Carless. “Who is feedback for? The influence of accountability and quality assurance agendas on the enactment of feedback processes.” Principles, Policy & Practice, vol. 28, no. 3, 2021, pp. 261–278, https://doi.org/10.1080/0969594X.2021.1926221.
About the authors
Breanna Simpson (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in York University’s English Department. Her dissertation, In Pursuit of Cupid’s Daughter: The Construction and Control of Desire in Ancient and Victorian Narratives, interrogates the concept of desire by examining forms and practices of reception, power, subjectivity, and identity. She is a contributor to Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom (2020-22), a digital humanities project focused on the creation of peer-reviewed pedagogical material through a positive, race-conscious lens, and has a publication with co-authors Agnes Whitfield and Vanessa Evans in The International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design (2022).
Vanessa Evans (she/her) is a doctoral candidate and settler scholar in York’s English Department. Her dissertation is a comparative project interested in the ways diverse and distinct Indigenous novels from North America, Oceania, and South Asia represent resurgence through storytelling, language, and relationship with land. Her essays appear, or are forthcoming, in The Palgrave Handbook of Incarceration in Popular Media(2019), Studies in the Novel (2022), and with co-authors Agnes Whitfield and Breanna Simpson in The International Journal of Online Pedagogy and Course Design (2022). Vanessa is also Copy Editor for The Journal of Transnational American Studies.