Providing students with quality feedback is an important instructional component that can have high impact on student learning. Mathew Johnson, the author of Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster- Without Burning Out identifies strategies that coaches can share with teachers so that feedback is regular, timely, clear and while students are constructing/producing. Implications for feedback to teachers are also discussed.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with educators at all levels, both nationally and internationally. I invite you to listen as I explore my thoughts and learning on a variety of topics connected to teaching, learning, and leading with some of the best and brightest educators from around the globe. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:53 Supporting teachers’ use of flash feedback. On today’s podcast, I am joined by Matthew Johnson, the author of “Flash feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster Without Burning Out.” When I read an article on on Matt’s book, I was intrigued and so I dropped him a note and he agreed to join us here today. I want to add that in addition you’ll find Matt’s writing in Edutopia, the National Writing Project and in EdWeek. So Matt, welcome.
Matt: 01:40 Thank you. Thanks for having me, Steve.
Steve: 01:42 I wondered if you would start out by telling us a little bit of the story that led to your exploration of the concepts behind flash feedback?
Matt: 01:55 Yeah, no, I’d be happy to. So, I mean, the story starts out as a, I think a pretty similar one for a lot of newer teachers, especially in the humanities, which is that I found myself very quickly, once I began my teaching career, working most weekends, most nights, a lot of early mornings, just trying mainly, more than anything else, trying to beat back all the papers that just kept cascading on me in sort of a never-ending torrent of student work. And you know, at the time I was actually living in California, not far from the beach in like a little – it was about the size of a shoe box but it was an apartment that was close to the beach which, for a Midwestern boy like me, was very exciting. But I
mean, I just have this image burned in my brain of like looking out, seeing the sunshine, seeing the beach and just looking at the stack of papers and being like, okay, maybe tomorrow.
Matt: 02:46 And that’s, you know, how I spent a lot of those weeks in my first year of teaching. And making matters all the more frustrating was I felt like I would take these papers and I would just cover them in comments and I would have all these thoughts and then the students would make the same mistake again or I they’d be walking out the door and I’d see them just kind of flip it in the recycle bin. And so, eventually, I got to a point where I really loved teaching. I loved everything about it. I love the challenge. I love waking up every day trying to think about how to like help young people out and how to help them gain skills. I mean, I even just love like the sound of a school building, kind of that buzz that you have there.
Matt: 03:25 I loved everything about it but I could not continue if this was going to be my next 40 years, if it was going to be like that. It just, the papers were just wearing me down and so I was very, very seriously thinking about – in fact, I did sort of briefly leave the profession unfortunately, like so many young teachers do. And I was lucky around that time, it’s probably more than we have time to go into to get some mentors in my life, the chief one being Linda Christensen from the Oregon writing project who’s just amazing, who kind of showed me that like, this choice I had constructed in my mind of either having to choose a life where I’m just submerged in papers all the time or a life of balance but then I can’t be in the classroom, I got to go find something else. But that that was a false choice.
Matt: 04:08 The papers don’t have to be like that. And in fact, they can be one of the best parts of the job. They can be the part where you build those connections with students, where you empower them, where you build up their academic identities, where you actually really move their reading and writing forward in a way that is almost unmatched. And so, what I decided to do after my – this is around my fifth year of teaching, is I just started looking into, okay, how can I be better at getting feedback to students faster?
Steve: 04:39 Can I stop you one second because I want to check – I think I heard two problems that you were dealing with.
Matt: 04:46 Yea.
Steve: 04:46 So the one problem was that it just ate up a ridiculous amount of your time but it did I also hear that it didn’t get the impact in improving student writing that you wanted it to get?
Matt: 05:03 No, it was kind of like the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day,” which maybe we’re all a bit more familiar with right now which is, you know, it just felt like every paper, I would make the same comments to the same students and it was just perpetual.
Steve: 05:18 Okay.
Matt: 05:18 And that was maybe even more frustrating than the time. If I was going to be killing my nights and weekends, I wanted to at least be doing it for a reason. But it felt like English teachers were supposed to do this, right? I’m supposed to go through and I have these papers and this is my job. And so the two coming together was really what was the most demoralizing. And so, you know, I mean, and so that’s actually, you know, what led me to writing a book, is originally, I was just doing this for myself.
Matt: 05:40 I was like, how can I find a way to respond to student work, which is incredibly important. And feedback is incredibly important. It’s one of the most effective teaching tools we have, but in a way where the nights and weekends can be mine. Where I can get that rest, where I can have a family, where I can have friends and a life. And so, I started out initially just for me but once I started to learn more and more and get my practices under control, I looked around and I saw so many other teachers struggling with the same things. And so, that’s when I started to write about it and was lucky enough to have an opportunity to turn it into a book.
Steve: 06:14 In an article that you that you wrote, you identified the elements of what makes feedback effective. And you kind of suggested that because of those elements that was one of the reasons that it wasn’t easy. So I wondered if you’d touch on those elements that you’re looking for in feedback that’s effective.
Matt: 06:36 Yeah, sure. And the elements of effective feedback are pretty – like when you think about them, they’re pretty logical but they’re quite actually quite rare and kind of in our world in general, but certainly in a practicing classroom. So one of the biggest ones is that feedback is much more effective when it comes in a formative stage as opposed to a summative stage. So when it comes in the middle of learning and students can do something with it, as opposed to at the end, it’s sort of an autopsy of like, oops, I guess here’s what you could have done. And so, having having it be formative. Another one is that it comes in a timely fashion. And this makes a lot of sense, right? That when you do something, if you get feedback, you know, now, or in an hour that day, as opposed to three weeks later. So during some of my first year, it was like a month later, that’s going to be more effective, right?
Matt: 07:17 That makes a lot of sense that it happens regularly. I think we get so overwhelmed, certainly in the humanity side of things, that sometimes we can easily go four, six weeks without any real feedback for students, but regular feedback is incredibly important, not intermittent, that outlines a clear path forward, that feedback has creates a path for students. And this is tied to student motivation. Student motivation is largely contingent on do they think that this is valuable, but also do they think they can do it? And so making it very clear that yes, you can do this. There’s a clear path for you. That it’s focused, that we don’t try and overload it. Anytime you try and cram too much feedback in, it has the opposite effect of usually not learning anything. And then lastly, that it’s separated from assessment. That when you put assessment and feedback together, feedback loses pretty much every single time. Which makes sense, right? Kids are like, you know, when you see a grade that the student would be like, “oh yeah, like, okay, I got, you know this is all about…” they’re much more focused on the grade than the assessment because they’ve been trained to be focused on the grade as opposed to the assessment.
Steve: 08:23 The first time that I read that research about grading and feedback, I hated sharing it in any audience where I knew I had high school English teachers that, you know, the feedback – or the research is pretty clear if you’re giving feedback on a graded paper, you’re probably wasting your time. [laughter]
Matt: 08:48 Totally. [laughter] Yes. And that’s what I did, right? Those first five years, that’s what I did. But all of my feedback was, it was mostly frankly spent justifying the grade that I gave. And that’s not best practice. And so, it also means that that’s why those hours – it’s a part of the reason why those hours I was spending didn’t really amount to what I was hoping that they would amount to, right? And if you think about feedback in schools, more often than not, it is summative as opposed to formative. It’s irregular because we get so overwhelmed and there’s so much, I mean, I have 163 students, right? You know, there’s so much to do it. You know, we often are very quick and curt as opposed to really having a clear path forward because our time is really pressed. And we put assessment and feedback together because wait, I’m supposed to read this twice? [laughter] Reading it once almost killed me.
Steve: 09:37 A Buzzer went off in my head on a jumping connection there that, when I’m working with school administrators who are frustrated with the time they have to spend in teacher evaluation, they would rather spend the time coaching. But then the problem is they try to coach during the evaluation and it ends up having that same carry over effect that the teacher getting the feedback in that evaluation setting isn’t processing the feedback as future-oriented. As I was listening to you, I was hearing feedback is actually motivational.
Matt: 10:19 No, and think about that teacher. You’re processing, am I going to have my job next year? You know, it’s like, how can you focus on something like feedback, which is like, you know, kind of like meant to help move you forward. It’s the state you’re in now and then we’re moving you forward to somewhere better. How can you focus on that when you’re simultaneously dealing with assessment, which is a rating of where you are at right now? And for, you know, teachers and administrators, that assessment really matters, right? That’s your livelihood. And so it’s going to be very, very hard to focus on feedback when that’s the case.
Steve: 10:54 Matt, in the piece that I read, you identified four different elements of flash feedback. And I wonder if I just kind of laid them out one at a time, if you could give us a little detail on each one. So the first one that you shared was focus one or two.
Matt: 11:11 Yeah. So the idea there is basically that the way that I was trained, and this was just largely through modeling I don’t know if I’ve ever read anything on how to provide feedback when I was in school was how my teachers had done it to me, which is they get comments and they put them all throughout the margins of my paper and they’re kind of in this English teacher shorthand. And if you look at them and you actually break down a paper like that, there are dozens of lessons simultaneously going out. And when we do that, the analogy I like to use is like, it’s sort of like trying to catch like a ball. Like, we were just talking about football earlier. Like, catching a football is tricky, but if you get some practice it’s not so bad, you can catch it most of the time, right?
Matt: 11:50 But if somebody was to lob 20 footballs at you simultaneously, you’d catch zero of them. [laughter].
Steve: 11:54 [laughter]
Matt: 11:54 Because you’re just ducking for cover. And I think that’s what our students are doing, right? There are a lot of times they’re ducking for cover when they see that. And this is especially true for the students who have the most fraught relationship with writing and with school. They look at it and they say, well, that’s another example of me failing. Look at all those comments right there. And they’re just going to discard it, right? It’s going to be more painful to read that than it is to you know to – so they’re not going to read it, right? They’re just going to set it aside. And so, the idea is that it’s actually good practice and it’s time-saving.
Matt: 12:32 And then it’s worth noting this saves time as well if you focus on one or two things. You don’t try and turn them into, you know Zora Neale Hurston or Ernest Hemingway in like one paper, right? It’ll would take them – you take the two big one or two biggest things that they need to work on and you go deep and you’re human about it and you really outline a path to where they can go. And that’s going to lead to a lot more learning because they’re really going to learn that lesson. And you also have to create space for them to learn that lesson afterwards through conferences and through requiring them to use your feedback and to use their peers’ feedback and their own feedback. But that’s going to lead to a lesson and then the next paper, you can work on the next thing, right? It’s like, we have a lot of – we have time here. We don’t need to do it all at once.
Steve: 13:15 It’s interesting. I had an elementary example of that where I was working in a school where one teacher at the third grade level was getting substantially more student improvement in writing than the other teachers were. And she couldn’t tell us what it was that she was doing. It was kind of natural for her. And so we had to do quite a bit of observation. But one of the early observations that the other teachers identified is very often, in an elementary classroom, students are writing. They may just be doing a paragraph and they’re bringing it to the teacher. And in her classroom, they would come and she would look at it and when she had something for them to work on, off they went. Where in the other classrooms, the teacher was going through the whole piece and pretty soon there was this long line of kids waiting for the teacher’s feedback. And so after a period, you had kids spending more time waiting than they were spending writing. And the explanation that you shared is what got her to it is, if she gave the kids three things, by the time they got back to their seat, they couldn’t remember the three of them anyway. So giving them one and letting them go work on that and catch it and then come back. So it’s an elementary example of what you’re describing
Matt: 14:42 Well, and that line is a great analogy for a high school language arts teacher like I am. Like, if I’m trying to do that, give everybody every thought that passes through my head on every paper, that line’s going to sort of metaphorically form in that, like, it’s going to be a month until they get this thing back. And the thing is, it’s actually more effective for me to just give them that one thing, go deep on it and that’s going to take less time. It also keeps the line down and it’s more effective. It’s one of the beautiful win-wins that that comes along. And there’s not many of those in life so you gotta celebrate them.
Steve: 15:14 You use the term, students do heavy lifting.
Matt: 15:18 Yeah. And that’s, you know, that’s tied to this, which is that I also used to go through and just make all of the changes, right? If it was a comma splice, I would use little carrots and put an there. And I would, you know, if there was if it was time for a new paragraph, I’d be like, new paragraph. I was acting as a copy editor or a scan tron machine. And the thing about that is, whoever does the work learns the lesson. And so when I do that, that also means that I’m doing the work. I’m working real hard, but they just go and make the change. You know, blindly make the change and they move on. Well think about why there’s this change and they’re like, no. They have five other classes or six other classes.
Matt: 15:57 They have their after school stuff. They’re just going to make that change and get it into me. So instead, you know, if commas are a really big deal and I really want to focus on that, then maybe I’ll say, you know, I’ll point out one comma splice, I’ll go deep. I’ll explain what a comma splice is. Here are some resources on it. Here’s the issue with it. That will be our focus area for this piece right now. And then I’ll say, you have 12 other comma splices on this page alone, go fix them, right? You know, that’s your job is to find them and fix them. And that’s going to take a lot, like, you know, the students are doing the heavy lifting. I’m also a huge fan of having students self grade. Not only because it has been shown in research to be very effective, that when students self-assess themselves and self grade, it leads to significant learning because of metacognition and all of these things. It kind of forces their hand to that.
Matt: 16:43 But also because I don’t have to then justify like – instead of me giving them a grade, it’s a conversation that we’re having and they’re starting the conversation. And it’s a lot easier to just sort of agree and say, yeah. You know, and I frankly wish I didn’t have to give grades at all, but I do. So I find that having them self-grade and having them start a conversation is so much faster, but it’s also so much more meaningful because I don’t have to justify it. They’ve already kind of laid out the case and then I just have to agree or kind of like say, “oh, well, what do you think about this? Look, let’s have a conversation about that.” And it’s only a handful of students who I really ended up having a conversation with. Most of them, they have a very good sense for what they need to work on and what they don’t. And so, you know, finding these moments for them to do the work that traditionally has been done by us is actually another one of these win-wins. It’s better practice. And it takes something off of our plates which is really important.
Steve: 17:36 How about utilizing systems and technology?
Matt: 17:40 Yeah. So, you know, I’m not a big fan of things like a grading program that like grades like a piece of writing or something like that. I haven’t seen any evidence yet of one that I think is really worth much of anything outside of like cosmetic changes and things like that. But if somebody knows of one, send it to me because I’m always curious about that, but I haven’t seen anything yet. But we do have some really great, just sort of basic programs that you do not have to be a techie to utilize really well. One of my favorites is just simply Google docs or like any sort of modern, like editing program in that, like, we talked earlier about how, you know, formative feedback is more important than summative. So I give my students’ larger papers a close look while they’re drafting it, which means that, you know, I’ve gotta look at it again and you’re like, how can you do that in a way that’s time effective?
Matt: 18:32 The answer is revision history. There’s a literal button that says, “see new changes” since you last looked at it. So you can think you already have the knowledge of where it was at, you already have your feedback that you gave them. You look at that, you look at their self grade and you can very quickly come to a sense of kind of like what a reasonable assessment of this paper is. You don’t need to be a techie to figure out revision history. You know I love it. That, or, you know, voice apps. You know, we can talk faster than we can write for a lot of us. And there was actually some research I saw this summer that said in some contexts, a voice message describing students’ – like your thoughts on a paper as opposed to a written one, is actually three times more effective.
Matt: 19:17 There’ve been other studies that have been less effective than that but they’ve all shown that it can be more effective than written. And the thought was that students can’t misinterpret your voice in the same way they misinterpret on a page. That, oftentimes on a page, they’ll be like, “oh, he’s giving me this because he didn’t like me.” Whereas in a voice, they can hear that I’m excited. I’m like, “we’re moving forward! This is great!” And so, voice apps – Mote is kind of the one that I’m using right now, which is a Google plugin, which has worked very well for me because you can kind of – it also has like a translate feature and it can transcribe it which is useful too for my ELL students.
Steve: 19:50 Great. Great. And the last one you had was a spillover plan and time for special cases.
Matt: 19:57 Oh, yeah. Well that one – so that one’s kind of tied to the notion of targeted feedback, which, because I’ve got kind of, you know, various things. But the name of the book, “Flash Feedback,” comes from this idea that most of the feedback that we give shouldn’t just be on a large paper. It shouldn’t just be the once a month or once every two months that you get a big, large piece – that you need to have regular feedback on a regular basis. Well, how do you do that? If I have 163 students, every minute of feedback is roughly three hours of my time. So that means I need to give that in under a minute. And so, and I need to have systems in place for that. And so the idea is basically that, like let’s take comments, which we were talking about earlier.
Matt: 20:34 My students, you know, like a lot of students struggle with commas. So instead of focusing on a larger paper, I’ll have a paper that they call the comma paper. And it’s just, all we do is we focus on commas in that paper. And we talked through commas and the various ways they can be used and when you can break rules and how they look with different dialects. We go deep on commas and then they write a paper where they have to have at least 20 of them in ways that are kind of used that makes sense. And using the tech thing, I can use the find function. It lights up every comma on the page and I can read that thing in one minute. It’s just like a one-pager on whatever they want. And I can then give them feedback to that really quickly.
Matt: 21:09 But a lot of times, they’ve got it down and then I just say, great job. You know, but that’s targeted feedback because they did do a great job. I’ve looked at all their commas used and they’ve got it down. If they don’t, then I put the work back on them, like, hey, I noticed two comma splices. Let’s go and fix those. I don’t really even like usually do this during class so I don’t have to bring any papers home, but that also gives them the class time to make the changes because otherwise they probably won’t do it right? They’ll be like, “I don’t know. It’s good enough.” And I don’t really let them do “good enough” on that because I want them to get it. And so, you know, but the idea there is there’s always going to be that special case.
Matt: 21:41 And so that’s the spillover period is that you have – that’s kind of tied to that larger flash feedback idea of like, you know, if we can do these targeted moments of feedback that are very carefully set up, there’s always going to be a moment where it falls apart. So you have to have something that’s built in because that’s going to happen. But for most of them, it’s not. I mean, with the comma paper, I can give them targeted, real feedback on comma usage that pushes them forward more than an entire year of me circling commas on their papers used to and I can do it in half an hour. I can do it during class while they’re doing choice reading. We’ll start class with that choice reading and they’ll have their feedback before they even walk out.
Steve: 22:17 Cool. Cool. A last last question here. Knowing that there’s lots of people listening to this podcast who are working as instructional coaches and administrators, I wanted them to find out about flash feedback as a way of supporting teachers in teachers’ use of it. But I’m wondering if there’s any thoughts you have as to how some of the concepts carry over to the way coaches or administrators might give feedback to teachers?
Matt: 22:47 Yeah. So I mean, the cool thing about feedback is that these concepts are pretty universal. It doesn’t matter if you’re dealing with, like you said, like third graders or high school seniors like I have, or teachers. You know, it’s the same basic concepts are true. Like, formative is better than summative. Regular is better than intermittent. Non-judgmental or non-assessment, you know, connected, is better than judgmental or it’s connected within assessments. And then targeted is better than, you know, a scatter shot of a dozen things that need to work. And so the cool thing is that, that’s very, like those are universal concepts. So, you know, like you said, if you really want your teachers to take in that feedback that you’re giving them, it can’t be connected to assessment right? You know, if their job is literally on the line for this potentially, it’s going to be very hard for them to hear that because they’re gonna be trying to justify that I’m doing a good job.
Matt: 23:40 No, I got this. You know, they’re going to go to that place in their head. And that also means more you know, formative. And so, but the trick with that is, it’s the same problem that I have a papers. Time is so limited, they’ll crunch, right? And so, kind of taking in this idea of like flash feedback, that maybe you pop in for five minutes at the start of class with a teacher who’s struggling and you just kind of watch the first five minutes and you say, “okay, see you later.” And then you just check in and you say, “hey, you know loved it, except for here’s one thought that you can do for the beginning of class. You know, give it a try and let’s check back, you know, a couple of weeks later.” You check back a couple weeks later…
Matt: 24:16 I mean that whole interaction, the five minute pop in, the couple conversations that follow up. And following up is really important because we don’t learn something unless we come back to it multiple times, adults included. You know, that is a way to have, maybe make an active change in a teacher’s practice that feels less threatening than there’s this big rubric of evaluation that’s tied to it. And, you know, I mean, so similar sorts of, you know, some of these same concepts can sort of be adapted you know, pretty straightforwardly whether it’s a kindergartener or a teacher.
Steve: 24:49 Well, Matt, would you tell folks about how to find your website and information about your your book?
Matt: 24:58 Yeah, yeah. So “Flash Feedback” is, I think, kind of just available wherever books are sold. So, Corwin, who’s the publisher often has the best price, so it’s worth going there first. Even with shipping, it’s usually better than anywhere else. And so, because they usually have some pretty good deals going on because they know teachers are struggling right now in particular. My website, I also write – I try to do it weekly, but it has been less – not exactly weekly this year with everything going on. You know, I think everybody’s been pushed about to their limit but I’m still, you know, kind of trying to get posts out there to help out teachers because I know that they’re really needing it. So that’s at, matthewmjohnson.com. The M is important because there’s a lot of Matthew Johnson’s out there.
Steve: 25:39 All right. We’ll be sure to we’ll be sure to add that in the lead-in to the podcast so that that folks can find it. So thank you very much.
Matt: 25:49 Yeah.
Steve: 25:49 I enjoyed and some real good thoughts there for teachers as well as for coaches working with them.
Matt: 25:58 Well, thank you so much. I appreciate being on. This was fun.
Steve [Outro]: 26:00 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean. And please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.