The Feedback Cycle with Matthew Johnson | Barkley Ponders Out Loud

Want feedback to go further? Try implementing a feedback cycle.

I recently had the pleasure of learning from Matt Johnson, a high school English teacher and the author of Flash Feedback: Responding to Students Better and Faster: Without Burning Out and he recently joined me for a podcast, Supporting Teachers’ Use of Flash Feedback. Matt agreed to share his thinking here as a guest blogger. Thank you, Matt.

Matt JohnsonIn my early years as a teacher, I struggled when it came to providing feedback to students. Part of this struggle was logistical. Every minute of feedback I gave to my 150+ students required an investment of 2.5 hours, making providing regular and meaningful feedback seemingly impossible.

But even more frustrating was that after I put in those untold hours of snaking notes through the margins of student work, the return on investment was generally minimal. The next round of papers often contained most or nearly all of the same errors and issues I’d highlighted in my last round of feedback, often making me wonder why I even bothered to provide feedback in the first place.

Looking back, there was a lot that I wasn’t doing right in my approach to feedback. My feedback was summative, detached, and scattershot when it should have been formative, curious, and targeted. But chief among the issues was that I wasn’t taking into account an educational concept that should be, in my opinion, one of the first things discussed in the first days of education school: The Forgetting Curve.

I have a whole post on the background and specifics of the Forgetting Curve, but it can be summed up like this: We forget nearly everything we encounter only once, with well over 90% of what we learn each day evaporating from our minds within a week or less. The way to counter this natural tendency towards forgetting is to revisit information multiple times over multiple days, as each time we do, the amount we forget diminishes and the slope at which we forget slowly flattens.

The forgetting curve

Many modern pedagogical practices take this Forgetting Curve into account and find ways to get students to revisit information multiple times over multiple days in multiple ways. Largely gone are the days where standard practice is to dump information on students once in a lecture or reading and leave the internalization entirely up to them. But there is one common glaring exception to this trend of more recursive practice in our classes though: Feedback to student writing.

Feedback, even now, still largely tends to be delivered in brief, isolated moments, likely to be looked at once, if it is actually looked at all by the students. Rarely is it spoken of again in class or connected to feedback from previous weeks.

This is exactly what I was doing with my students in those early years when the feedback never seemed to stick. Students would get the papers in some random moment, look at it once, and then put it away, and by the time the next paper came along, the lessons in the feedback had long since disappeared.

These days though, I do things differently and engage in something that I call the Feedback Cycle. The idea of this Feedback Cycle is simple, and I am hardly the first person to suggest or implement one. Still, like many other pedagogical moves, often the most simple are actually the most powerful–and no change has made a larger impact on my class than committing to a Feedback Cycle.

The idea behind the Feedback Cycle is that if we invest the significant time needed to give a piece of feedback, students need to invest significant time revisiting and using the feedback. Or put in other words, the feedback doesn’t mark the end of an assignment, it instead marks the beginning of a conversation about improving the student’s skills and understanding.

The biggest worry I hear when discussing the Feedback Cycle is that many teachers worry that it sounds like a lot of extra work. I used to be among this group, but if carefully designed, a Feedback Cycle doesn’t have to add a single minute to our teaching load because the students are the ones who pick up the extra work, not the teacher.

To better understand this, here is how my Feedback Cycle works for a standard paper:

Cycle image

Directly after I give this feedback, I hold my main writing conferences with students. I place my conference there for two reasons: First, it allows the feedback I gave to double as pre-conference notes, saving me another read through their papers. For those who worry as I once did that this might be redundant, remember we learn from attention and repetition and conferences are a great way to make sure that students are clearly understanding and revisiting our feedback.

Second, in preparation of the conferences I also have my students write a reflection on their rough drafts that includes a line about directly reflecting on and responding to my feedback:

This pairing of feedback, student reflection, and conferences assures that students look at the feedback at least 2-3 times right away. It also sets up the next step, which is for students to use the feedback and our conversation about it to improve their pieces. To ensure that they use the feedback, the final student assessment is based in part on how the students address the feedback that they receive.

Then before the students submit their final papers, they self-assess and explain their assessment with a paragraph that asks them, among other things, to think about how they addressed and used the feedback (see below).

This self-reflection means that students end the cycle by meta-cognitively reflecting on the feedback one more time and it primes them for the need round of the Feedback Cycle, which begins anew on the next paper with students using their feedback on their last paper to set goals for the next one. To help them with this connection, I just so happen to return the previous papers on the goal-setting day for the next one.

What is beautiful about this cycle is that the students revisit and reflect on my feedback in meaningful ways at least 5-6 times, and it is all done without me doing any extra work. Everything in my feedback cycle–conferences, self-assessment, goal-setting, etc.–are pieces of my classes already and they are things the students, not me, do. All I am doing with the Feedback Cycle is helping them stitch these things together into one coherent narrative and point their attention to the feedback that already exists, but those small changes often act as a remarkable amplifiers, allowing my messages to come through stronger, deeper, and clearer!

You can learn more and connect with Matt here:

About Matthew Johnson:

Matthew is a high school language arts teacher from Ann Arbor, Michigan. He is also a writer and speaker who has spent much of the last decade in pursuit of a white whale: Feedback practices that are both effective and efficient. His journey to find more meaningful, sustainable, and equitable feedback and teaching can be found on his weekly blog and in his new book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster — Without Burning Out. When not reading, writing, or teaching, Matthew can be found in his garden, in the kitchen, or in transit between the two with an armful of fresh produce.

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