Without timely feedback, students don't learn as much as they could, says Sylvie Corwin, a sophomore at Seattle's Nathan Hale High School.

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Editor’s note: As part of Education Lab this school year, we selected a panel of students to write essays about education issues that matter to them.  This is the first of the series.

As a ninth-grader at Nathan Hale High in Seattle last year, I was figuring out how high school worked. I soon made friends, adapted to the schedule, and learned to manage my activities. However, in my second and fourth quarter I doubted whether I would receive the A’s I was aiming toward, despite doing my work promptly and thoroughly.

This was mainly due to my social studies teacher. He was funny, personable and knew a lot about history. But in the first few days of class, he made it clear he didn’t know how to use the Source (the online gradebook for all students in the district), he didn’t want to use the Source and he would only deal with the Source when he entered final grades at the end of the quarter.

He only checked our logbooks — used for class warm-ups and shorter assignments — to ensure we were completing our daily work. The other papers, projects, writing assignments and worksheets were never returned to me and I’m still unsure what grade I got on each one.

He wasn’t breaking any rules.  Although Seattle Public School teachers are expected to give students progress reports with grades partway through each course, there are no enforced expectations for when work is graded between these check-ins. And sometimes even progress reports will have a blank line if a teacher has not yet entered any grades for the course.

Not knowing a grade on an assignment causes much more anxiety than knowing a grade. If I get a good grade I can move on. If I get a bad grade, I can plan how to raise it. If I don’t know what grade I have, I continue to fret about old assignments instead of focusing on new material. When multiple weeks elapse between turn-in and return dates, it’s easy to doubt whether I’m actually learning what I’m supposed to.

And I’m not the only one.

“It’s more stressful when [teachers] give [grades] back after a long time,” said Rachel Rosenbloom, one of my classmates.

Sophomore Thea Watrous agreed.

“You just over analyze [the assignment], and you keep thinking about it, and imagine the worst situations: that you failed.” Watrous said.

A few of my teachers are prompt, returning assignments within a week. Most return them within two to three weeks.  And then there are those who wait months — or never return them at all.

Some teachers at Nathan Hale put off feedback and grading because it’s difficult to find the time to assess the work of 150 or more students. And the teachers who find the time say sometimes students don’t read their feedback.

“I have not gotten to a point in my life where I can work through grades in a healthy way,” said Nathan Hale language-arts teacher Larry Uhlman. “You put all this commentary on a person’s paper and then you see this paper on the ground, or in the recycling bin.”

In an ideal world, Uhlman thinks one-on-one writing instruction is the way to go. But with 25 students in each of his five classes, that’s impossible.

Free-response answers, which require time to grade, are especially common in English classes, but are present in other subjects as well. Health teacher Annemarie Michaels-Plumpe finds grading demands heavy. Whenever she collects student log books, which she does three times a quarter, Michaels describes her weekend as “ruined” because it takes eight hours to grade them.

University of Washington Professor Susan Nolen, who teaches in the education department, understands these challenges but says the benefits of giving students quick feedback is worth the time and effort.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you get feedback,” she said.

If students don’t receive any input on their work they can’t know what they did wrong or well and can’t learn from it, which, after all, is what school is for.

Nolen always gets work back to her students within a week because she thinks students who are taking multiple classes won’t remember an assignment and process feedback unless it is returned promptly.  She also likes to return work quickly so her students will have time to revise it.

In an ideal world, “a teacher can give feedback in the course of teaching,” Nolen said. “I want to be able to see work-in-progress and give feedback in progress.”

University of Washington Professor Sylvia Bagley, who is also in the education department, adds that frequent evaluations of student work can help a teacher better assess the student’s strengths and weaknesses.

“You need to look at [student work] over time,” Bagley said.

In my experience, students do the best when teachers know them well. Not only does that help teachers better guide their students, but students are more confident, too. As a shy student, I feel more comfortable speaking up and sharing my ideas during class if I know that my teacher has read my written work and has an understanding of how I think.

Giving prompt feedback can add stress for teachers, but it can help them along with their students.  Michaels has decided to grade logbooks four times instead of three this quarter. Having fewer assignments to look through each time makes her grading weekends only partially ruined, she said.

At the end of my ninth-grade social studies class, my teacher gave me an A. I was glad, but I never found out how I did on many assignments and papers– where I was strong or where I could improve. I should have asked for the specific grades but I had a different teacher the following quarter and never did.

Every single assignment that I complete doesn’t have to come back with a grade. But they should all come back with a response and critique in some form. Our community needs to support our teachers in creating the time and ability to give students this feedback. And students need to take the step I didn’t as a ninth-grader and ask for the feedback they deserve.

 

Sylvie Corwin is a sophomore at Nathan Hale High School. She enjoys writing, reading, playing with her dog, and journalism. She plans to teach English after college.