Comments on Students' Work
Three reasons why this is good news, three reasons it worked for me, and two necessary preconditions.
In one of those all-too-common moments in which the future catches up to the past, Angela McFarlane, revealed recently that audio comments by teachers on their students’ work is proving very effective. So what, if anything, is significant about this? Plenty.
Professor McFarlane was speaking at the Naace 2009 Conference, and by ‘audio comment’ she was referring to a spoken message by the teacher. This worked, apparently, because students interpreted it as showing a lot of interest in them personally. I suspect it also worked because students tend not to read comments unless you specifically ask them to, for instance when you give them their work back.
Now, I think the news about the audio comment is good, for three reasons. First, the whole point of commenting on a student’s work is to get them to act on it in some way. If they’re not reading your comments, what’s the point? So it’s good that they actually listen to audio comments.
Second, there’s a teacher workload issue. If you can talk faster than you can write, then why not record your comments? Makes perfect sense to me.
Third, it vindicates (after all these years) my own practice when I was a teacher, which was as follows. I took the view that it is difficult to always give copious high quality feedback on 30 pieces of work for each of 10 classes at least once a week. So what I tended to do was write short notes on most of the work most of the time, but I would supplement that by having in-depth discussions with each student during the lessons themselves. I worked on the basis that if I saw 6 students a lesson for these talks, I could see each one twice over the course of a term.
This worked really well, for the following reasons:
1. The students appreciated the fact that they were getting quality attention.
2. The process helped me get to know each student, and their strengths and weaknesses. Twice a term may not sound like a lot, but that equates to 6 quality interactions a year in addition to the normal classroom discussions and comments on their work.
This, as far as I’m concerned, is what assessment for learning, and assessing pupils’ progress, are all about. However, for audio comments to be effective, two things have to be in place:
1. The teacher needs a good record-keeping system in order to be able to remember what she said to whom. There’s no point in an in-depth conversation with a student if the next time you meet you can’t remember what you talked about. You need to be able to say things like, “I can see from this piece of work that you’ve been working on the research side of things that we talked about last time.”
2. The student needs a good way of recording what your feedback was, otherwise it’s ephemeral and all but useless. I used to ask them to write down the key points in their school or homework diaries. In the course of evaluating or inspecting schools’ ICT provision I’ve come across effective variations of this, whereby students are given a template, or a cover sheet, in which they fill out boxes with headings such as “Things I did well”, and “Things I need to improve.”
In other words, I don’t think one can escape the written word entirely when it comes to marking students’ work, but an arrangement in which spoken and written comments support each other can be most effective.