As many schools across the world remain closed and learning takes place remotely, there are many challenges we are facing. One of the major impacts of the current situation has been on class dynamics. The lack of time spent together as a group in class coupled with the limits of real-time interaction in online teaching settings make maintaining a sense of community difficult. The challenge is increased by the high emphasis on independent learning tasks and the often teacher-fronted modes of live lesson ‘delivery’ (entirely understandable in the circumstances of a sudden global shutdown).
With more than a month of ‘lockdown lessons’ (as my students have started to call them) behind us and the prospect of several more weeks to come, keeping up levels of communication in my classes, and across the school, has been a high priority. More than ever, I have found that feedback has been crucial in this, both in terms of giving students feedback on their efforts and seeking feedback on our online lessons, and in this post, I will outline how I have been doing this.
Feedback for Students
The approach my school has taken to operating remote learning is to strike a balance. We use a combination of live lessons (for which we meet at an allotted time using Microsoft Teams), self-study using common materials and tasks assigned by the teacher, and an independent learning project. The idea is to provide structure to the school week without having to sit at a computer all day.
With the students doing much more work than usual without direct input or supervision from the teacher, offering timely feedback has become a priority. I go about this in four main ways:
- On task feedback
So, when students have a self-study task to complete remotely, how can we provide feedback while they are working? My way around this is to make myself available at a fixed time during the day before the work is due for submission. Students know they can then either email me or send a message through Teams with any questions they have. I also get them to work on Google Docs whenever possible so I can see them working ‘live’. Through the comment feature and real-time editing functions, I can guide the students and give them immediate feedback to improve their work.
- Post-task feedback (individual)
While the above is great for quick language corrections and to ensure the student is on the right track, they still need more comprehensive feedback before the task is done. I therefore set a draft deadline, after which I will go through the student’s work in more detail and provide targeted feedback. Their task is then to make revisions before the second deadline for the final piece of work. I provide this individual feedback in a variety of ways in order to keep the students engaged. Classic written comments focusing on strengths and improvements work well, either on the shared document or via email. I have also been giving oral feedback, either through a voice recording which I then share as an MP3 or through a video in which I record the screen and comment on specific aspects of the assignment while doing so (a free tool such as Screencast-o-matic is great for this). The recording option allows me to give detailed feedback without a huge block of text as long as the assignment itself, while also providing a personal touch to maintain the student-teacher relationship.
- Feedback summaries (whole class)
In the event of recurring issues across several students’ work, I will use time in our next live session to conduct a class review. For some errors that are ‘easy fixes’ such as punctuation or verb tenses, I will display common mistakes on the virtual whiteboard and have the class suggest corrections through the chat box. For issues that need more in-depth attention such as paragraphing, or using examples to back up claims, we again utilise a shared online document. With the whole class accessing the same document while we are connected live, we can discuss improvements and type in examples in real time. When working with larger classes, this can be replicated in groups with each working on a different version of the document while I monitor through different browser tabs. If anything, this makes feedback and editing an even more collaborative process than normal.
- Live Tutorials
After the group feedback, I may direct students to make final edits to their work. In the case of a key assessed assignment, I will then arrange one-to-one or small group tutorials with each student. These simply consist of a five- to ten-minute call in which we go through the student’s work and discuss it. I have already received comments from students that they have found these very useful to gain a better understanding of their grade and what they can improve in future. They are also much easier to arrange than trying to schedule them around a busy school day, either during a lesson or in break time.
Feedback from Students
As I mentioned in that last point, feedback from students has been crucial in ensuring we are offering a positive learning experience. This sudden shift to remote learning has presented a massive challenge for us all and it is important to get and act on constant feedback from the students.
Together with my departmental colleagues, we have been giving our groups a weekly survey to get their feedback on their virtual lessons. It offers an opportunity to reflect and highlight issues such self-study tasks taking too long or instructions not being clear enough. It also provides to gauge what is working well, such as the tutorial sessions and the use of shared documents. Acting on this feedback has been crucial in managing student workloads and providing necessary support, such as the feedback outlined above, while enhancing the online learning experience.
Feedback and Communication
One positive aspect of giving and actively seeking feedback in this way is that it maintains levels of communication within the class. Despite the remote aspect of our current teaching scenario, we can engage in personalised conversation with the target of improvement. Through individual and joint feedback, both live and delayed, my students are engaged in a cycle of drafting, revising, and improving their work and I am getting a clear insight into their progress. By getting their feedback on the course, I am getting invaluable information about how to improve the learning experience. Overall, it has made our class dynamic stronger.
The extends beyond our own EAL lessons of course. I regularly speak to my line manager and fellow heads of department to share feedback and discuss best practices. This, together with clear and frequent communication to students and parents, helps build a community even when our students have been scattered around the world. I very much look forward to the day when we can meet face-to-face again and build on these feedback cycles even further.