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Feeding Back Motivation

Note: Michael Bromley, founder and president of School4schools.com, is guest posting this week.

In an earlier post this week on PD, I proposed four core teacher functions of planning, application, assessment, and feedback. Today I'd like to focus on teacher feedback to students. Of all the core teacher functions, feedback is the most elusive, difficult, and under-utilized. It is by nature: there can never be enough, and it can never be as timely as needed.

Earlier this summer I called over to the Beckman-Friedman Institute (BFI) at the University of Chicago, and two of the researchers were most kind to talk over ideas on student motivation. Home to Steven Levitt of "Freakonomics" fame, BFI employs "Price Theory" to investigate, understand, and shape behavioral choices. The researchers stressed to me that the benefits of any motivational reward system are directly related to the immediacy of the reward. (They also pointed out that non-monetary rewards are most desirable, but money works best.)

Without getting into Price Theory, we can view feedback the same way as a motivational tool: the more immediate the more effective. A cool feature of technology-based assessment is the ability to generate automated feedback. However, all the problems of generating effective assessment comes to play, and it often ends up rote and quickly stales. The immediacy of feedback is great, but when automated it loses the edge and power of direct teacher-student engagement, wherein lies the real power of teacher feedback as a motivational tool.

That's the difficulty, and back again to my complaints about PD demands on teacher time. Were the scholastic day and calendar absolutely regular, were students always present, were the weather or the latest celebrity scandal predictable, classroom strategies and, for this discussion, feedback would be far more effective. Instead, teachers have to work around the only constant, change. The solid, full week of regular classes can be a rarity, especially in schools with block schedules, which so frequently creates three or more day gaps between classes. How can you give consistent feedback when you don't see the kids consistently?

In order to deliver the quickest possible feedback in one aspect of my lessons, I employed a set of standardized textbook quizzes that required no prep and could be graded in 30 seconds on the Scantron machine, freeing my time for more important tasks. The quizzes were far from ideal (and only useful for on-level students), although we derived great value from them to learn about standardized textbooks and assessments. The quick return on grades was great, however, scores alone don't yield motivational improvements. With student engagement a product of relevancy, i.e., student notions of benefit for themselves, especially for the extrinsically motivated, merely delivering grades, especially low ones, hardly promotes relevancy. Low grades delivered a week later are even worse.

My goal on these quizzes was to engage students in independent learning through text. The difficulty, of course, was getting them to do it. I discovered that a simple, "Hall of Fame" reward ceremony for good scores if given within a day of the quiz not only motivated higher performance on the readings and the quizzes, it empowered the correction process, which is just as important. Assessment correction is a powerful part of any feedback process, but it is dangerously easy to lose all effectiveness when confined to simple question review. Immediacy of feedback and reward, combined with a reflective correction process built relevancy and, thus, engagement. If only everything else worked like this. All of my other lessons were hugely time consuming to create and grade. Ah, yes, grading.

If the lessons of my standardized quizzes hold true, then delayed grade reporting, especially for low grades, will absolutely kill student relevancy. Grading must be immediate. It's a rare teacher who can bust out grading in a day, and, again, all those scheduling and student attendance irregularities ever delay workflow. I wrote here earlier about the perverse use of teacher time through misguided PD and other administrative demands. If but a fraction of them were dedicated to teacher feedback, student performance and behavior would improve dramatically. We all know this intrinsically as teachers, but based on the experience of our student support service, I am here to affirm it.

We monitor teacher assignment and grade reporting for our students and families. Each of our students has around seven teachers, so we are exposed to the practices and outputs of a lot of teachers across various schools. The bulk of any immediate teacher feedback is fire-stomping, usually of behavioral issues. The most regular feedback is occasional grade reporting, and it is all too often several weeks removed from the assessed activity. Imagine that the same attention to negative classroom events were given to the smallest of corrections and encouragements systematically. Teachers neither have the time nor the resources for efficient use of them.

Grading is but one aspect of feedback, which also means assignment reporting and direct communication with students and families. To promote communication and student awareness, in our service we solicit direct teacher feedback for immediate student and parent review. It's not easy. Any additional demand upon the complex and full teacher day is taxing and with difficulty implemented. The technology is there. Our service has automated teacher feedback via one-click email or SMS (and we are implementing voice to text) that is automatically collated onto a single feedback ticket for student and parent review and storage on our HomeworkTracker system. Our goal is for teachers to be able to quickly say something that didn't get said in class or that needs reinforcement, and that students can act upon immediately. A message delivered in real time has a far better chance of inducing student self-correction than a call home two days later or the occasional grade report notation.

In addition to the HomeworkTracker, to support student assignment tracking, we monitor school Learning Management Systems (LMS), be it Edline, Blackboard, ParentPortal, etc. These LMS can make teacher feedback really happen. And they don't. I'm thinking that these systems are after-thoughts for schools: buy the system and throw it at the teachers. Worse, schools and teachers do not view them from the client point of view. I first realized their power - and futility when not used - when my daughter entered my school, and I saw these systems simultaneously as parent and teacher. I swore then to maximize my use of them, as I was infuriated by how poorly her teachers employed them.

Recently, I called up one of the major LMS providers and asked if they tracked teacher usage of their product. The stonewalled reply was, "We provide the highest quality training." "Yeah, great," I said, "but do you know how many teachers actually use your product?" I do. Based on our non-studied but well-observed experience, I'd say that across the schools we see no more than one or two in five teachers make these LMS systems effective, no more than half making them somewhat useful, and a good third or more render them useless. It's shameful. But I can't blame the teachers.

LMS are feedback: list the assignments, provide assistance, and report outcomes in real time. Couldn't be more pedagogically sound. Except, the less other teachers use them, the less effective are those of the teachers who do use them. It's beyond absurd that schools invest so much in these systems and allow them to go underutilized. Sure they have policies, and sure they have accountability, but I'm here to tell you they don't work. I'm also here to tell you that if they did work, student performance would increase dramatically. Like students, teachers need ongoing direction to manage their affairs. Teacher use of LMS pages should be a matter of pure support and not administrative review. Teachers should have individualized plans for their use and on-demand assistance. As I wrote in an earlier blog, teacher efficiency is not a consideration for school systems. And LMS underuse is the result of teacher inefficiency. Go figure. Effective LMS feedback is the product of solid planning, assessment, communication, and delivery of student resources. If not systematic it fails. It can be done, but, instead, so many other priorities betray these simple things.

While it offends some to use market terminology in education, teacher feedback to students and parents should be at the heart of a larger program of effective customer service. If we conceive of our kids as customers, then we will prioritize the little things that deliver our product to them more efficiently. A quick example would be use of a classroom printer. Few services, dentistry excepted, can get away with admonishing clients and telling them to go figure it out on their own. (I refuse to pay for the dental hygienist to bitch at me for not flossing.) The teacher impulse to student unpreparedness is sanction. I don't get that. "Oh, you lost that handout? Here..." I just print out another copy, and the excuse for not doing the assignment has been immediately removed. A printer also allows for quick and immediate delivery current grades, which is impactful feedback.

Well, it's been too much fun to throw around a few pet ideas this week. With great thanks to Rick, his staff, and the education community, thanks for joining. I hope to have opened an eye or two and maybe even to have offered a solution. Please let me know your thoughts, and I'd love to help you anyway I can.

--Michael Bromley

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