The plan sounds so simple:
Students practice a new skill.
Teachers give them feedback.
Using that feedback, students improve.
What could be more straightforward?
Alas, if you’ve spent more than a minute teaching, you spot a problem with the formula above: students often ignore the feedback.
For example: I write SO MUCH USEFUL GUIDANCE in the margins of my students’ papers. And yet, as far as I can tell, they just don’t spend much time reading all those helpful comments.
They tell me they want to learn. They tell me they want higher grades. They could accomplish both missions if they would just read the feedback. Oy.
It Just Might Work…
A few years ago, I devised a strategy to combat this feedback problem.
First: I wrote comments on papers as I had before.
Second: I summarized the three most important concerns at the end of the paper.
“Be sure to focus the topic sentence on abstract nouns.
Give specific examples for all your main arguments.
Look out for danging modifiers.”)
Third: I returned the paper with the comments BUT WITHOUT A GRADE.
Fourth: Students reviewed the comments, and wrote up their own summary. (This step ensured that students read and understood the comments.)
Fifth: Then — and only then — did the students get their grades.
My thinking went like this:
My students were REALLY motivated to know their grades. If I could harness that motivation correctly, then I could get them to review and learn from the comments I spent so much time writing.
They would get the grades and learn at the same time. Brilliant! (Well, potentially brililant…)
So: Did It Work?
I did not think to collect data at the time, so I don’t have a scientific answer to the obvious question — “did this strategy work?”
But I have a few strong impressions.
First: the students were REALLY BAD at summarizing my comments, and did not like the process.
On the one hand, this conclusion suprised me. After all: I had summarized the comments for them (“topic sentences, examples, dangling modifiers”).
All they had to do was spot and re-summarize my own summary.
On the other hand, this conclusion made sense. No wonder my students hadn’t responded effectively to my comments — they didn’t even want to read them!
Second: my strategy either really helped, or made no difference.
In some cases, students quickly took advantage of this system. I could tell because my comments were different on each paper.
If the first paper asked them to focus on “abstract nouns in the topic sentence,” the next paper clearly met that goal.
On the second paper, my feedback focused on — say — transitional language between examples.
Because my comment summary changed from paper to paper, I could tell the system was working for these students.
I must admit, however, that not all students responded this way. Some submitted the feedback summaries as I required — and continued to make the same old mistakes.
A partial victory — but not a complete one.
So: SHOULD It Work?
My experience suggests that my witholding the grade prompted some (but not all) students to focus more on feedback.
Do we have any reseach supporting this strategy?
Sure enough, we do.
A study from 2021 shows that students who get feedback before grades improve more than those who get grades before feedback.
The researchers here, in fact, consider some of the underlying mechanisms as well.
They note that “excessive focus on grades can interfere with the students’ ability to self-assess,” and that, “in the case of [grade] disappointment…students may decide not to engage with the written comments at all.”
These truths suggest the obvious solution: postpone grades until students have time to process the feedback.
In this case college students didn’t need to go through all the extra steps that I created; that is, they didn’t summarize the feedback their teachers wrote.
Simply having extra time to peruse the feedback — before they got the grades — proved a significant benefit.
First: I note that both my own mini-experiment and this published study took place with older, academically successful students. I don’t know of research looking at a broader, more representative sample.
Second: reasonable people might ask, “if grades distract from feedback, can’t you just do away with the grade thing altogether?”
Some schools might make that decision — and plenty of people are advocating for it. But: individual teachers almost certainly can’t stop assigning grades. So, this strategy can help one teacher at a time.
Third: I first read about this study when Jade Pearce (X-Twitter handle: @PearceMrs) wrote about it. If you’re interested in this kind of research, you should ABSOLUTELY follow her there.
TLDR: To help students focus on learning, postpone grades until they have time to review feedback.
This strategy might not help everyone, but it provides clear benefits for many.
Kuepper-Tetzel, C. E., & Gardner, P. L. (2021). Effects of temporary mark withholding on academic performance. Psychology Learning & Teaching, 20(3), 405-419.