“By the time they hand in their papers, they already know what their grade is going to be because of the feedback they’ve been getting” – Dr. Sarah Eaton
Dr. Sarah Eaton teaches several graduate-level online courses in the Werklund School of Education. Her students are all working professionals, including K-12 teachers and administrators, instructors in post-secondary institutions, and those who teach in other industries. They are all pursing Master or Doctorates in Education and tend to be high-achieving and grade focused individuals. The online graduate programs have highly structured course outlines and assessments, to try and ensure consistency between the different sections and instructors. This leads to limited flexibility within the assessments that can be done. However, Dr. Eaton has found ways to help her students be successful, using formative feedback throughout the course.
The main type of assessment in the graduate education program is written essays and research papers. Students are not always used to this format of writing, and can find the many papers intimidating. Dr. Eaton makes sure that her students understand the assignment expectations and rubrics, and that any confusing wording is clarified. She also ensures that all of her students know that she will read through their papers at any point the writing process and give them formative feedback to help guide them through.
Different types of learners benefit from different types of formative feedback. Some like getting comments written directly on their papers or over email. Others prefer talking to Dr. Eaton on the phone or over Skype because they benefit from the personal relationship. Some students just need a dialogue about focusing on learning instead of grades to help remind them why they are taking the course. Students can ask for formative feedback whenever they feel that they would benefit from it. Some send Dr. Eaton early drafts of their entire paper to get feedback on the overall assignment, while others send her select sections that they are struggling with.
At first, very few students take advantage of Dr. Eaton’s offer. However, once a student receives some formative feedback, they immediately see its benefits and continue to seek it for the remainder of the course. On a few occasions, Dr. Eaton has had students who liked the formative feedback so much that they would send work to be reviewed almost continuously. In these cases, she puts a limit on the student to only receive feedback on two or three of the drafts that were sent. This helps allow her to effectively help students without becoming overwhelmed.
Dr. Eaton says that the personalized feedback is important for students. At the start of the course, she tells her students that any time they ask for feedback, she will read every word that is sent to her. Students really appreciate having a professor that cares so much about their success and their learning. She also makes sure that students know that their early drafts, ideas and submissions for formative feedback have no impact on their final grades. This encourages students to send work that is incomplete or still being edited, so that they can get the comments and suggestions that they need to improve it.
Formative feedback takes a lot of time and effort for professors, but Dr. Eaton says that it is so worthwhile, for her and her students. It makes the summative assessments easier to grade, because she has seen parts of it in the past and she can see the progress that has been made. She also has some expectation for the level of the work that she will be grading. The students can feel less anxious about their grades and can get meaningful help from Dr. Eaton as they are writing. Students who ask for formative feedback almost always do better in the course than those who do not. It is also a good reminder to them about what is important in the course. It is easy to forget that learning should be the central focus, not achieving high grades. Formative feedback helps students put the effort into learning and communicating the material, instead of just trying to write an A plus paper.