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Feedback on Feedback

I'm looking for feedback on feedback. Giving feedback to students, that is. I'm being pulled in three directions on this topic and would like to hear from fellow CS teachers on what you are all doing in your classrooms.

As a teacher with almost 100 AP Computer Science students, grading student programs (both of the typed and handwritten variety) is a daunting task. Grading like a human compiler would be valuable, but that would take an amount of time exceeding the available amount of time in the day. Instead, I rely on an extremely healthy dose of formative feedback, given to students while they are programming as I walk around the room. The students seem to appreciate and value this type of feedback, especially since it is personalized to both them and the task at hand. In contrast, the amount of summative feedback I give to the students is minimal and often I feel badly that I do not give them more, descriptive feedback about their work.

Do the students want more written feedback?

Would they do something constructive with it or would they just toss it aside?

As a student enrolled in a graduate class this spring, I lamented the lack of feedback I received from my instructor. The computer programs I slaved over for up to 20 hours on the weekends in languages that were new to me earned perfect scores. While extremely happy about the grades and satisfied that I completed the tasks on my own accord, I felt incomplete without any feedback. I knew my programs compiled and ran according to the specifications. I also knew that I did my own work without any assistance.

So, why need feedback? I had no idea if I wrote the programs best utilizing the functionalities of the new languages I was studying or if I was just approaching them the "Java" way. I needed to know if I approached the problems the way intended by the professor, if I was learning what he had designed for us to learn, and if my programs were efficient. The one time I asked for feedback on a program that earned a 100, I didn't receive a response.

As a teacher who is supervised by a principal who thinks feedback is VERY important, I struggle with the amount and type of feedback to give. My principal believes that every written assignment should be returned with a significant amount of comments. Comments that can easily be understood by parents, no less! How can I write comments that are specific enough from which students can benefit, but that can also be understood by parents who most likely have not studied computer science? And how can I write enough to satisfy his requirement without taking up all the hours in a day?

Ria Galanos
CSTA 9-12 Representative


After projects are turned in to my AP CS class, I like to spend in-class time working through one or more variations on potential solutions as a group. I will try to highlight different approaches, and have students discuss the pros and cons of each, filling in the blanks when necessary. I find that this approach gives the students a different kind of feedback than what words alone could express. It doesn't really address the parent feedback issue, but at our school we rite comments on a regular basis that allow me to speak to a student's strengths and weaknesses in more general terms.

Ria - As a high school AP CS teacher, I feel much the same way you do. I'm interested to hear what ideas others have on this subject.

You cannot give personalized feedback to 100 students. Well, not unless you devote hours and hours to it which would impact other areas. Plus, most students may not care for the feedback, so you efforts might be wasted.

University professors for large classes deal with exactly the same issue, and no they have not found the magic bullet either, but here are some ideas:

1) Marking rubric, feedback criteria, checklist or whatever you'd like to call it. Have a consistent framework for feedback and get students to complete a self-assessment. Let them indicate whether they believe they have good variable names, OK variable names or no idea if their variable names are good or not. If they have "no idea", that might be something to go over again in class. For all other criteria, look over their self-marking and only make marks when you disagree on their self-marking. If the student thinks the program is 100% correct and you agree, there is not much room for feedback other than a smiley face!

2) Have students provide feedback on each others program. This gets them to see, evaluate and compare their work to somebody else's work. Accuracy is not as important, but now you have somebody else's feedback and comments which you can improve on or leave as-is. Being able to read somebody else's code is even more important of a skill than generating code, so two birds with one stone.

3) Have selected students demonstrate and explain their code to the rest of the class. Ask the rest of the class what if anything they would change of their own program based on the example they have already seen. What are the things that their program does better or worse compared to the sample program? This can be done after they have submitted their program, so even though they will not be able to make changes their recognition of what could/should be changed is part of their reflection and could be part of their marks.

4) Ask students to get together in pairs and groups and make a better version of the program than they had individually. Each student then gets to write why the group program is better than theirs and ends up critiquing their program along the way. Minimizes marking, increases collaboration, all good things.

The principal might want you to give lots of feedback, the parents might worry if there is no feedback on assignments, but unless you know and understand what feedback the specific student wants/needs, the time you provide on feedback could be wasted. The above activities can help you hone in on issues they are having problems with.

And remember, nobody has solved the issues around feedback, you won;t either, but you can make it less painful for yourself!


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