Defining Excellence: How I Use Whole Class Feedback

I first encountered whole class feedback several years ago and was instantly captivated. And what’s not to love? It promises a significant reduction in workload, no longer spending countless hours huddled over a slow burning lamp with pen in hand (forgive the Dickensian rhetorical flourish) whilst simultaneously, even miraculously, improving student outcome. 

I remember the very first time I saw one of the template sheets and was filled with questions, even scepticism: but could it actually work? Don’t students need individual comments? How will they know what to work on? How will they improve? But still, the promise alone was enough to try it. I mean if it did work then it would be a game changer, and I don’t mean this as a cliche, but genuinely it would forever change how I approached ‘marking’.

So, I tried it out. And it worked…ish. It’s not that it fell short of its promise, and I could see it really could change everything, but it just didn’t quite fit. Since then I’ve tried countless templates and tweaks and iterations of whole class feedback, some with coded feedback, some retaining marginal annotation, some with none, some with just ticks, some without. 

This is a post outlining what, after much deliberation and experimentation, I now use for WCF. My process won’t work for everyone just as many previous templates didn’t work for me. But, maybe it might offer some ideas because, for me at least, finally, WCF has lived up to its promise. 

The Template: How Does It Work?

Here, then, is the template that I use:

You will notice that it is divided into various sections, some likely familiar to those who use WCF and some that might be a little different. Much of this post, will outline how I use each of these sections and how they come together, but first, in brief, here is a short synopsis of each section and how it functions

Task: Simply the title of the task that the students have been set or the title of the esay

Excellence is…: When reading the essays I am especially looking for patterns of excellence across student work, things that students are doing that make their work excellent. This might be, for example, depth of analysis, precision and fluidity of embedded quotation, coherence of argument, use of context to illuminate, and so on. It will likely be anchored to a success criteria that was established and discussed prior to setting the essay. As I explain to my class, this is something some of us are already doing really well, but I want all of us to be doing it.

And it looks like this…: Working on the assumption that it is difficult to be excellent if we don’t know what excellence looks like, I provide examples, taken from students and the essays that are being read as part of this feedback cycle, of exactly what excellence looks like. In the actual template and what students receive, this is simply a blank square because, as I’ll explain in a moment, I live model this example of excellence in the feedback lesson itself. So, the message I send to students using these two aspects of the template together is: this is what excellence is and here’s what it looks like.

Your Next Steps: As I read student essays, and in the traditional manner of WCF, I make a note of patterns of misconception, common errors or areas for development and attach these to a numbered code. Each student has written on their work one of these numbered codes that offers more individual feedback for students to work on. If a student doesn’t fit into one of these categories, although most do, then I’ll write something more bespoke. These next steps are designed very much in the traditional mode of small, granular and actionable steps that students can take, on the understanding lots of marginal gains compound over time. However, there is another reason for including this section and not something to be overlooked: student motivation. In my various iterations of WCF, I have found that those models that lacked any personalization tended to be met with a certain level of subtle antipathy. The pedagogy might have been sound, but students were simply less inclined to attend to the feedback if they felt, wrongly or rightly, their teacher did not attend to them as individuals. So, this section serves both an instructional function, but also a motivational one. The worst feedback, no matter how good, is the feedback that is ignored.

Our Together Task: This is a task that we all complete together based on whatever I think will have maximum impact across the class and that we all do in lesson. If, for example, I feel we need to work more on our depth of analysis then this task might provide additional opportunity to do just that. It is often also connected to what we previously did in the ‘excellence is…and here’s what it looks like’ section of the feedback lesson. As I say to the class, there is no one who will not benefit from completing this task.

The Feedback Process: From Reading Essays to Handing Them Back

Now that we’ve explored the design of the template itself and its rationale, here is a step by step process of how all of this breaks down in a single feedback cycle. Imagine, then, I have on my desk a stack of essays, what happens next…?

Step 1: First of all I read the essays with a blank piece of paper next to me. As I’m reading the essays, I’m doing a couple of things:

  • 1) Make very light annotations, mostly of things that I like. This might be as simple as a very short marginal annotation saying ‘great point’ or ‘I agree that Macbeth is…’ A couple of things to note though: I do this very sparingly and not on every essay and it mostly serves the kind of motivational impact I mentioned above. It shows students I am attentive to their work which, in my purely anecdotal experience of not doing this, means they are more likely to attend to the subsequent feedback. I think a mistake with WCF is to equate it with making zero personal comments or marginal annotation. But, again, this is very sparing and very quick, if at all.
  • 2) Highlight in blue what I like. Unlike the above, this is something I do with every essay I read. As I’m reading, I have a blue highlighter on my desk and every time I read something that I like then I highlight it in blue. These highlights play a purpose later in the process.
  • 3) I’m also, crucially, collating my impressions on the piece of paper as I go. What misconceptions am I noticing again and again? Are there any patterns of errors? What is going really really well? Is there an aspect of the question that people didn’t seem to understand? Are there are specific students who seem to be struggling or excelling? All of this material is eventually going to make its way on the WCF template: this is where I am clarifying and working out the coded next steps, what excellence looks like, and other aspects of the feedback lesson.

Step 2: Type up the WCF template sheet. At this point I have read all essays and have my scribbled down notes on the piece of paper. Now it’s time to translate these notes to a form that can be handed out to students. I would have already decided the coded next steps and written the numerical code on the various essays so it’s just a matter of typing these up and maybe tweaking the specific wording. I will also type up the ‘defining excellence’ section (which is usually just a short sentence) but not ‘what does it look like’ because, as you’ll see, this will be done live in the lesson itself. But, I will make a note of the examples I want to go through on a separate piece of paper or even a separate template that will be just for my reference during the lesson. Finally, I decide on the exact wording of the Together Task, if I haven’t already, and type that up based on my observations across the class.

At this point, I can print out the template sheets and tag them into student books. I estimate for a whole class of essays all of the above, and so from opening to the first book to completing the feedback, we’re looking at about between 40 to 60 minutes. However, this might take a lot less time depending on the nature of the task. I might also complete WCF in the more traditional manner which is effectively just the scribbled notes and not the template and this would take even less time.

The Feedback Process: The Lesson Itself

At this point, we’ve arrived at the lesson itself, which is quite possibly the next lesson after receiving the essays (such is the benefit of WCF) or perhaps more likely a couple of days later. I hand the books back to the students where they will find:

  1. A very lightly annotated essay with various ticks
  2. A mark, if relevant
  3. A Next Steps numbered code
  4. Various blue highlights
  5. A tagged in feedback sheet

So, what happens next?

Step 3: As I hand the books back I ask the students to do two things first of all, ignoring all else. First, read their essay back silently and second pay very close attention to the blue highlighter. As I would have explained in a previous lesson, I am asking them to do this for a couple of reasons. I want them to read their essay back because in all likelihood they won’t really remember what they wrote and, as I explain, the lesson isn’t going to be of much benefit if they can’t remember the work I’m offering feedback on. I also suggest they may like, in hindsight, to make any changes or tweaks to their own work at this point. I also want them to pay very close attention to the blue highlighter because this is what they’re already doing really well and I want them to keep doing what they’re already doing well. So, I explain, I want them to think what exactly is it that they are doing well at that point? What is highlighted in blue and why? A specific word or a sentence? An argument? A point of analysis? Are there any patterns across the things I have highlighted blue? What, I want them to consider, has gone well for them? I give them maybe 10 minutes to do this and they should all be reading, polishing, and thinking carefully about what is blue.

Step 4: At this point, we move into the defining excellence section of the feedback lesson, which I personally consider to be the most important and valuable part of this process. I begin by reiterating, and they would have heard this before, that there are certain things that some of us are doing really, really well already, but I want every single person in the room to aspire to do these things just as well. I explain what I’m about to talk them through are just two things I noticed that I thought were excellent and that I want everyone to work towards because we all can be excellent. I explain, because we’re aiming for excellence, we’re going to go through this together very carefully and everyone needs to pay attention because I’m going to be looking especially hard in the next essay for everyone to be aiming for these two aspects of excellence. I begin by explaining the first aspect of excellence and what makes it excellent. I then say that I’m going to show you exactly what this looks like using an example from someone in the class. This isn’t me, I say, this is word for word one of you and if one person can do it then anyone can. I then write out whatever it is that I copied from a student essay and as I’m doing this I verbalise exactly what makes it excellent. I then pause to ask questions and ask students to copy what I’m doing. This works for a couple of reasons. 1) Like any live modelling, it is making concrete and breaking down what success looks like; 2) I make it clear this isn’t me or a teacher but a student and so it is achievable for everyone in a way it might not appear if it’s my work; 3) there’s a motivational boost to wanting your work to be the one modelled and a really nice moment of pride in having your work praised and commended in front of your friends. We then follow the exact same routine for the second definition of excellence.

Step 5: As I say, for me, the most valuable part of this process is pinpointing two very specific moments of excellence and stripping them back to what students are doing well and what everyone should aim for. However, the ‘Your Next Steps’, which we look at now, offers a slightly more bespoke and targeted point of feedback. I first of all pick out anything in these next steps that I want to explain in more detail and then ask students to quickly copy down their relevant action step depending on the number they have been allocated. I ask them to do this so that if the feedback sheet is ever lost they still have the feedback. Depending on time and the nature of the next steps, I might ask students to do something with this feedback right now, but I equally may not. If this was the only kind of feedback I was giving then I absolutely would make sure it is a actionable step to complete in the lesson, but given what this part of the process is sandwiched between I don’t feel compelled always to do this.

Step 6: Now we arrive at the Together Task, which we all complete right now in the lesson and, as I explain to them, there is no one that will not benefit from doing this. I explain what the task will involve and aim to give them a solid chunk of time to complete it, depending on the task. This is very much the opportunity now for them to implement some of the feedback they have received and to practice or refine something that my reading of the essays determined needed further attention. The task can take many different forms, whether reapplying feedback from the lesson in another similar but different context or extending their thinking around the topic in some way or developing an aspect of their essay writing. When designing this task I will try to make it connect to the Next Steps already identified to provide a way in which to practice those in a different context or to connect to the ‘what excellence looks like’ aspect of the lesson. This task is very much about bring together some of the different strands of the feedback lesson. This task will then take us up to the end of the lesson.

Here is a copy of a completed template after a lesson which I filled in and worked through under the visualiser:

After the Lesson: What Happens Next? 

Of course, as we know, if feedback doesn’t change the student then it doesn’t hold much use so after the lesson and the next time we produce similar work, I make an effort to be attentive to what we covered in the lesson, especially surrounding the ‘what excellence looks like’. I really do want to see how many in the class are now working if not at, then at least closer to, the aspects of excellence we explored in the lesson. This will also feed into future and subsequent lessons so we return to these ideas, with further opportunities for modelling and practice. I’ll also make a note of the feedback for the next essay and look for any patterns of misconception with specific students for which it might be best and easiest to intervene.

The point here is the above feedback lesson, both before and after it, becomes part of an iterative cycle: feeding into and out of the lessons I am teaching and the work the students are doing. It is diagnostic and forward looking, for both me and my students. This model of whole class feedback allows us to place emphasis on what really matters by stripping it back to what excellence looks like, next steps, and a task we all do together. It’s what I always imagined whole class feedback would be.

And, finally, here is an editable version of the template I use should you wish to adapt or use yourself: https://tinyurl.com/ycw2ouos

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