Effective student feedback: Creating and using comment banks

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Continuing her series on effective pupil feedback, Helen Webb looks now at using comment banks to provide students with better quality feedback while also reducing teacher workload

Last year I completed my MA in Education and my major project focused on how I could improve the feedback we give to students. I found that the technique I developed was easily transferable across different activities and subjects and it not only drastically improved the quality of feedback provided to students, but it also significantly reduced teacher workload and allowed students to progress more easily.

My literature review earlier in this series of articles focused on the issues surrounding marking and feedback (What does effective student feedback look like? Parts 1 & 2, SecEd, September 2016: http://bit.ly/2cj1W4L and http://bit.ly/2cWFYCD).

Feedback is consistently reported to have significant impact on the progress students make, but for this to happen it needs to be effective. However, while there is a wealth of articles making this very point, at the time of writing there was very little information available about what it is you are actually supposed to be saying to your students for it to be effective.

As such, my project began with me creating my own top tips for effective feedback (based on my literature review) that I later collated into a booklet that I now share with staff in CPD training sessions. I have also summarised these top tips in a previous SecEd article (Effective feedback: Top tips for teachers, SecEd, September 2016: http://bit.ly/2czZyDD).

Given the potential level of detail that needs to be incorporated into written feedback for it to be effective (e.g. the inclusion of challenging or self-reflective questions, model answers or examples etc) and the fact that feedback needs to be carefully worked so it is understood, specific and differentiated, this has obvious and significant issues for workload. This is where I developed the use of comment banks.

To manage my marking workload, I first ask: why am I marking this piece of work? If students can mark it themselves, they do. I only select tasks to teacher mark where my feedback will have the biggest impact.

Then, when I mark a class set of students’ work, I will make the usual simple corrective annotations. However, instead of scrawling a comment with my appalling handwriting, I simply write a code. This letter or number corresponds to a carefully worded comment that I have written on a separate document. This comment incorporates all the advice listed in my top tips article (link above) and this comment is written in such a way that it could be re-used for another student.

As I continue to mark through the rest of the class set, I can write new comments or re-use the same codes given to the earlier students.

An example comment bank

Example question (GCSE biology): Explain why Helen is similar to but not the same as her parents (6 marks).

What Went Well (WWW)
  • A You highlighted key words and command words in the question to help focus your ideas and answer the question.
  • B Well done, you have considered both genetic and environmental factors in your answer.
Even Better If (EBI)
  1. When you have finished writing your answer, re-read it through to check that every sentence makes sense.
  2. Check your spellings – “environment”!
  3. You have given a simple explanation for the similarities and differences, but you could add more detail? Such as:
    i) “Helen inherits 50 per cent of her genes from her mother’s egg and 50 per cent of genes from her father’s sperm.”
    ii) “Helen may inherit recessive alleles that were not expressed in her parents.”
  4. You could give examples to illustrate your explanation, e.g. “Helen may be slimmer and fitter than her parents because she eats a balanced diet and exercises regularly.”
  5. Your answer was excellent:
    i) How do you think you achieved full marks for this task?
    ii) Can you also explain why Helen is similar to but not the same as her sister?

Returning students’ work

When I return work to students, I will display a comment bank such as this and then where appropriate they will copy out their feedback for their own personal record. This technique also allows students to see the kind of feedback given to others in the class.

In order for students to demonstrate that they have made progress as a result of your feedback, I find it is useful to give specific instructions as to what they need to do with your feedback and to provide dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT). For example, to help focus students, you could use the following list of instructions:

  • A Copy the statement that has been targeted to you.
  • B Finish this statement (given the feedback you have received): “To improve I need to...”
  • C Add...
  • D Amend...
  • E Rewrite...
  • F Redraft...
  • G Explain... by adding/giving...
  • H Rewrite the paragraph using the following keywords...
  • I Correct the spellings of the words I have circled.
  • J If you did not know the answer, what could you have done to find the information?
  • K Ask me a question that will help you to improve your work further.

Finally, it is our school policy for teachers to mark in red pen and for all student responses to be in green as this helps to illustrate the feedback dialogue and make any progress evident.

Further advice

Having used this technique for a while now, there are a few hints and tips that are worth taking note of.

  • On the PowerPoint slide that you display feedback on, make it clear the question or task you are referring to and include the class code for future reference (this is essential if you are doing the same task with different classes).
  • Use separate codes for WWW and EBI statements so that you can add to the WWW statement bank without affecting the EBI codes.
  • Subdivide examples to make feedback to students even more specific.
  • Use mark schemes to model answers (this can also save you time going through a mark scheme separately).
  • Use the guidance in my previous top tips article to help you phrase your statements.
  • Try not to overload PowerPoint slides with too much information, as students will complain that the writing is too small!
  • If you wish to adapt the technique to improve the quality of peer assessment, just use fewer statements.
  • Explain (and then explain again) that any letters on their work are codes not grades!
  • Print-off a copy of the comment bank and keep it in your class file for easy access to these comments at a later date if needed.
  • Print-off a hand-out version containing six mini-slides that can be used as labels to be cut out and stuck on the work of students who are absent for the DIRT activity (otherwise the codes make no sense on their own).

The first few times that you use this technique will require some thought, but once you get into the swing of it and especially when you already have some comment banks that you can draw upon your marking becomes so much quicker. More importantly, it is more effective too.

Since I have been delivering CPD on effective feedback, staff have taken the idea and adapted it for their own use. Some have developed pre-written feedback sheets for specific tasks in which appropriate comments are highlighted for individual students.

Some computer-savvy staff now use the idea of comment banks together with mail merge programs to provide individualised feedback and specific DIRT tasks in their own chosen style.

In my own department, we tend to share comment banks for different tasks electronically as they are written, which again reduces marking workload.

For certain tasks, I now write and print marking slips with pre-determined success criteria next to a tick box, which is marked if achieved and has space underneath for further individualised EBI feedback and assessment.

It is worth noting that since I have been delivering feedback in this way, the quality of peer feedback has also dramatically increased, no doubt from repeated exposure to the feedback they have received from me, clearly modelled in comment banks.

Comment banks are a great way to deliver feedback to students, but ultimately, however you choose to provide feedback to your student, it is the quality that counts. When marking students’ work, it is always worth asking yourself: does what you have said or written allow this student to move closer towards their goal?

  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. You can follow her @helenfwebb

Further articles

This is the fourth article in this on-going series on effective feedback. The next piece, which focuses on ideas for feedback statements that can be used in conjunction with comment banks, will publish on Thursday, October 6. To read Helen’s earlier pieces, visit http://bit.ly/2cLa6UZ


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