Lessons About Process-Oriented Feedback from Art Class
This semester, while on sabbatical from teaching, I entered a classroom as a student. I did so feeling as I think most of my students do: anxious, tentative, and totally lacking in confidence. This was a drawing class, and if I knew one thing it was that I was a bad drawer.
There’s more to say about how vulnerable I felt, especially when asked by my teacher to define “good drawing” in front of the class, but I’ll save that for another article.
For the moment I want to use my drawing class to think about what sort of feedback is helpful for a beginning student in any field. It’s useful to explore this question in a non-academic setting because in academia, we often confuse feedback with assessment. I think of assessment as a formal, somewhat objective analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of an assignment or product. Feedback, on the other hand, consists of the things a teacher might decide to share with the goal of helping a student progress in her learning.
Clearly, you can see from my early drawings that an “assessment” would have only made me feel discouraged. Had my work been “assessed,” I probably I would have given up drawing, in my heart if not in practice. No doubt I might have learned something from her assessment, but the biggest lesson would have been that I was terrible at this endeavor.
Luckily, my teacher did not “assess” my work. In fact, she was not inclined to give much feedback at all on our finished drawings. Instead, what she liked to do was to come around while we were drawing and offer tips that might help us get a better result. She would encourage us to look more closely at the object we were drawing, or show us how to use our tools more effectively.
These process-oriented tips were extremely helpful, in part because we could apply them right away. But there was another, less obvious benefit: The process-oriented feedback made us focus on the process instead of the end product. I found that I enjoyed the process of drawing. I enjoyed making mistakes and learning from them; I liked trying a new technique or a new tool to see what the effect would be. I loved that three hours passed in a flash when I was immersed in drawing.
The less I worried about the success of my end product, the more I became absorbed by the process. The more absorbed in the process I was, the better I became at drawing.
I see this same phenomenon in the community college writing classes that I teach. When my students are fully engaged in the reading and writing process—and more specifically, if they are engaged with the ideas they are writing about—they easily become better writers, with minimal instruction on my part. But if my feedback directs their focus too much on the end product, then they become self-conscious and worried about their grade. Going back to the art classroom, you can imagine how fearful and tentative I would be while drawing if my teacher were going to grade my end product.
So what does process-oriented feedback look like in an academic classroom? I think it first means that we differentiate feedback from assessment. If we need to assess our students for administrative purposes, fine, but we shouldn’t confuse that with feedback. Good feedback means holding back and not overwhelming our students with too much information. Feedback overwhelm is one of the main reasons I gave up using rubrics. Is it really helpful for students to receive a list of over a dozen of things to work on? How about just one or two?
Since giving up traditional rubrics, I started experimenting with process-oriented checklists. You can see an example below. These tools guide students to think about what they need to do to improve their process rather than how to improve their end product.
Essay #3: Process-Oriented Checklist for Draft Revision
Circle the option that fits best. If you circle “Need help!,” please be sure to ask for some help before the end of today’s session.
Overall strength of argument
Some of my arguments need strengthening
Most of my arguments need strengthening
Happy with my thesis
Need to review thesis to see if it reflects my essay
My counterargument/response is on the right track
I need to work more on my counterargument/response
Help! I don’t have one yet
Connection to Reading #1
I have a strong, developed connection to this reading
I did an OK job but I need to explain more or review the reading
I need to reread the reading or get some help with it
I am close to being done with the paper but need to edit it
I need to work several more hours on my paper
Honestly, I barely started. I’m stuck because ________________________________________________.
I’m still working out exactly how I can make my feedback focused more on the process and less on the end product. Sometimes I have my students draft their essays in class, with several pauses during which they can either consult with another student, pose a question to the class, or ask me for advice. I think it mimics what I see in my drawing class, where the teacher acts as a guide in the moment, giving tips on what students can do rather than judgments on what they have done. As such, process-oriented feedback is more timely and more optimistic in nature than product-oriented feedback. It embraces mistakes as part of the process, but it helps students work smarter, so that they avoid a lot of unnecessary mistakes or fruitless attempts.
Any tips for process-oriented feedback? Please leave a comment below or reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.