Once more unto the breach

As a teacher, I cherish that special bundle of emotions that comes with the start of a new semester: a mix of nervousness and excitement, tempered by the calm that descends when I step onto campus, because I’m home.

As a student, I’m also excited, also nervous, also at home, but add to the bundle a certain sense of distress that comes from knowing I have very little control. I have to rely on, and trust, other people – professors, classmates, administrators – and that trust is sometimes tested. One advantage to being a player on either side is that I’ve come to understand that very few people are actively working against you, no matter how frustrating things may sometimes feel. I try to remind myself of this fact when I encounter those bureaucratic roadblocks that are inevitable, but ultimately surmountable.

My newest adventure as a student is about to begin, or rather is in its initial stages. After just over a year of the aforementioned roadblocks, this morning I registered for my first PhD courses at McGill.

This blog is part of this adventure. I want to spend the next few years looking into the communication between teachers and students, and how both sides of that dialogue can get more out of the discussion. This focus comes from work I did for my M.Ed., in which I looked at teacher feedback on student work, and discovered that no two teachers give the same feedback – some write lots of comments, some write nothing; some use codes and graphics to express themselves, some use only words; some question, some correct; and no two use the same complete package. These results led me to wonder just how much students can get from this feedback , since they cannot rely on consistency. Even if they manage to figure out one teacher’s comments, they have to start at square one the following semester. Both sides end up frustrated – teachers spend hours on student work, only to witness students glance at their mark and ignore the comments; student don’t understand the comments or how to use them to improve their work.

I’ve been teaching in the CEGEP system for over a decade, and I love my job, my colleagues, and my students. I’ve also been a student for pretty much my entire life. In recent years, as well as completing my M.Ed., I studied as a fitness instructor, and am now a certified yoga instructor. One of the interesting aspects of my training in the fitness field is that what makes me a good teacher in the classroom makes me a good teacher in the gym or yoga studio – and vice versa. As a yoga teacher, I can see much more tangibly the idea that different students respond to different kinds of feedback and instruction. Some need to see me move, so they can mirror my physical placement. Some need to hear my instructions, because they want me to tell them what to do. Some need me to adjust their bodies, because they need my correction to get the right alignment. Some need me to leave them alone, so they can figure it out on their own!

The purpose of this blog, at least for now, is to document my adventure. I want to use this space to explore some of the ideas that emerge, to engage in discussions of practice and of theory, and to do what one does with any adventure: record my progress, share some souvenirs, and have something to reflect on when it’s all over.

Your feedback is welcome.

6 thoughts on “Once more unto the breach

  1. Hi Maggie, your description of your work during your M.Ed. really hits home for me — I’ve got my approach to written feedback, which I know isn’t the same as other teachers and has no justification other than my instincts/guesses. If you have any wisdom to share regarding optimal approaches to providing essay feedback, I’d love to hear it. Did you produce a thesis or other work that could be easily accesses/shared? Thanks!

    • One thing that I think is really crucial for us as teachers, and for our students, is transparency. As teachers, we need to first recognize that our students aren’t mind readers, and our style is unique – which means we need to teach each class how to interpret and apply our feedback. For students, transparency means being comfortable asking questions, such as “can you explain what ‘sva’ means?”

      For my own classes, I do many things that I hope make feedback more transparent, and more of a dialogue. For example, in each course pack, alongside my marking rubrics, I include an overview of my shorthand comments – so students can refer to the class text to discover that ‘sva’ means ‘subject-verb agreement,’ and see an example of an error that would get such a comment. I also break essay-writing down into thesis planning, outlining, drafting, and finally, writing – but only the final stage gets a grade. Every other stage gets feedback, and part of the final mark reflects how well students applied that feedback. For the first essay of the semester, I meet with students one-on-one, after I’ve commented on their drafts, and we discuss my comments, and their strategies for the final stage. This meeting is an excellent opportunity for me to see what gaps might exist – it’s easy to assume that they all know what I mean by ‘topic sentence?’ and maybe most do; the meeting, however, gives me a chance to explain and even demonstrate an effective TS to that one student that doesn’t know what I mean, and might be too nervous to bring it up in class.

      Thanks for your comment, Andrew! I’d be happy to share my M.Ed. thesis with you. PM me on Facebook with your e-mail address, and I’ll send you the PDF.

  2. As I have moved into the world of fully online teaching, I’m finding my definitions and understanding of the way in which feedback is received have shifted, thus adjusting the way in which I provide feedback. Even though no two teachers/instructors/professors/facilitators will provide feedback in the same combination, arguably it can still be valid and useful if the feedback is relatable and understandable for the student. And, isn’t that part of the experience – learning how to adapt to various input styles since every customer, client and colleague is unique?

    This is awesome, Maggie. Love that you are doing your PhD. 🙂

    • Thanks, Heather, for both the support and the insight. I might come looking for more about your experience as an on-line educator as I get further into my research!

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