Helping students prepare for their essays: a feed-forward experiment

Despite the fact that my role is primarily a research one (60% research + 20% teaching + 20% admin, or something vaguely like that, you know how it is..) I’ve been reading a lot of pedagogical literature recently. I’ve always said that one of the reasons I moved back into academia was that I felt intellectually impoverished by not teaching: by not hearing the opinions of those who’d never read texts I know and love, by not having colleagues who lead team taught modules set me new things to read. Top of the list of things I’ve been reading are:

  • Greg Wilson, Teaching Tech Together, [2018](http://teachtogether.tech/en/). Partly because Greg is an inspiring educator and is bang on about how live coding must be a practised performance to succeed, but mostly because of his first rule of pedagogy: “Be kind: all else is details”.
  • Therese Huston, Teaching What You Don’t Know (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012). This is great on not over-preparing for teaching and using the gaps in your knowledge as a strength. It also contains an amazing collection of seminar tasks of various lengths (my favourite is the ‘Three-way interview’) and emergency tasks (I always have a ‘Clarity Grid’ ready to go when I think the class haven’t understood some important principle).
  • Yana Weinstein, Megan Sumeracki, and Oliver Caviglioli, Understanding How We Learn a Visual Guide for Educators, 2018. Because it has pictures! But also because it is great on how memory works and how to use retrieval to reinforce learning (in short things like: creating appropriate gaps between when students learn something for the first time and are expected to retrieve the knowledge they learn; or reinforcing learning by creating activities that encourage students to retrieve knowledge in a slightly different context).

One seminar task I’d been building up to this term – and that has been informed (in part) by all this pedadogical reading – was a group task designed to ‘feed-forward’ into an essay due for one of my Year 2 Art History classes. The scenario is a classic one:

  • My students have an essay due for the last week of term.
  • The choice of essays available covers topics covered in the last few weeks of term.
  • By the time we get to the seminar the week before the essay is due my students will be well into planning/writing the essay and won’t want/need the distraction of new information.

What, then, I asked myself is the real value of another ‘content’ week? Having taught the module a few years, I decided to change things a little this year: to condense content in previous weeks so as to keep this week (the week before the final essay is due) free for an ‘Essay Planning Session’.

The centrepiece of this 2-hour seminar was the ‘feed-forward’ exercise. The instructions I gave my students were as follows:


Before the seminar

Send me by email:

  • A maximum half page essay plan.
  • Don’t put your name at the top as I want everything to be anonymous.

In return I will:

  • Print one copy of your plan.
  • Make some comments on your plan.
  • Bring your plan with me to our seminar.

In the seminar

  • Get into pairs. I will give each pair a physical copy of a random essay plan.
  • Each pair gets 3.5 minutes with each essay plan. During that time your task is to annotate what you see in front of you. Consider things like:
    • If the sources being used seem useful (why? what is your rationale?)
    • If the proposed structure is clear (can you see clear parts to the argument?)
    • If the question is being answered (are all of the words of the question addressed?)
    • If you like some of the ideas (be encouraging! – “good idea!”, “I hadn’t thought of that!”)
    • Anything you’d do differently or are confused about (be supportive!)
  • When the 3.5 minutes are up (I’ll be running a timer with a klaxon), pass the plan to the pair on your left and collect a new plan from the pair to your right (so, go clockwise) [note: there will always be more plans than pairs, so one pair will add to the bottom of a pile from which a pair take from the top]. Keep building up the annotations.
    • Expand on existing annotations!
  • I will move between the pairs in an anti-clockwise direction to make suggestions, comments, and generally help out.
  • If you get your own essay plan, explain to your partner why you chose the question you did and your rationale for your approach. If there are any annotations on your plan, discuss them.
  • Once all the plans have been round once, I’ll collect up the annotated plans and make some time for you to collect your plan as anonymously as possible.

A few things from here need explaining.

  • I put an emphasis on anonymity throughout the task (though of course I knew who wrote which plan) because I wanted to encourage participation from students however half-baked their essay plan were: in short, I didn’t want students to opt out because they lack confidence in sharing their work.
  • I agreed to put something in (“I will make some comments on your plan before the seminar”) because I’ve got into the habit recently of building “You said, I did” pivot points into my module plan: that is, I leave a few things open at the start of every module so that I can respond to mid-term feedback. I feel students respond well to this, so thought I’d replicate it here.
  • In reality, however, my comments were brief: one small annotation. Whilst brevity helped my workload, it also gave students a guide on what to do during the task without my comments covering all the obvious, initial points.
  • I got involved because I thought it important that I both was and was seen to be a participant in the ‘feed-forward’ process, that students felt they took away from the seminar not only peer comments but also my comments.
  • That said, the comments an individual student received on their essay plan wasn’t the point of the task. The point was for students to see see in detail how people other than themselves are approaching similar (or the same) problems to the one they are tackling, with the hope that this experience will help them to gauge how they are doing relative to their peers, to see areas they need to strengthen, to notice basic points we’ve covered they’d forgot about but could put to good use as they move from planning to writing, to reduce anxiety around whether their essay is what I am looking for (and – in turn – to reduce the dreaded calls to see a model/example essay)

So how did it go? Very well. The class was energetic, lively, and assuaged plenty of fears. Lots and lots of helpful, encouraging, and astute notes were left on the essay plans. More students than usual came to see my in my subsequent office hours (I extended them) with substantive questions, more honest and precise appraisals of what they are struggling with than I’m used to, and a sense that the process and the annotations were pushing their essay into more ambitious and fulfilling directions.

The class was today, so I won’t know for another week if it helped produce better work. Yes it required a little more investment of time (reading plans before the seminar took about an hour, student queries this afternoon about an hour). Yes it squeezed together content elsewhere in the semester. Yes it was a bit scary trying something new that I had no idea was going to work. But it did and I’ll certainly be repeating my feed-forward experiment next year.

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