Feedback Loops & Writing Workshop

All, Teaching, Technology, Writing

As I noted last week (Why Writing Studio?), I am devotee of writing workshop and a tremendous fan of Peter Elbow, but then as a National Writing Project teacher this is programmed into my pedagogy. I recently read an article in Wired magazine, Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, which really resonated with me and validated (for me) recent moves I have made in my classroom.

spiral coilThomas Goetz (the author of the Wired article) describes the feedback loop as a “profoundly effective tool for changing behavior.” As any writing teacher knows, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels, we need all the behavior-changing tools we can get. Our students come in with a mixed bag of tools in their writing kits and it seems much of our time is spent teaching them to organize, use, or toss these tools before there is room to add more.

What I really like about the word “loop” is that it constantly serves as a reminder that learning and writing do not develop in a straight line. I picture my own writing a coil that constantly circles around and yet moves forward. I know that I learn this way as well and so I have tried to create a class structure that built in feedback loops. I do this through the use of a class blog and reflection journals.

First and foremost, I began with a community building assignment. We know we learn better, and share more freely, when we feel safe and comfortable. However, our class blog also helped build community by encouraging (OK requiring) participation. I created a new class blog prompt each week and students were required to post a response. Earlier in the semester this writing was very low stakes. Essentially I would share my thoughts and experiences about topics such as “what is good writing” and “information literacy” and students could respond with their own thoughts and experiences. As the semester progressed, my contributions became shorter and yet more demanding as I asked students to work with readings from our text (see Using Six-word memoir Posters and Using Comic Book Themes to learn more) and then develop discussion prompts and essays of their own. We used the blog as a place to brainstorm and share ideas.

staircaseI also require students to comment each week on a few blog posts written by their classmates as well as to respond to the comments on their own posts. I think the low stakes nature of this writing as well as the fact that they have a specific audience helps my students think about the topics that I challenge them to think about but also opens them to a variety of ideas and topics as they each bring their own challenges into the conversation. This format also frees me up. I do not respond to every blog post by every student every week. Some weeks I do my best to comment on all, for example when they are proposing ideas for a new project, but other weeks I simply skip around and comment as I have time and only on the posts that interest me. Many students are very aware that in order to attract comments they need to post something of interest in a timely fashion and they also understand that active participation is another tool to attract supporters of their own blog posts. I tell students they don’t need to respond to a post that doesn’t interest them and I believe this process has really helped them develop a much stronger sense of audience awareness than if they were simply writing for me and if they knew that I was always going to read everything.

A final, and important, piece of the process is the weekly reflection journal. Here I ask students to share not only what they did that week and what they struggled with, but also to reflect on their ideas and process. I always read and respond to every weekly reflection journal post and I hope that this helped students become more self-regulating and reflective learners and writers. I know it has helped my relationship with my students to have this regular private conversation about their work. I also believe it has helped me keep track of student work so that I can intervene before things go too awry.

I am very pleased with the feedback loops I have created in my classes. Students are able to share early thoughts and ideas and then progress to more developed projects as they receive feedback. They have a clear audience, an audience of more than just the teacher, which provides regular feedback. And my students have experienced how a feedback loop process which includes both external and internal feedback can impact both learning and writing. I consider that a lesson worth learning.

Do you agree that feedback loops are important to learning – especially learning to write? How do you create feedback loops in your classroom?