Feedback and the Virtual Classroom

It seems like a lifetime ago that Aaron Wilkes and I wrote about the return to the classroom after the first national lockdown. We focused in that blog about how to spot the gaps and how to recover the curriculum – and here we are again. Teaching children History (or indeed, any subject) remotely is difficult. It is hard to get through as much content as you would like – especially as we are still identifying the gaps from the Spring and Summer – and it is hard to know if what you are doing is good. We’ve all been feeling a bit insecure!

A scroll through teacher comments on Twitter will show a cohort divided about whether lesson should be taught live or not. You can also find the arguments about this in the chapter ‘Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning’ in Doug Lemov’s book Teaching in the Online Classroom: Surviving and Thriving in the New Normal. One thing most people agree with is that feedback is the key to student progress in the virtual classroom.

Dylan William,in his ResearchEdHome talk (2020), states that for feedback to work – for it to be responsive teaching – a teacher must do two key things: eliciting evidence of learning, and providing feedback that moves learners forward. So what does this look like in the virtual classroom?

It is harder to provide instantaneous feedback when teaching virtually, so you have probably found that you need to change the way you give it. You’ve moved from the classroom where you give feedback as you circulate the room, addressing misconceptions and using students’ work to do this. You now elicit learningfrom the work students hand in, the chat over the online platform (if they engage), and if they viewed the task and then did or didn’t hand anything in!

Something to bear in mind when giving feedback virtually (this is explored in Chapter 3 of Doug Lemov’s book), is that students’ working memory is likely in overload as they try and ignore their phone/TV, they might also have to answer the door, deal with siblings or just stare into space without being prompted back into the room!

The aim of feedback is to reduce the gap between current understanding/performance and a desired goal. In the virtual school, this means that you must be explicit. Instead of using comments like ‘you could include…’ or ‘it might be good to…’, try to say what you want them to do in clear steps. Feedback should allow students to proceed from the known, and most students will have lower confidence when they are not with you. Therefore, keep your feedback clear, positive and achievable.

What can History teachers do?

  • You can use Microsoft or Google Forms, or any other quiz apps as AfL (I think every History teacher is indebted to @MissJTappenden for introducing us to Mentimeter). This way, you can still identify and address misconceptions as you would in class.
  • Use online files to get students to complete tasks so they can be ‘live’ and you can provide feedback in real time. This shouldn’t be used in every lesson – it could get quite onerous!
  • Provide time for students to improve learning. You can do this via whole class feedback or individual feedback. This will need to be scaffolded well, since students’ resilience might suffer when they are not in the classroom.
  • Use the KS3 History Kerboodle Lessons, Resources and Assessments: there are loads of resources that launch directly from the digital textbooks, with animations, films, and interactive activities. They focus on contextual understanding, literacy, and history skills. This could be a great resource for a department planning and then tracking where the students are across classes and year groups, providing opportunities for informed and meaningful feedback.
  • KS3 History Kerboodle also has knowledge organisers for each topic, which allow targeted feedback on key concepts, dates, and events. Kerboodle includes access to the Curriculum and Assessment Planning Guides. These provide further reading links as well as ideas for beyond the classroom. These could be excellent resources for feedback that requires further research.

You are all doing an amazing job responding to government guidance and trying to keep students engaged and learning. We have spoken a lot recently about the sequence of learning and the importance of the curriculum. Virtual schooling means we have to be even more reflective and adaptable than normal. When I am feeling like I’m not sure whether to carry on with content or pause to offer feedback, I think about this quote from Kirschner and Hendrick in their wonderful collection titled How Learning Happens:

‘To really harness the power of feedback, it is vital to cultivate an environment where students have a clear sense of where they are going to, how they are currently doing against that goal, and what to do to close the gap…If the student doesn’t know enough about a topic then they don’t need feedback, they need more instruction.’

I’m trying to be more confident and responsive to the new cues of the virtual classroom. Using worked examples, AfL, and being a bit more generous with when I fade support means that after some lessons, I have felt like I did OK and the children got a good diet. It’s not the same feeling as being in school, but I know that by using regular feedback, I am doing my best to support learning and keep knowledge in.

Lindsay Bruce is a History teacher and assistant head teacher in a secondary school in the Midlands. She most recently wrote the History Word Gap resource pack; she is part of Oxford’s KS3 History 4th Edition and the Oxford AQA GCSE History author team. Follow her on Twitter @HistoryTeach0.