Adding Writing Feedback Tools to Google Classroom

Context

Personal Project

Overview

As a teacher, I used Google Classrom as a tool for making much needed improvements to how I gave feedback on student writing.

This project was a chance to take those experiments a step further, proposing changes that could help students learn to confidently navigate the challenges of the writing process on their own.

Tools

Sketch
Principle
Material Design

The Problem

For Students

Bad Feedback Results In Bad Writers

Students often learn to identify as bad writers when they receive minimal feedback while writing and a final grade when they are done .

Writing a school assignment, a student feels lost searching for the right words to express the ideas in their head

They run out of time, and submit what they have to meet a deadline

They get a bad grade on their assignment

They see that other students got better grades

They repeat this process many times throughout their school experience

They graduate thinking of themselves as a ‘bad’ writer

For Teachers

Good Feedback Is Essential, But Hard To Give

The difference between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writers is not innate ability. ‘Good’ writers can get just as lost and find the process of searching just as frustrating. The difference is some writers have learned how to persevere through that struggle and search out words that better express their message.

“Good feedback is the guidance and coaching we receive while we are still lost.”

Thanks to research, we know that the best tool for helping students learn how to better navigate the challenges of the writing process is good feedback. Good feedback is not the comments scrawled on the final draft that we skim past in search of the grade. Good feedback is the guidance and coaching we receive while we are still lost. The best feedback goes further, helping the student learn how to work through the confusion of writing on their own.

Project Goals

1. Make it easy for teachers to give good feedback quickly

Educators know the importance of feedback, but struggle to find the time to provide it.

2. When students get good feedback, make sure they know what to do with it

Feedback is useless if students don’t understand it or know how to use it.

Research

The decisions in this project were driven by the observations I made throughout my unofficial 5 year field study as a 7th grade English teacher. These observations were cross checked against research literature on best practices.

What is keeping teachers from giving good feedback quickly?

Teachers are busy and feedback is time consuming

Even streamlined feedback systems can become cumbersome when repeated for each of over a hundred students. The less time a teacher spends per assignment, the more routinely they would be able to provide timely feedback while maintaining their sanity.

Many tools promote the wrong kinds of feedback

Presenting feedback as a number grade (*/100, 1-4, etc.) is fast for the teacher but dangerous for the student. At best, they give students a vague sense of how “good” their assignment was. At worst, they can reinforce destructive self-images for failing learners.

When students get feedback, what is keeping them from using it?

Getting feedback when they’re not ready for it

Every good writing assignment  will have points where students need support and guidance, but it is difficult to know when. Directions are useless if somebody already knows where they’re going; the same goes for feedback given when the writer already knows what they want to work on next.

Not understanding the teacher’s comments

There are countless potential obstacles between a student and figuring out what their teachers are trying to say: how well the student can read, how well the teacher writes in ‘student friendly language,’ how well the student understands concepts the teacher references in their comments, etc.

Not knowing what to do next

Even when a student understands what a teacher is saying, they often remain stuck or forget about the feedback when they start writing again.

Prototyping Feedback Tools

To make sure I used as much of the existing interface as possible, I began prototyping by rebuilding relevant screens from Google Classroom and Docs in Sketch.

After many rounds of sketching, iteration and feedback from designers and PMs, I built high fidelity mock ups of key user flows in Principle.

User Flow Comparison

When teachers have a quick window to give feedback

Part way through a longer writing assignment, a teacher has an hour between their last class and a parent meeting to post feedback on drafts

Before

1. Slow load times while checking every assignment for comments

2. Efficiency tools like Comment Bank require teacher to do additional work ahead of time

3. No support for making comments accessible to low readers

After

1. Streamlined document view quickly loads only assignments that actively need feedback

2. Reuses language teacher has already created for assignment rubric

3. Audio recording tool makes feedback more accessible to low readers

How I Got Here

Balancing Speed and Quality

In paring down the interface, I needed to be careful not to leave the teacher with a tool that efficiently delivered mediocre feedback.

In my early wireframes, feedback was communicated using clickable numbered rubrics. They were an efficient tool for connecting student writing to learning standards, but after additional research, it became clear that they posed risks for student motivation

“Students are less likely to pay attention to descriptive feedback if it is accompanied by judgments, such as a grade or an evaluative comment. Some students will even hear ‘judgment’ when you intended description.”

 Susan Brookhart

 How to Give Effective Feedback to Students

In order to maintain the efficiency of a clickable rubric while shifting the emphasis of the content to be more descriptive, the feedback was revised to be an annotated rubric.

The visual emphasis is on specific qualities of the writing rather than a potentially distracting score. These still help the student judge their progress towards meeting learning objectives but prioritize actionable description over the potential distraction of judgement.

User Flow Comparison

When Student Writers Get Stuck

While drafting an assignment at home, a student is stuck and does not know what to write next.

Before

1. Student has no input on when they receive feedback

2. Minimal supports to ensure student understands feedback

3. Student has to figure out what to do with feedback on their own

After

1. Student has control over when they get feedback (with friendly reminders if they forget)

2. Low readers can receive audio feedback

3. Student is prompted to create action items or follow up with teacher to get additional support

How I Got Here

Giving Students Meaningful Control

A major challenge of this project was figuring out how to balance giving students control over when they receive feedback with ensuring that they actually take advantage of the opportunity. While I had seen students do things like requesting feedback through Google Doc comments on their own, they were almost always strong writers already well versed in navigating the writing process.

“Some element of student control is critical; otherwise, blended learning is no different from a teacher beaming online curriculum to a classroom of students through an electronic whiteboard.”

 Clifford Maxwell

 What Blended Learning Is - And Isn't

Early on, I explored allowing teachers to make requesting and receiving feedback a condition for students to able to submit an assignment. Technically, this would make sure students engaged with the feedback process but it would be forced.

The final design blended proven patterns from both teaching and digital products: checklists and the infamous red dot. As a teacher, I frequently relied on checklists and reflection questions to help students navigate complex projects independently. While notifications seem increasingly abused, helping students become self-sufficient writers seemed to justify using a red notification dot to lure students to those checklists.

Measuring Success

What data would help to indicate how well these modifications achieved project goals?

Better Writers

Are the majority of students getting better at writing over time?

Data

Student rubric scores across multiple writing assignments

More Users

Supporting Google’s business goals, is there an increase in long term G-Suite users?

Data

User engagement with new tools and retention rate

Faster Feedback

Are teachers able to deliver feedback more efficiently?

Data

How long it takes teachers to complete essential tasks

Take Aways

At its core, this project was a vehicle for  my learning and growth as a designer

Design Systems: Boring on the Outside, Awesome on the Inside

No matter how outwardly generic assets created using Material Design might seem, I ultimately found that I had all of the tools I needed to meet users’ needs.

Writing: My New Favorite Design Tool

Even this former English teacher was surprised by how often writing was the most productive next step when it came to making important decisions.

Biggest Challenge: Resisting Scope Creep

Throughout this project I got better a resisting the temptation to start brainstorming features that did not directly support my primary goals.