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.
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
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.
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.
Educators know the importance of feedback, but struggle to find the time to provide it.
Feedback is useless if students don’t understand it or know how to use it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Even when a student understands what a teacher is saying, they often remain stuck or forget about the feedback when they start writing again.
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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.
While drafting an assignment at home, a student is stuck and does not know what to write next.
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
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
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.”
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.
What data would help to indicate how well these modifications achieved project goals?
Are the majority of students getting better at writing over time?
Student rubric scores across multiple writing assignments
Supporting Google’s business goals, is there an increase in long term G-Suite users?
User engagement with new tools and retention rate
Are teachers able to deliver feedback more efficiently?
How long it takes teachers to complete essential tasks
At its core, this project was a vehicle for my learning and growth as a designer
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.
Even this former English teacher was surprised by how often writing was the most productive next step when it came to making important decisions.
Throughout this project I got better a resisting the temptation to start brainstorming features that did not directly support my primary goals.