3 Alternatives to Report Writing to Maximise Impact on Learning

Uncategorized Nov 02, 2020
Report writing season is here, and teachers are putting in a huge amount of hours in their own time in order to write report comments for each of their students. 
A high school teacher has on average between 120 - 150 students at any given time, and has to write a report comment for each of these students. The average report comment is about 100 words long, so that means that teachers are writing between 12,000 - 15,000 words at report-writing time. 
If you are in the zone and can focus and concentrate without interruptions for a large chunk of time, it takes at least 10 hours to write this many report comments. However, as teachers are often trying to write comments in between doing a multitude of other tasks, it can often take much longer than this. Then you have to add more time for proof-reading and editing which can take just as long. 
Primary teachers are in a similar position, as even though they have less students, they need to write comments for multiple subjects. 
Now, this time might be justified if report comments had a massive impact on student learning. But this is highly debatable. Here are some reasons for why they might not be very effective: 
  1. Report comments can sometimes end up being a little generic. 
  2. We often try to be very diplomatic in our language in report comments which might meant that accurate feedback is not passed on. 
  3. By the time students receive this feedback, they have finished the learning, so they have no opportunity to apply it and learn from it. 
  4. Reports often end up filed away somewhere, never to be seen again. 
  5. Students end up being very passive in the process. 
However, of course it is very important that students receive regular and meaningful feedback from their teachers in order to keep progressing their learning, and parents also need to be kept updated on their child’s progress, as they are an important part of the student's support network. This is the main purpose of providing reports. So what’s the alternative? 
Alternative #1
Some schools have started replacing report comments with a day of parent interviews. Reports are still generated with marks/ grades for each subject, however there are no report comments. Teachers are given a student-free day to conduct parent interviews rather than doing it in their own time. 
Some benefits of this are: 
  • The amount of extra hours teachers need to put in are minimised - yes, they have to prepare for parent interviews, and it ends up being a long day to allow for parents who can’t attend during school hours, but this doesn’t take as long as writing report comments. 
  • The feedback becomes more meaningful, as it becomes more of a discussion/ conversation rather than a one-way judgement.
  • Parents have the opportunity to ask questions which may elicit more useful feedback, or they may share information that sheds more light on the student's situation. 
  • Teachers have the opportunity to receive feedback from parents and students at the same time. 
  • Students can (and should) attend, making them slightly more active in the process as they can also ask questions, and the teacher can prompt them to reflect on their progress during the interview as well. 
However, there are also some drawbacks, including: 
  • Not every parent will be able to/ want to attend, which disadvantages some students.
  • Teachers may have to arrange ‘catch up’ interviews with parents who didn’t show up on the day. 
  • Feedback might not end up being as considered or complete as it would if it were written. 
  • Time restrictions on interviews may limit the quality of feedback given. 
  • If a teacher is sick on the day of the interviews this can cause a problem. 
  • There is lack of a written record to reflect back on. 
  • If students choose not to attend then it loses some of its impact. 
  • Feedback is still being given at the end of the learning, meaning that students don’t have the opportunity to apply and learn from it. 
So whilst there are some pretty great benefits to this alternative, it’s definitely not perfect. So what’s another option? 
Alternative #2
Something else that can be done instead of, or in addition to, the parent interviews, is communicating ongoing feedback to students and parents throughout the year. 
Some schools use a learning management system (LMS) such as SEQTA or schoolbox, in order to create seamless communication with parents. For every assessment that is marked, a copy of the assessment, the mark and the teacher’s comment/ feedback is uploaded to the LMS. There are also apps such as edmodo that can be used if the school’s LMS doesn’t support this. Parents and students can then access it at any time. 
Some benefits of this are: 
  • Parents are kept in the loop throughout the year rather than just at report time. 
  • No more ‘lost' assessments that don’t make it home to parents (ie. your feedback ends up in the bin or crumpled in the bottom of the school bag). 
  • Students have more opportunity to apply feedback in time for the next assessment. 
  • Teachers generally write comments on every assessment anyway, so it’s not really much extra work. Instead of handwriting it on the paper, you can type the comment directly into the LMS which might even be quicker. 
Of course, nothing is a perfect solution, so some possible drawbacks might be: 
  • It can be time-consuming to upload individual student assessments to the LMS (however depending on the school’s financial resources they may be able to employ administration staff to do this). 
  • Some parents might not bother to check the LMS. 
  • Students are still quite passive in the process. 
  • There are no formal procedures in place to support students in implementing the feedback. 
  • Not every school has the technology resources in place to make this possible. 
Alternative #3
Professor John Hattie, in his work Visible Learning, he identifies two influences on student achievement that I believe could be utilised to greater effect in the reporting process. 
First of all, he states that ’self-reported grades’ has an effect size of 1.33 (one of the highest out of all influences), meaning that it has the potential to considerably accelerate student achievement. What he is talking about here is giving students the opportunity to predict what their grade will be before an assessment (in other words, set a learning goal/ expectation), and then use this information to engage the student to exceed their expectations. 
The second influence that he identifies as having a considerable impact is ‘providing formative evaluation’, with an effect size of 0.48 (potential to accelerate student achievement). This means that teachers need to be providing feedback to students before a formal/ summative assessment (assessment FOR learning, rather than assessment OF learning). By doing this, students are able to gather feedback on their learning progress and have the opportunity to apply it before the summative assessment. 
So how can both of these influences be incorporated into a reporting process? 
One idea could be to have students keep learning portfolios throughout the year (either in hardcopy or electronically, depending on the technological resources available). Within these portfolios, students can document their learning goals/ expectations, any formative feedback they receive, action plans that show how they are going to implement the feedback, and formal assessments with teacher comments as well as self-evaluation exercises. 
This is something that teacher’s would need to monitor throughout the year and discuss with their students. Parents can have ongoing access to this portfolio throughout the year, and can then contact the teacher at any time to discuss their child’s progress. Or, it could be paired with a parent interview day to allow for a formal meeting between teacher, parent and student. 
Benefits of this approach are: 
  • Its incorporating 2 significant influences on student achievement, as identified by John Hattie’s work. 
  • Students are much more active in this process, meaning that they are developing more responsibility for their own learning which encourages the important skill of self-regulation. 
  • Develops self-reflection and self-evaluation. 
  • It provides a more complete documentation of a students’ learning journey, therefore providing more insights into their strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Students have much more opportunity to apply feedback in a meaningful and purposeful manner. 
  • Parents gain more insight into their child’s learning progress. 
  • It creates a stronger culture of visible learning within the school - the learning process is made much more transparent to everyone. 
Possible drawbacks however are: 
  • It may end up being a bit more time consuming for teachers than the other alternatives (although strategies/ procedures could be developed for efficient handling of this process). 
  • If learning portfolios can only be kept in hard-copy, this limits parents access to them - as the safest place for them would be in the classroom (letting students take them home may end up with them being lost or damaged). If this is the case then teachers would need to make more of an effort to keep parents in the loop through direct communication throughout the year. 
So there you have It! Report comments do seem to have become a bit redundant these days, and as time goes on and technology keeps making things easier, it makes sense to move to alternative systems that allow for a more continuous flow of feedback between teachers, students and parents. 
Let me know, which alternative do you like the best? Are you already doing any of these at your school and what is your experience of them like? 
PS. Interested in more ways that you can maximise your impact? Check out the Transformational Teachers Academy
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