Students shift to writing their own, self-reflective comments

Student in advisory read over their self-reflective comments, March 14, 2022 – Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

With the third quarter winding down, the upper school administration has experimented with a new style of feedback to families. 

“We thought that this would bring a more authentic voice to comments,” Head of Upper School Mr. Mark Fifer said. “We tried to give students some more ownership over reflecting on their learning.” 

Still, some students do not feel this way. “I don’t think that the comments made me come to a conclusion that I had already not arrived at,” Fourth Former Luke Fesnak said. “I think my parents and I value the teachers’ opinions a little bit more than mine. I understand self-reflection is important, but a teacher has something to say that I don’t.”

Other students have different opinions. “Overall I think it is a good idea, and I think that it can work,” Sixth Former Bowen Deng said. “It gives me an opportunity to see my strengths and weaknesses in class, and it is an opportunity to be honest with myself.”

“I cannot write a comment to the level that a teacher would, and what I am writing does not feel like it is detailed enough.” 

Bowen Deng ’24

A worry that students have had are the biases that might be reflected in a self reflective comment. “[A teacher] is able to tell me how I am actually doing in class, rather than my biased outlook,” Fesnak said. 

Deng voiced the same concerns. He said,  “One main problem is that I can’t offer any comments on my engagement to the teacher and what the teacher wants to tell me. I cannot write a comment to the level that a teacher would, and what I am writing does not feel like it is detailed enough.” 

A similar issue was the effort put into the comments. “In the beginning I was putting more effort into the comments, but after writing comments for a few classes, my effort diminished,” Fesnak said. “I had more pressing assignments that were actually worth points. If a comment with poor punctuation gets to my parents, I don’t really care about that as much as losing points on an actual assignment.”

English teacher Dr. Micah Del Rosario did not share the same worry after seeing the comments his class produced. 

“I am not going to say that every single one of my sophomores produced a comment that was really thorough, honest, and robust,” Dr. Del Rosario said. “However, I would say that over 90% of students did create a comment that was about as long as the paragraphs I wrote last quarter, which is pretty substantial.” 

Teachers are still involved as an essential part of this drafting process. 

“What we had teachers do is guide students through this reflection process.”

Mr. Fifer

“Every now and then I had to leave a note about adding a sentence here and there about a different skill, which was not alarming to me,” Dr. Del Rosario said. “In the revisions, people did add those things. I don’t feel that, looking at this process, people just phoned it in or lied.” 

Mr. Fifer echoes this idea. “What we had teachers do is guide students through this reflection process. It wasn’t an open-ended reflection, but a scaffolded one, in the sense that the comment was grounded in the student’s development of course goals and skill in the class.”

Some community members voiced another concern: class time away from learning. 

“We took a portion out of class time to write these comments instead of going over materials that will be on a test,” Fesnak said. “I think that taking away review and time to learn material is more harmful than the comments helpful.” 

Dr. Del Rosario said, “I am not sure how other teachers are doing these comments, but generally speaking, I don’t think that these comments really need to take up that much class time if the teacher structures this in a way that is efficient.” 

Dr. Del Rosario gave his students the concrete learning objectives of the class and took about 20 minutes a period for a few days to have students reflect on how they were improving with these objectives. 

The self-reflective comments have eased teacher workloads while still providing a way for the school and students to communicate with parents about progress in different classes. 

“I am perhaps slightly biased as an English teacher, where writing is part of what we do in class, so there is logic behind having class time to write these comments. It feeds into what [students] should be learning in my class anyway: writing complete and coherent sentences and grammar,” Dr. Del Rosario said. “I also just think that it is nice to have an activity to break up the monotony of class every day.” 

Another benefit of these student-written comments are for teachers. “Comments are a lot of work for teachers,” Dr. Del Rosario stated. “On top of all the lesson planning and stuff, we need to write 30 comments each quarter, which is a lot. Comment season has a really heavy workload.” 

The self-reflective comments have eased teacher workloads while still providing a way for the school and students to communicate with parents about progress in different classes. 

“We thought it would provide an authentic entry point for dialogue in parent-teacher conferences,”

Mr. Fifer

An additional hope for self-reflective comments was to provide an opportunity for a more honest dialogue between students and teachers during conferences. 

“Another reason we went to this model is that we thought it would provide an authentic entry point for dialogue in parent-teacher conferences,” Mr. Fifer said. “If a student wrote and owned the comment, it would lead to more investment in that conversation.” 

Finally, a more important idea of self-reflective comments is that students can see how their self view has developed. 

“When we think holistically about a student’s experience, having the opportunity to look back on a comment that you wrote as a freshman as a senior might be a powerful way for a student to see the arc of their development,” Mr. Fifer reasoned. 

It is important to keep in mind that this was an experiment. 

“We felt that this was a good time to do this and experiment, given that students are only taking three concurrent classes,” Mr. Fifer explained. “Like anything we do, we are going to take some time to reflect and find any tweaks that we need to make to make it a more valuable exercise.”