Opinions / / February 10, 2017
When I scroll through my inbox filled to the brim with Lawrenceville emails and see the subject line “Student Comment Notification,” I feel my stomach flip. Haiku already gets me down with all its changing syllabi and due dates; I don’t need Veracross against me too. Reluctantly, I click the bolded words and the email pops up. After quickly glancing over the message, I quietly fume and/or beam a little and proceed with my day. Later, I’ll approach my advisor with a shrug and either a “Yeah, that went well” or a “Sorry, I’ll do better next time.”
Academic memos comment on isolated events in the classroom—a test or project grade, a good Harkness move, a disrespectful comment. And though the memos succeed in keeping the student’s advisor connected with his or her advisee’s successes and struggles, they fail to accomplish the primary purpose of teacher feedback: meaningful communication between student and teacher. In fact, concern memos only discourage students from working with their teacher through the situation. For comments serious enough to warrant face-to-face interaction, academic memos are an easy way out of what could be a difficult but necessary conversation. Personally, I always prefer face-to-face communication, whether it happens while passing my teacher in the hallway, staying after class, or coming in for consult. Of course there are times where the rush of Lawrenceville life prevents conversation, but we as a community must prioritize in-person communication between students and teachers, which means scaling back the emails and seeking each other out.
Each teacher differs on how frequently they send out memos—or if they even use the system at all. Some wait until interims to shower you in their observations and comments. Interims are useful to some degree; they provide an opportunity for a student to have a formal, routine conversation about his or her academic progress. Furthermore, they ensure that a student has at least some idea of his or her growth in every class. However, they often fail to provide students with constructive, useful feedback. For example, “speak up more” is more of a teacher proverb than a Harkness strategy. Interims can also fall under the “too little, too late” category where a solid second half of a term can only compensate so much for a rocky start—especially during Turkey term. So how can we remedy the teacher feedback problem we face?
All teachers should have the freedom to decide how they provide feedback, whether through comments on essays, Harkness rubrics, or one-on-one discussions. However, no teacher should get away with neglecting to update students on their progress. I don’t know if teachers, knowing that interim comments are approaching, are disinclined to give more feedback over the course of the term because doing so would take time out of their already busy schedules. I’d like to believe that getting rid of interims and encouraging more thoughtful, consistent, and conversational feedback would resolve the issue. But this might only cause more problems than it initially set out to solve because some teachers just don’t regularly provide feedback in the first place. Interims, then, become a saving grace for students to know his or her standing in the class.
For anything to function constructively, students must meet teachers halfway. It’s on us to take ownership for our learning and seek out teachers when confused or struggling so that academic memos are slowly by in person criticism or praise. If both teachers and students work to meet face to face using the times that Lawrenceville makes available—consult, lunch, or even over coffee, then we can foster a learning environment that values and builds on feedback rather than ineffective comments on student’s progress in the form of academic memos.