When Andover students opened BlueLink on March 9 to see their winter term grades and comments, some were met with solely or mostly numerical grades. This was because teachers were not required to give comments for student grades above a three. Making end-of-term instructor comments optional for the winter term has not been done since the winter of 2019-2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic.
John Rogers, Instructor in Physics and former Dean of Studies explained that the change stemmed from a need to balance the ways in which faculty worked to help students. Many teachers felt that the hours spent writing comments could have been better utilized through direct meetings with students, grading student work, and other curricular planning. By requiring teachers to write comments, they felt they were given significantly less time for other methods of engagement with students.
“The overall context in which decisions have been made about the nature and frequency of report writing is one of balancing the many ways in which faculty might spend time helping students. For many years, the academy found this balance by asking that faculty write reports on students twice per year: once at the end of the fall term, and once at the end of the academic year. Then, abruptly, faculty were asked to write comments at all six of the reporting periods. This increase in report writing was felt by many to have quite a negative impact on the overall quality of teaching,” wrote Rogers in an email to The Phillipian.
As a result, a committee—chaired by Kathryn McQuade, Instructor in English—was created to produce a workable proposal for a more balanced system of report writing that would maintain quality instructor feedback without requiring teachers to spend hours on written comments. The committee conducted research and collected feedback from the student body. Conclusions drawn from this research formed the basis of the current report writing system.
“A big takeaway from that research was that students deeply appreciated instructor reports, but also appreciated receiving feedback from teachers while they still had time to do something about that feedback. That’s why the committee recommended requiring instructor feedback at the fall and winter midterms in addition to the end-of-term reporting that had traditionally occurred at the close of the fall and spring terms,” said McQuade.
Another recent change gave teachers the choice between written or verbal feedback during winter midterms. In lieu of the traditional written comments, teachers could conduct one-on-one, in-person conferences with students. Teachers such as Rogers found it to be a faster and more casual way to connect with students and provide feedback.
“To me, this flexibility is a very positive feature of the current system. By winter midterm, students have received two formal written reports in year-long classes already. It may be, in some courses, that there is more to say in a written format: however, in many classes, the opportunity to discuss things in person—with some back-and-forth, and a different level of trust and candor—is more valuable at that point in the year,” wrote Rogers.
Despite these potential benefits, Anthony Yang ’25 found the lack of comments a jarring change from fall term. For year-long courses in particular, he relied on receiving instructor comments to know which areas he should work on in the next few terms. Further, he felt as though the entire term’s work had been reduced to a single number that did not wholly represent the effort he had put in.
“I was looking forward to reading the comments from my teachers this past term because I found my fall term instructor comments very helpful. For example, I just finished my first term of history, so having more feedback would be helpful and give me more context for the grade I received. That way, I can improve more in spring term history,” said Yang.
Similar concerns were echoed by Sui Yu ’23, who considered written end-of-term comments an integral aspect of her teacher feedback. She mentioned an alternate method of feedback that would not take teachers too much time but would still give students valuable insight into the reasoning behind their grades.
“On BlueLink, there were columns on different aspects of the class and how you did, like ‘contributions in class’, and you would get an ‘S’ if it was satisfactory. I feel like a lot of teachers didn’t use it because they write that information in the comments, but maybe if they took advantage of those categories, it would help contextualize your performance in class,” said Yu.