How I Used Mail Merge to Streamline Student Feedback This Semester (And Why I Might Not Do It Again)

There are many aspects of my job that I’m good at. My classes are fun, and I’m constantly brainstorming new, creative activities that keep students engaged without sacrificing depth of content. I’m able to strike a balance between nurturing my students and challenging them, and because I believe fiercely and relentlessly in their ability to succeed, I can get students to stretch themselves like you wouldn’t believe. I can make nervous students feel comfortable, and I’m great at fostering a sense of community in the classroom.

This is a fairly accurate representation of what it looks like inside my brain. And sometimes my office.

I’m not so good at staying organized.

I can handle it when the consequences of my disorganization fall back on me – when I have to take the extra minute to sort through the piles of paper on my desk to find the one I need, or when I feel frazzled because I forgot about an upcoming deadline and suddenly I have to do all of the things in none of the time. It’s certainly not ideal, and I may drive myself nuts, but it’s not the end of the world.

But when my organizational struggles impact my students, it’s time to get my act together. And one thing that’s very difficult to manage as an organizationally-challenged educator is feedback. Over the last few years, I’ve felt like I’m constantly apologizing for how long it’s taking me to grade this or that assignment, and while I always start off each semester with dreams of offering each student individualized feedback on a near-daily basis, inevitably, by the time we’re about a month in, those dreams have evaporated, replaced by the desperate rush to make sure that my classes at least get their major assignments back with some minimal level of feedback before we get to the next big assessment and my students have no chance of improving because they don’t know what they’ve done wrong.

Sound familiar? I can’t be the only one who struggles to provide timely feedback while still keeping on top of everything else involved in being an educator… right?

If you’re one of the ones who has this feedback thing all figured out, please, share your wisdom! I’d love to hear from you in the comments about what works for you. But in case you’re like me and are still perfecting your system for offering timely feedback without going crazy, I thought I’d share my own journey with all of its ups and downs. Feel free to borrow anything you find helpful, and please—PLEASE—use my failures to help you avoid similar missteps, so at least they will have served some purpose! And at the very least, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone!

So, without further ado, here are my reflections on attempt #1 to reform my grading practices:

This semester, inspired by this post from The Goldfish Bowl, I decided to use the mail merge function in Word to create personalized feedback forms to give to students at the end of each unit. Throughout the unit, I collected data on my students’ performance and stored it all in a giant Excel spreadsheet, which I then used to populate the mail merge fields in my Word document. While this did require a significant investment of time on the front end to set everything up, my theory was that once I had it up and running, it would significantly streamline the feedback process throughout the semester and allow me to provide more in-depth, personalized feedback to each student without going crazy.

A sample student feedback sheet. Isn’t it beautiful?

Here’s how I set it up:

I created an Excel workbook containing a separate spreadsheet for each class, plus one sheet with a master list of comments. Each class spreadsheet had columns to record my students’ grades in participation, homework, and performance on each portion of our end-of-unit IPA (IPA = Integrated Performance Assessment. An IPA includes assessments in the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes of communication. Check out this blog post from Becky Morales at Kid World Citizen for more on IPAs). For these assessments, I recorded their scores in each sub-category of our grading rubric, and then used a formula to convert these scores to an overall grade. I also had several columns dedicated to comments: my observations about their class participation, notes about any particular grammatical structures that seemed to be giving them trouble, recommended activities to help improve in these areas, and comments on their strengths and weaknesses in each of the communicative modes.   

A snippet of my master list of comments.

On the master spreadsheet, I created one column for each type of comment I wanted to include — participation, recommended activities, etc. I wrote out the comments I anticipated making frequently in each category, such as “I appreciate how well you follow directions and stay on task!” or “You’re mostly speaking in single words and short phrases. Try to extend your speech by incorporating more full, simple sentences.”

Back on the class spreadsheets, I used the data validation feature to link each comment column to the corresponding list of comments on the master spreadsheet, so that all I had to do was choose the comment I wanted to give each student from a drop-down list. (You can find a tutorial on how to do that here.)

Close-up of the feedback sheet in Word before I finalized the mail merge.

Over in Word, I created a new document that would become the actual feedback form my students would receive, which I set up as a mail merge linked to my Excel spreadsheet (and of course, spent more time than I should have making it look adorable with fun borders and cute fonts).

As I graded student work, I entered all of the numbers into the Excel spreadsheet and selected all of the appropriate comments. Then all I had to do was run the mail merge, and Word created an individualized feedback form for each student, complete with both their numerical grades and my comments about their performance in the various categories. I made sure to save a copy of the feedback forms so I had a record of their grades, then I wiped the data from the Excel spreadsheet and started again in the next unit.

Snippet of a class spreadsheet in Excel, with all data and comments entered.

Just as I had anticipated, this system took a while to setup, but it did significantly streamline the grading process and allow me to give more feedback to each of my students throughout the semester.

Here’s what I liked about the system:

  • It did make it easy to transform raw data into feedback that seemed more user-friendly and personal.
  • It improved my efficiency. I could get through a stack of grading much more quickly when I only had to select the comment I wanted from a drop-down menu rather than rewriting the same comments over and over again.
  • I saved a LOT of paper. Rather than printing out separate rubrics for each graded assignment, I only needed to print out one sheet per student per unit.  
  • It helped me shift my focus from correcting every last error to thinking more holistically about the feedback I was offering students. What was the most important thing for them to work on in order to improve? What one thing were they doing really well?
  • I was able to include observations and comments about their performance that wouldn’t have fit neatly into any particular assignment. For example, if I noticed a student was often confusing “ser” and “estar” on their in-class activities, I could make a comment to that effect under the general grammar notes section, as well as direct them to exercises to help them practice those verbs, even if it wasn’t a primary objective of the unit.

In essence, the system worked exactly as I hoped it would. It was efficient and easy to use, and it improved both the quantity and the quality of the feedback my students received.

That said, I may not go back to it this spring. Here’s why:

  • While the drop-down menus did streamline my process for commenting on student work, they felt limiting. Rarely did my pre-created comments capture precisely what I wanted to communicate to a student, and I often found myself choosing between giving them feedback that wasn’t quite right or typing out a new comment that wasn’t on my original list.
  • I think students learn best when we can point to concrete examples of their strengths and weaknesses within their own work, which this setup doesn’t allow for, at least not without doing so much extra work that it defeats the purpose of using this feedback system in the first place. Telling a student to work on their vowel sounds isn’t as helpful as saying “Make sure not to add a ‘y’ sound in front of your ‘u’s. For example, you are currently pronouncing the word universidad as ‘you-nee-ver-see-dad.’ In Spanish, the vowel ‘u’ should always make the sound ‘oo’ like in ‘moon’, so the word universidad should be pronounced ‘oo-nee-ver-see-dad.’”
  • While I was more efficient at grading and commenting on each individual portion of our IPAs, I had to have everything entered into the Excel spreadsheet before I could generate the feedback forms using mail merge. I found that often I would have several portions of their IPAs graded, yet I wouldn’t be able to give students their feedback on those portions until I had everything ready to go.

As far as I’m concerned, these drawbacks are significant enough that I need to rethink my feedback system once again, in spite of all of the things I loved about this setup. I think this system might still have its uses, but in a much more limited fashion, such as using it to give feedback on individual assignments instead of compiling a whole unit’s worth of work at once, or using it primarily to communicate information that doesn’t require the same level of personalization, such as which textbook exercises a student should complete next.

In the meantime, the search for the perfect feedback system continues. Stay tuned…

How do you handle student feedback? Let me know in the comments!

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