Using Feedback Manager to Respond to Short Writing Assignments 
in Large Lecture Courses

Professor Robert L. Jeanne (Entomology), Dr. Lillian Tong (Center for Biology Education), Amber Smith (Horticulture),& Bruce Barton (DoIT)

To ease the time and effort involved in giving feedback on student writing, Professor Robert L. Jeanne, Dr. Lillian Tong, Amber Smith, and Bruce Barton have developed Feedback Manager—an efficient, effective way to give feedback on short writing assignments in large lecture courses in any discipline.

Feedback Manager is a program available to all UW-Madison instructors that helps make writing evaluation in large courses more efficient and effective. Feedback Manager was created in the hopes of finding a way to check in with students, gauge their understanding of course material, and encourage writing in large classes.

In a class that is using Feedback Manager, students visit their course website to read a question written by their instructor and submit a short written answer online. The instructor reads students’ responses and categorizes them according to patterns in the responses—a group of students, for example, might misunderstand the question in the same way, or another group may write similarly excellent answers. These are the patterns of responses that determine different categories of feedback. The instructor then writes brief feedback for each category and emails the comments back to students.

Feedback Manager at a Glance:              

1. Instructor asks open-ended question online.

  1. Students answer.
  2. Instructor categorizes responses and writes relevant feedback.
  3. Students receive feedback.

Feedback Manager is flexible: If necessary, instructors can assign multiple categories to a student’s response. If none of the categories applies, or the response requires a unique comment, instructors can write individual feedback. Instructors also can choose how many students receive feedback on a given exercise, making the feedback process manageable for large courses.

Why use Feedback Manager?

The development team wanted to combine conventional multiple-choice quizzing with short pieces of writing so that students could grapple with class concepts before being tested on them. As Lillian Tong explains, “Writing helps students recognize what they know and don’t know and how their thinking meets the expectations of the instructor.” The short written responses, then, help students see the thinking behind their multiple-choice answers.

The development team was also guided by the belief that writing—even brief answers—allows for more higher-order thinking. Tong explains that in biology education, as well as across all disciplines, instructors have been discussing how to move away from memorization-driven education toward “critical thinking and higher-order thinking.” Tong says, “Writing is a good way for students to be aware of their ability to think….They need to know how all these little pieces fit, and that can best be done when you put [their thinking] into writing.”

How well has it worked so far?

An assessment of Feedback Manager, conducted through student and faculty focus groups, surveys, and observations, shows that many of these goals were accomplished, in addition to some that were unexpected. Students reported appreciating the interaction with faculty and were grateful for the praise they received on their brief writing. Amber Smith, who led the assessment process, noted that students were “used to receiving feedback only when they [had] gotten something wrong.” Students welcomed the encouraging communication with their instructors, even if brief.

The faculty focus groups also yielded unexpected benefits, creating opportunities for faculty to discuss how students express their ideas in writing. Instructors reported gaining a better understanding of student thinking after reading their written responses because the writing revealed the students’ process for coming to an answer.

Who can use it?

Feedback Manager is not designed only for the sciences. Any instructor of a large lecture course could take advantage of Feedback Manager to give feedback on shorter pieces of student writing like thesis statements, or quick summaries of theme, character, or concept. In many courses, Feedback Manager can help instructors assess students’ progress so that they can adjust their teaching accordingly.

Because many groups on campus already use Moodle, the course platform for which Feedback Manager was developed, adding Feedback Manager is an easy process. Tong says, “We have only scratched the surface” of “possible uses people could come up with. We really have a lot of faith in the creativity of the faculty and staff here.” Even though the team would be happy to see FM expand, they stress that they aren’t attempting to push or sell the tool. Says Tong, “What we’re actually trying to push is using…writing, quizzing, feedback, interaction. This tool just makes those things possible.”


From David Abbott, Introductory Biology:

 Assignment: In your own words, and in complete sentences totaling no more than 100 words, discuss why the function of the dendritic cell can be likened to the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere on the night of 18th of April, 1775. During these excursions, Revere warned the Massachusetts countryside that the British were coming. Include in your answer HOW aspects of the innate and acquired immune responses, and particularly CD4+ (or helper) T cells, fit into the analogy. Remember, I want to know more about the immunology than the history! If you want to refresh your memory of the role played by Paul Revere in the American War of Independence (or American Revolutionary War), by all means visit the following website:

Sample Student Answer #1: Dendritic cells are the “Paul Revere” cells because they warn and alert the rest of the immune system that an invader is inside the body. Dendritic cells display antigen fragments on their class II MHC molecules. Helper T cells then bind to the “flagged” dendritic cell using its T-cell receptor and CD4 molecule forming the immune synapse. The dendritic cells give the T cell the cytokine “message” through the synapse and the T cell activates and releases cytokines arbitrarily. The T cell then undergoes clonal selection and also further goes on to activate the humoral and cell mediated responses.

Feedback: Nice answer. You are on the right track.

Sample Student Answer # 2: Once Paul Revere learned of the bad news, he rode to Lexington warning people of the countryside along the way. Much like Paul, a dendritic cell migrates from peripheral tissues through the lymphatic vessels to the lymph nodes (Lexington) once it ingests a pathogen. This is part of the innate immunity system. By releasing cytokines (analogous to Revere’s warnings) the cell signals for a helper T cell to bind to it’s TCR and form an immune synapse. This stimulates the T cell to proliferate and form effector cells and memory cells (acquired immunity) in order to combat future invaders, much like the rallying of the American army against the British.

Feedback: You omitted the dendritic cell attracting binding of helper T cell receptor.

Sample Student Answer #3: Like Paul Revere, dendritic also send messages of foreign invaders, specifically between the innate and acquired immunity. With the innate immunity, they are on the look-out on tissue surfaces for any foreign antigens (Brits), capture them via phagocytosis (acquire information), and move them to lymphoid tissue (cities in Massachusetts). The antigens are presented to helper T cells (information told to other Yankees) via Class II MCH molecules (lanterns), bound by the T cell receptor and CD4 receptor. The acquired immunity is initiated for a response to fight the antigen (troops are round up to fight the Brits).

Feedback: You omitted the immune synapse and/or dendritic cell releasing cytokines.



From Amber Smith, Introductory Survey of Horticulture:


Assignment: Self-pollination and cross pollination have different effects on genetic diversity. Do you think that self-pollinating populations would have more or less phenotypic diversity? Why?

Sample Student Response #1: I think self-pollinating populations would have less phenotypic diversity. In general, phenotype is the direct physical expression of genotype. If the plant is self-pollinating, that means less genetic variation, which in turn means less phenotypic variation.Grade: 3

Feedback: Great answer! It is good that you could connect the effect of genetic diversity on genotype and phenotype.

Sample Student Response #2: Self-pollinating populations will have less genetic diversity because the population is only reproducing with itself. For example, one population of dark purple flowered pea plants self-pollinates while another population of white flowered pea plants self-pollinates resulting in only purple and white flowered plants. If these populations were to cross-pollinate, a new hybrid species of pale purple flowered pea plants could result. However, if plants are selectively cross-pollinated so much that there are few various species left, as is common in agricultural practices within the US, phenotypic diversity will decrease as we select for certain properties. Grade: 3

Feedback: You make a very good point about the relationship between the number of species being cross pollinated and diversity.


Sample Student Response #3: I think that self-pollinating populations would have more phenotypic diversity because it allows plants to spread beyond the range of suitable pollinators or produce offspring in areas where pollinator populations have been greatly reduced or are naturally variable. Grade: 0

Feedback: You have confused self and cross pollination. During self pollination the pollen from a plant is used to fertilize the ova or eggs from the same plant. There is less genetic diversity because there is only one set of genes that can recombine. In contrast, during cross pollination there are different mothers and fathers so to speak. A single female plant may be pollinated by several male plants. Cross pollination allows for recombination of the genetic material of many plants.