Providing Meaningful Feedback

Feedback to students can take many forms, including suggestions for improving written drafts, comments on final submissions, grades on exams, and comments on oral presentations. To help students make the most productive use of feedback, consider the assignment’s timing or sequence in the course schedule. Consider the tone of your feedback and the guidance that you provide so that students can benefit from your comments and improve their work.

1. Providing meaningful feedback helps students move beyond focusing on grades.

Grades are value judgements of students’ performance on a given task. By contrast, meaningful feedback provides students personalized, specific information about their performance and learning. Feedback isn’t justification for a grade but rather positive reinforcement and constructive criticism focused on helping students understand how to improve or expand their thinking.

2. Make your feedback as specific as possible.

Instead of writing “Nice work!” or “Unclear,” provide specific, targeted feedback. What’s laudable about the assignment? What aspects of the work contribute to lack of clarity?

3. Meaningful feedback is formative in nature.

Formative feedback is designed to help students (and professors) understand the learning progress and focus on improvement. For example, a professor might require students to submit a first draft of an assignment. Feedback on that first draft should focus on how students might expand their thinking, clarify their argument, better incorporate source material, or otherwise improve their essay.

Even when feedback is provided on a summative assignment such as a midterm essay or final project, the feedback should focus on lessons the student can carry with them to their next assignment or class. By providing specific feedback on areas of organization, presentation, or content knowledge at which students excel or should further develop, you help students improve their learning over the course of their college experience.

4. To be helpful, feedback needs to be timely.

Feedback is most effective when it is given while the assignment is still fresh in students’ minds and when there is time to improve performance or understanding on this assignment or the next one. If there are not opportunities for students to rework a particular assignment, feedback should address what students might do differently – or what they might continue – on future assignments. As you plan your course schedule, ensure your assignment sequence allows you to provide feedback between assignments, with time for students to receive and implement the feedback provided. In order for students to process and use the feedback you provide, they need to receive it prior to working on the next assignment.

A good benchmark is to provide feedback within the first 3 weeks of class.

5. Effective feedback is legible and uses a constructive tone.

To be useful, feedback must be legible (if handwritten) and understandable, where possible drawing upon concepts and phrases discussed in class. Equally important is that feedback be written in an approachable tone. If the feedback sounds like scolding or constitutes simply a list of what is wrong, students may be inclined to tune out, rendering the feedback useless. One way to assess the tone of feedback is to imagine how you would provide your feedback if you were speaking directly with the student.

There are many ways to provide feedback – through handwritten comments, using Word’s Comment or Track Changes options, through Blackboard’s inline grading function. If you choose marginal comments, try to also add a summary comment to synthesize your feedback.

6. Consider feedback as a way to start a conversation with students.

Besides envisioning feedback as a one-way transmission from you to students, consider asking students to submit a self-reflection, along with their assignment. This technique can be a useful way of discovering what students think about their own work, aiding you in crafting feedback that will be most helpful to them. In your feedback, you might also ask students direct questions and expect them to respond.

7. Feedback is not the same as rewriting a student’s essay or providing extensive edits.

When you provide extensive edits or essentially rewrite sections of a student’s essay, you signal students that their work is inherently incorrect and full of mistakes. Rarely does this message promote learning, nor does it show students what they’ve done well or why your changes constitute an improvement. Instead, use your comments to focus on a limited number of problematic writing patterns, and explain how a student might address them. Examples include grammatical or organizational issues. When providing corrective feedback, also indicate what is working well in an assignment. Make sure your corrective feedback doesn’t conflict with your complimentary feedback.

8. Tailor your feedback to the assignment.

Before you prepare your comments, review the assignment criteria and your grading rubric to help identify the most important aspects of the assignment on which to provide feedback. If the assignment is a creative endeavor, such as a Prezi, a website, or a visual design, decide on your feedback mechanism. If appropriate, you might create a screen capture video of yourself clicking through the material with spoken audio feedback rather than purely written feedback. If the assignment is a group project, use your assignment guidelines to help you decide what feedback should be provided to the entire group and what feedback should be shared with individual group members.

9. Use your feedback to inform future lessons.

When you find yourself providing similar feedback to a number of students, it’s time to revisit the concept or issue in class. You might provide anonymous examples of successful and unsuccessful assignments. Other possibilities include re-teaching a concept or reviewing the best way to employ a particular skill. Use your feedback to inform your own teaching as well as to help your students learn your course concepts.

10. Develop strategies that make providing feedback on written work more efficient.

Depending on the type of assignment and its relative weight in the curriculum, you might establish guidelines for yourself on how you will provide feedback. Set aside an appropriate amount of time to write feedback, ensuring you can return assignments to students within a reasonable time frame. Try to ensure you devote roughly equal (or equitable) amounts of time and effort to commenting on each student’s work. You might find that deciding upon a maximum number of suggestions or areas for improvement for each assignment will help you prioritize your comments and give you clear focus.