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 of feedback, time the assignment and feedback to come at purposeful places 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 as they progress through the course.
Meaningful feedback is formative in nature and helps students move beyond a focus on grades.
Formative feedback is designed to help students (and instructors) 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 writing.
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 should not be justification for a grade, but rather positive reinforcement and constructive criticism focused on helping students understand how to improve or expand their thinking.
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.
To be helpful, feedback needs to be:
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. 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.
Legible and Constructive in Tone
To be useful, feedback must be legible (if handwritten) and understandable, 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 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, or leaving comments in the Canvas assignment portal. If you choose marginal comments, try to also add a summary comment to synthesize your feedback.
Focused and Succinct
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 to 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.
1. 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?
2. 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 an interactive presentation, 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.
For more on facilitating group projects, visit our Teaching Tips article, Effective Group Projects.
3. 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.
4. Use your feedback to inform future lessons.
When you find yourself providing similar feedback to several students, it might be time to revisit the concept or issue in class or through a class-wide announcement in the course learning management system. 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.
5. Develop strategies that make providing feedback 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. Use rubrics or checklists to support your review of the work and organize your feedback in line with the assignment criteria. Set aside an appropriate amount of time to write feedback, ensuring you can return assignments to students within a reasonable time frame. Try to devote 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 student will help you prioritize your comments and give you clear focus. Or, if providing individualized feedback is not feasible, especially for smaller assignments, you might provide the whole class with a summary of feedback with common successes and areas for improvement across all students’ work.
For more tips on providing feedback on written assignments, read our Teaching Tips article, Efficient and Effective Ways to Provide Feedback on Written Work.