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.
Feedback is Formative
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.
Classroom Feedback Loops
In additional to “traditional” feedback, which is personalized and shared directly with students on their individual assignments, there are numerous informal and formal opportunities for feedback to flow between students and instructors on both teaching and learning.
Essentially, every classroom interaction where students engage with material can provide an opportunity for feedback for both students and instructors. For example, instructors can monitor the questions students ask and answer, topics brought up in small and large group discussions or on asynchronous discussion boards, performance on in-class activities and out of class assignments and assessments, or even interactions in office hours!
As instructors gather more information about how students are performing on these various activities, they gain a better understanding of the student experience, and can adjust their practices to better serve both themselves and their students. Additionally, all interactions with students provide instructors with valuable opportunities to provide generalized feedback to students on class progress, potentially reducing the burden of providing individualized feedback to each student on every assignment.
Characteristics of Useful Feedback
As you think about providing feedback to students, keep in mind that feedback should SPARK change in students!
Feedback should not be so generalized as to not be of use to students. Try to provide feedback to students that is associated with a specific word, phrase, or idea in their work. 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?
Feedback should offer students suggestions or solutions on how to adjust or adapt their work. It should not simply be “this needs revision,” without describing the revisions needed and how to accomplish them. For example, you might write “I don’t see the connection you are making between __ and __”; “I’m not finding the support for your opinion”; “Is there a way to connect this to ____?”; or “This would be a good place to reference ____’s theory on ___.” Statements such as “You need more detail or analysis” may not help the student understand what the problem is or how to fix it.
Students should know exactly what to adjust after reading the feedback, and it should be something that’s actually adjustable!
Feedback should clearly reference the assignment criteria or task. Using rubrics can help you focus your comments specifically on the tasks and skills that a specific assignment is assessing. Additionally, you can use this rubric to help you determine which feedback is most important. You likely can’t provide students with adjustments to everything they’re doing, so use your rubrics and/or assignment criteria to help focus your comments on one or two key concepts.
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. Kindness does not mean that we can’t hold students to high standards and provide them with constructive criticism.
You may find the “compliment sandwich” model an effective way to present feedback to students. First, you tell students one or two things they did well, then you can share the constructive criticism and feedback you have for them, then end with one or two things that they did well.
Tips for Providing Feedback
In addition to the SPARK feedback model, below are some general tips for providing feedback to students.
Before starting to provide feedback
Use or checklists to support your review of the work and organize your feedback in line with the assignment criteria. Share these rubrics with students before they start the assignment!
Review student work prior to starting to provide feedback or grade. Scan through student responses and papers to see if your rubric/criteria are being met and were clear to students. For example, if all students missed a key component of an exam question, perhaps the question should be thrown out as it was not written clearly or not adequately covered prior to the exam.
Use a comment bank for common concerns with students’ work. Then you can copy, paste, and adjust the comment to be relevant to the student in question. This also allows you to save your comments for future semesters/assignments.
Try out different forms of feedback. Some may find recording audio or video feedback to save time, others may find providing Word-based tracked changes to be most effective, and still others may prefer the Canvas “Speed-Grader” function.
Set time-limits for providing feedback. While we could all spend hours editing a single students work, this is not feasible. Try to set time limits (e.g., 20 minutes per paper), to ensure you spend equal amounts of time and effort commenting on each students’ work, and protect your own time.
Grade by question, if grading exams or problem sets. This allows you to ensure you are evaluating student answers and work on the same question similarly.
After providing feedback
Provide generalized feedback in class. Many times, students will make similar or even the same errors. It can be helpful to review summarized feedback during a class session in addition to individualized feedback.
Use common feedback to inform future lesson planning. If students are all making similar mistakes, it is likely that they do not understand the content and may appreciate additional guidance or resources around the topic.
Require that students wait at least 24 hours after receiving their grades before discussing them with you. This ensures that the students have had time to review your feedback and may remove some of the emotionally-driven responses associated with receiving a grade that is at odds with students’ expectations.
Additionally, we encourage you to involve your students in the feedback process. You might consider providing students with an opportunity for self-reflection. For example, after students complete a paper or exam, have them fill out an “assignment/exam wrapper” where they describe their process, how they prepared for the paper/exam, what they did well, and what they might change in the future. This process supports students’ metacognitive development and helps them to become more self-directed learners.
Finally, you can consider letting students provide feedback to their peers. Receiving peer feedback can encourage student buy in to that feedback, as hearing suggestions from peers can be more effective than that same suggestion from an instructor. Students could respond to their peers’ drafts or final products, either in a more general way (“What works best in this essay? What didn’t work as well?”) or in a more targeted way (“Underline the places where the author used credible research”; “Mark the places where the author responded to the research question”). Review some best tips for setting up peer feedback mechanisms in the classroom.