How to Give Feedback

Why is feedback important?

Feedback has been known to be an important part of the learning process. Especially when coupled with deliberate practice, feedback can help students spend their time mastering aspects that they need to focus on most rather than practicing what they already know. Effective feedback works as a map to guide students by letting them know where they are now and what to work on in order to get to their goal. Without good feedback, students may carry misconceptions that they did not even realize they had while learning the material and walk aimlessly towards a goal without being sure how they can get there. 

What constitutes effective feedback?

Effective feedback is: 1) targeted, 2) communicates progress, 3) timely, and 4) gives students the opportunity to practice and implement the feedback received. In a broader sense, these aspects relate to thinking about where the student is going, how the student is doing now, and what the next step is.

Targeted feedback

When giving feedback, it is important to make sure that it is specific and linked to clearly articulated goals or learning outcomes. Targeted feedback gives students an idea of what they did well and how they can improve in relation to the learning criteria stated in the course. Connecting feedback to specific and achievable goals helps provide students with an understanding of desired outcomes and sub goals as well. Additionally, goals should not be too challenging or too easy; goals that are too challenging can discourage students and make them feel unable to succeed, while goals that are too easy may not appropriately push students to improve and also provide them with unrealistic expectations of success.  

Targeted feedback also includes prioritizing feedback – in other words, it is important not to overwhelm students with too many comments. Research has shown that even minimal feedback on students’ writing can lead to an improved second draft, especially in the early stages, because it lets students know if they are on the right track and whether readers understand their message. To implement this, you may consider setting up milestones in order to break up a class project or paper and provide feedback to students along the way. 

Communicates progress

Feedback showing how far a student has come can help by providing students with information on how much they have improved and where they should direct more attention to. Studies have shown that formative, process-oriented feedback that is focused on accomplishments is more effective than summative feedback, such as letter grades, and also leads to greater interest in the class material. One strategy to consider may be providing specific comments on student work without a letter or number grade; students tend to fixate on such summative feedback, and studies have shown that providing both feedback and a grade actually negates the benefits of the given feedback. 

Opportunity to practice 

Simply giving targeted feedback will not be effective if students are not also given the chance to practice and put this feedback into place. Targeted feedback helps direct students’ efforts to focus on how they should move forward for the future, but practice allows students to actually learn from feedback by applying it. Otherwise, there is the potential for students to not actually digest the feedback even if they willingly received it. Some ways to link practice with targeted feedback are to have a series of related assignments where students are asked to incorporate feedback into each subsequent assignment, or create sub-goals within projects where students receive feedback on rough drafts along the way and are specifically given a goal to address the feedback in final drafts. Regardless of the nature of the assignment, the key part is that students be given the opportunity to implement the feedback they are given in related class assignments. 

Timing of feedback

It is also important that feedback be timely. Generally, immediate feedback and more frequent feedback is often best so that students are on track for their goals, but timely feedback may not necessarily be given right away. The timing of feedback largely depends on the learning goals – immediate feedback is better when students are learning new knowledge, but slightly delayed feedback can actually be helpful when students are applying learned knowledge. In particular, if the learning goal of an assignment is for students to be able to not only master a skill but also recognize their own errors, then delayed feedback would be the most appropriate because it allows students to think about their mistakes and have the chance to catch their errors rather than relying on feedback to tell them. 

For STEM classes, immediate feedback may include in-class concept questions where students can know right away whether they have understood the new material that they just learned, while delayed feedback would include a problem set where they have to apply these learned concepts and wait before receiving feedback. For non-STEM classes, immediate feedback may include an in-class discussion, where students can hear feedback and thoughts on their ideas in real time, while an example of delayed feedback would be an essay, where students have to apply what they have learned in class to their writing and do not receive feedback on their submission right away.

Strategies to implement feedback in the classroom

As an instructor, you may not always have the time to provide feedback the way you would like to. The following strategies offer some suggestions for how you can still efficiently provide students with useful feedback.

Look for common errors among the class

You may notice common errors or misconceptions among the class while grading exams, or realize that many students ask a similar question at office hours. If you take note of these common mistakes, you can then address them to the class as a whole. This can have the added benefit of making students feel less alone, as some may not realize that the mistake they made is a common one among their peers.

Prioritize feedback

As mentioned earlier, it can be helpful even to provide minimal feedback on a rough draft to steer students in the right direction. Often, it might not be necessary to provide feedback on all aspects of an assignment and doing so may actually overwhelm students with feedback. Instead, think about what would be most important to provide feedback on at this time – you may consider providing feedback on one area at a time, such as one step of crafting an argument or one step of solving a problem. Be sure to communicate with students which areas you did/did not provide feedback on.

Incorporate real time group feedback. Many feedback strategies appear more feasible for small classes, but this method is particularly useful in large lecture classes. Clicker questions are a common example of real time group feedback. It can be particularly difficult in larger classes to gain a good picture of student comprehension, so real-time feedback through clicker questions and polls can allow you to check in with the class. For instance, if you notice there are a large proportion of incorrect answers, you can think about how to present the material in a different way or have students discuss the problem together before re-polling. Other options for real-time group feedback include external polling apps – the most commonly used polling apps on campus are PollEverywhere, Socrative, and Sli.do.

Utilize peer feedback

It may not be logistically feasible for you to provide feedback to your students as often as you wish. Consider what opportunities for peer feedback may exist in your subject. For example, students could provide each other with immediate, informal feedback in-class using techniques such as “Think-Pair” where each student has had time to first grapple with a concept or a problem individually and then is asked to explain the concept or problem solving approach to each other. Using peer feedback allows students to learn from each other while also preventing you from getting overwhelmed with constantly having to provide feedback as the instructor. Peer feedback can be just as valuable as instructor feedback when students are clear on the purpose of peer feedback and how they can effectively engage in it. One way to create successful peer feedback, particularly for more substantial assignments, is to provide students with a rubric and an example that is evaluated based on the rubric. This makes it clear to students what they should be looking for when conducting peer feedback, and what constitutes a successful or unsuccessful end result.

Create opportunities for students to reflect on feedback

By reflecting on how they will implement the feedback they have received, students are able to actively interact with the feedback and connect it to their work. For example, if students have a class project divided into milestones, you may ask students to write a few sentences about how they used the comments they received and how it impacted the subsequent assignment.

References

Ambrose, Susan A., Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman (2010). “What kinds of practice and feedback enhance learning?” In How Learning Works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching (pp. 121–152). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Benassi, V. A., Overson, C. E., & Hakala, C. M. (2014). Applying science of learning in education: Infusing psychological science into the curriculum. Retrieved from the Society for the Teaching of Psychology web site: http://teachpsych.org/ebooks/asle2014/ index.php

Goodwin, Bryan and Miller, Kirsten (2012). “Good Feedback is Targeted, Specific, Timely”. Educational Leadership: Feedback for Learning, Vol. 70, No. 1.