Providing detailed feedback is a critical component of effective teaching. Feedback serves as a one-to-one conversation with students and can be a powerful tool to teach course content, mentor students, and help them to develop a growth mindset (Dweck, 2006). Decades of research have identified the characteristics of good feedback as expedient, specific, and related to the expectations of the task (Nichols & Macfarlane‐Dick, 2006). Feedback must also provide students with information about how to improve their work, which is focused on future learning (Sadler, 1989).
The analogy of the Oreo™ cookie has often been used to describe how feedback should be given to students. The analogy asserts that a positive comment about work is given first, then information about where the student went wrong, followed by another positive comment to encourage the student. While this analogy reminds instructors to sandwich negative comments with positive ones, this approach is incomplete and can result in superficial and general feedback. Without specific and substantive feedback, the dialogue that leads to learning is stifled (Nichols & Macfarlane‐Dick, 2006).
A better analogy is the Almond Joy™. There are some key features of this treat that act as a guide for providing effective feedback. The primary feature is the nutritional nature of the candy bar over the cookie, relatively speaking. The cookie is mostly sugar and flour, while the candy bar has coconut and almonds that give it some redeeming qualities for health. This analogy offers a better way to think about feedback. Each component in the anatomy of the candy bar corresponds to an essential characteristic of good feedback.
Think first about the coconut filling. This layer of chewy goodness will represent an affirmative description of the student’s performance. Using positive terminology, the student is provided a specific description of their performance on the assignment. Performance descriptions should reflect both the expectations and instructions for the assignment, as well as correlate to the evaluation rubric. This approach connects the student’s work to the expectations of the assignment. Students should understand exactly what was correct about their work including to what degree they met the expectation.
The next element in the candy bar is the almond. This element represents the hard things that need to be communicated, but like almonds, these comments should be good for the student. A constructive critique of the student’s work should explain what was lacking, deficit, or incomplete. This requires instructors to be intentional about the comments. Instead of, “You did not write a good introduction to your paper,” the feedback should be specific such as, “Your paper needs a clear thesis sentence in the first paragraph to clearly introduce your topic.” This comment not only explains the shortfall in terms of a need, but it also explains why that element is essential. This reinforces the teaching of the criterion that is being assessed.
The almond comments should focus on improvement of skills being assessed. The comments should also communicate to the student what needs to happen differently, rather than merely focusing on what was lacking. This means first determining exactly what criterion the student missed, then deciding what the student needs to do next time. For example, if the student’s paragraph is unclear (missed skill), then the paragraph needs clarity. The feedback comment should explain the missed criterion as a need, such as, “You need to explain X to clarify Y in your paragraph.” Focusing on the elements that are needed, gives students opportunity see what they can do in the future and how to grow in their skills. Students are also encouraged by these hard comments because they learn how to make their work better rather than merely feeling they missed the target. Focusing on the need and giving specifics are the keys to this layer of comments.
The final layer of the candy bar is the chocolate coating. This layer is sweet and comforting, which represents encouragement for learning and better performance in the future. These comments should compare the current performance to the next level. The proficient elements of the assignment are highlighted and comments summarizing one or two behaviors the student can employ on the next assignment are made. The intent is to provide practical strategies that will assist students in obtaining the next level of performance. For example, “You have defended your rationale with two solid arguments. To support your arguments better, you will want to include research citations that validate your position.” Providing encouragement and practical strategies also makes the assessment a teaching tool, which is a sweet treat for students and instructors.
Using an Almond Joy approach can provide opportunity to develop students’ growth mindset and maximize learning through assessment tasks. While providing feedback like this may seem daunting, instructors can prepare comment templates, pre-determine the elements to focus the hard comments, and limit comments to avoid overwhelming both students and the instructor. The keys are substantive, positive, and specific comments that are nutritional and forward-focused for the growth of the student.
Kimberly Chappell is an assistant professor of Education at Fort Hays State University and the Specialist in Education (EdS) program coordinator.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Nicol, D. J. & Macfarlane‐Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: A model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218. doi: 10.1080/03075070600572090
Sadler, D. R. (1989) Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18, 119–144.