April 13th, 2011

Giving Students More Effective Feedback


Do you pass back exams, a set of papers or grades on some other student project and offer generic comments on what the class did and didn’t do well on the assignment? Most of us do, and for good reasons. The feedback gives students the chance to compare their work with that done by the rest of class, which can build more accurate self-assessment skills.

The process is also a way of developing community within the class. You identify problem areas and the class can work together to improve. This makes it easier for students to help each other, share progress and celebrate success. It can also motivate individual improvement—a student might not feel so hopeless when he or she knows others are working on the same problem.

But do students listen attentively as you provide this feedback? Mine never did. I’ve been thinking about some ways we might enhance the impact of this feedback.

Offer feedback that is specific, concrete and limited. Make three (not 13) observations: 1. “Most of you did not support your views with examples and evidence from the reading.” 2. “Most of you did correctly apply the concept of cognitive dissonance.” 3. “I found proofreading errors on every paper.” Maybe these comments could appear on a PowerPoint slide or on the board. If you make fewer points, you can reinforce their importance.

Offer examples that are right or well done. “Most of you didn’t support your views with examples and evidence but a few people did and I’d like to read a paragraph that illustrates what I’m talking about here.” I recommend anonymous examples. Holding up a student as an exemplar can cause discomfort and make others think “teacher’s pet.”

Give students time to benchmark their work against the criteria. “Are you one of the many who did not fully explain your methodology in section two of the lab report?” Have students take a look at their work and then write you a short note that discusses whether they met the criteria and offers an example to support their view. You can make recording their grade contingent on their return of the assignment with this note.

Target one (maybe more) area of improvement as the class goal for the next assignment. If there is general improvement, reward the class; a few bonus points, candy or granola bars, effusive teacher praise, etc. The key here is the regular reminders about the target area and discussion of how to accomplish the desired improvement.

Model how to fix a problem area. If it’s a problem, work it out for students, but do more than generate the solution. Talk through the process. With problem paragraphs, for example, do more than just discuss why a sentence is problematic. Let them see how you would fix it.

Give students the chance to practice what you have just demonstrated. “Okay, I fixed that problem. Here’s another one very much like it for you to try.” Distribute a problem paragraph and give students five minutes to make it better. If you’re in a writing lab and they make their edits online, you can go through a couple of examples with the whole class.

Target process issues for improvement as well. Sometimes it’s not just the product that needs to be improved, it’s the process. Propose a different process or let students develop one—for working problem sets, meeting deadlines, reviewing class notes, preparing for reading quizzes, for example—and challenge the class to try that process to see whether it improves results.

Encourage students to help each other with problem areas. If the focus here is on feedback given to a class, then give students some opportunities to work on it as a class. Then two days before the due date, remind students of the targeted improvement area, put them in small groups and give the group a paragraph to fix, or a problem to do. You could let the groups exchange their work and offer each other feedback. If you don’t want to take class time, design this as an online opportunity.

If you have other suggestions that increase the effectiveness of feedback delivered to the whole class, please share them in the comments section.

  • Stanley Ballinger

    Because of the possibly the nature of what I teach, my feedback is very specific. In the classes where I teach math, statistics, or any course where there is problem solving involved, I have the class go over the test problem by problem. I feel that this is the best way to help the students learn the step-by-step procedures. I know that it may take a little longer, but tests are not only part of the assessment procedure, but they can also be part of the learning procedure.

    • marybart

      "I know that it may take a little longer, but tests are not only part of the assessment procedure, but they can also be part of the learning procedure."

      I love that philosophy!

  • Dr. Ryan James

    I teach in a university in Budapest, Hungary where I am the coordinator of the Journalism and Creative Writing program. Students come from across the disciplines to be in my program. I am forever horrified when students share that I am the only one who provides them with extensive feedback.

    For the first semester writing courses, I put all of the students' papers into Google Docs for all to view and read. I also have them do peer editing which has improved their writing along with my extensive comments.

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  • John

    I have never had a class so large as to necessitate significant group feedback. I generally make a brief comment to the whole group and discuss each individual's performance with him or her. I understand that in classes with hundreds of students that is impossible, however. My practice has been to write comments to each student, then meet with those wanted more detailed feedback.

  • Shanon Reedy

    As Dr. James does, I also use peer editing/reviews in my class. Many students feel nervous when performing peer reviews, they don't feel qualified to give feedback to a fellow student. I give them guidelines on how what they should be looking for and how to respond to their peer's paper. I see a lot of spelling and punctuation checking and not so much on content at the beginning. As the class goes on the peer reivews get better and the students feel more comfortable commenting on their fellow student's papers. In a nutshell I tell them to give a fews examples of what they see as good in the paper and then a few examples of what they think should be reworked. In the end I think peers reviews are a good exercise.

  • Sheila

    In a large class (120 students) I found I was repeating myself with some of the feedback I was giving in writing in response to a written paper, especially around key points. Because I request all papers in Word attached to email, (and respond by email, in Word, with track changes, or coloured text), I was able to create a series of feedback statements, positive ideas, key questions, and constructive feedback in Word, that I could copy and paste, as at least the stem of the comments I wanted to make. I could then personalize them. Kept me to the point (of my rubric) as well…

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  • Saadskhan

    I teach adults who work in the public sector and I have found that because of cultural attitudes, they prefer personal feedback – via online- so that no one else knows where they had a setback. They hate appearing stupid before their peers. I do that when they make a specific request because my classes are too large. Otherwise, if the assignment had preferred answers , I staple the answersheet to their responses. That way they can see for themselves how far or close they were to the answer, where they need to improve or what was the expected answer. It helps to finish grading faster, so they get faster feedback and they get a chance to query in a reasonable time.

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