Providing feedback to students
The following collection of resources provides strategies and necessary components to consider when offering students effective feedback.
Providing feedback to students is an important part of teaching, as existing research points to the positive impact of feedback on student academic achievement (Hanover, 2014). Findings indicate that students who receive timely feedback perform better on a variety of achievement indicators than their peers do. However, research also indicates that students often do not read feedback, and if they do they read the feedback only to understand the grade they received (Zamel, 1985). Feedback is also often the final say on an assignment, which allows the feedback “nowhere to go” (Silva et al., 1997; Robb et. Al, 1986). There is much to consider when providing feedback.
The components of effective feedback
There are five components to consider.
Ideally, you will know which course-level learning outcomes are being practiced and assessed. Feedback focused on these learning outcomes is the most relevant to students. Ask the course instructor what the priorities are for the feedback you are going to give. Ensure that the answers align with the course learning outcomes. For example, you won’t want to spend time providing feedback on aspects not essential to the course. You can also ask what extent of feedback is considered appropriate.
Once you have planned what you will likely focus your feedback on, stick to that focus. This can be really challenging! You need to focus your feedback so that you are not providing a blizzard, which each piece of feedback its own unique snowflake. Students can have a difficult time determining which of these pieces of feedback is more important. So, while you may see 100 things wrong with a paper, the student is more likely to read and understand the feedback you give if it is focused. Instead, focus on two or three areas of feedback per paper. Focus on the feedback that will be most beneficial for the student, both for the course learning outcomes and for their future assignments.
It is the student’s responsibility to apply feedback, so try to include links to help students learn the writing skills they need the most help with, e.g. to the APA style guide, to a good reference that explains how to paraphrase. One question that often arises is how to address grammatical errors. These errors can range from annoying to confusing. Generally speaking, the best approach to grammatical errors as a marker is to note to the student that the errors are interfering with your ability to read their paper, and to demonstrate the extent of this issue. Rather than try to fix the grammatical mistakes or rewrite sentences, neither of which teaches students to fix it themselves, (Robb et. al, 1996), choose one section of the paper (e.g., one paragraph), and indicate the confusing sentences and/or grammatical errors in it. Indicating the extent of the errors is your job, not explaining why they interfere with your ability to read the paper.
Unless you have extensive knowledge of how to explain English grammar, it is probably better to refer students to a source or resource that can help them. As mentioned previously, you can encourage students to have a tutorial either online or in person at the Centre for Academic Communication in order to help them reduce the frequency of their grammatical mistakes.
Think strategically. If you are grading final papers at the end of term, there is a good chance that students may not see your feedback. If this is the case, you may want to prepare a sheet with common mistakes that can be posted on the course management system or sent via email to all students, rather than write that form of feedback on papers.
“Timely” also refers to how long it takes to return students’ papers. Students are generally very keen to read your feedback if you hand the papers back soon after they are turned in. Over time, though, their interest in the feedback wanes, as does their memory of that particular assignment. Given that you have to provide feedback, it makes sense to do it at a time when students are most open to absorbing it.
A third aspect of timeliness is whether students can apply the feedback to improve their assignment and resulting grade. Feedback on a draft can be applied for immediate improvement, so if you have the option, provide feedback earlier in the writing process.
The feedback you give should be applicable to future assignments as well as to the one you are currently marking. You may find it helpful to think of “feedback” and “feed-forward”: what advice can you give that will help students do better on the next assignment, in the next course, and in their next year of study? What do they need to know about writing in your discipline?
As well, if you want your feedback to be applicable, make it readable. This is less of an issue if you mark online, but if you are writing feedback by hand, remember that students will need to be able to read it in order to be able to apply it. Students can be quite shy to ask their TAs to explain what they wrote on their papers. If your handwriting is hard to read, you may want to consider typing it.
When marking and providing feedback, it can be easy to become frustrated. Remember that the words that you write on a student’s paper can have a much more negative impact than you intended. How would you feel if a neutral third party were to read your comments? If you feel frustrated when marking, it is a good idea to set the marking aside, take a break, and do something a bit different until you can approach marking and feedback with a more neutral tone.
“The most important thing I learned when I first started grading at the university level was to judge the work, not the student. There are any number of reasons why a student might do poorly on an assignment; a lack of moral worth isn’t one of them. Students should see assignment feedback as an opportunity for growth, not as a commentary on their character.” – Edwin Hodge, TAC Sociology 2015-16
Source: Korpan, Waye, Ami and Tagharobi (2017). Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria. Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 International.
Strategies for providing effective feedback
Prioritize your ideas. Limit your feedback to the most important issues. Consider the feedback’s potential value to the receiver and how you would respond – could you act on the feedback? As well, too much feedback provided at a single time can be overwhelming to the recipient.
- Concentrate on the behaviour, not the person. One strategy is to open by stating the behaviour in question, then describing how you feel about it, and ending with what you want. This model enables you to avoid sounding accusatory by using “I” and focusing on behaviours, instead of assumed interpretations. Example: “I haven’t seen you in class in for a week. I’m worried that you are missing important information. Can we meet soon to discuss it?” Instead of: “You obviously don’t care about this course!”
- Balance the content. Use the “sandwich approach.” Begin by providing comments on specific strengths. This provides reinforcement and identifies the things the recipient should keep doing. Then identify specific areas of improvement and ways to make changes. Conclude with a positive comment. This model helps to bolster confidence and keep the weak areas in perspective. Example: “Your presentation was great. You made good eye contact, and were well prepared. You were a little hard to hear at the back of the room, but with some practice you can overcome this. Keep up the good work!” Instead of: “You didn’t speak loudly enough. However, the presentation went well.”
- Be specific. Avoid general comments that may be of limited use to the receiver. Try to include examples to illustrate your statement. As well, offering alternatives rather than just giving advice allows the receiver to decide what to do with your feedback.
- Be realistic. Feedback should focus on what can be changed. It is useless and frustrating for recipients to get comments on something over which they have no control. Also, remember to avoid using the words “always” and “never.” People’s behaviour is rarely that consistent.
- Own the feedback. When offering evaluative comments, use the pronoun “I” rather than “they” or “one,” which would imply that your opinion is universally agreed on. Remember that feedback is merely your opinion.
- Be timely. Seek an appropriate time to communicate your feedback. Being prompt is key since feedback loses its impact if delayed too long. Delayed feedback can also cause feelings of guilt and resentment in the recipient if the opportunity for improvement has passed. As well, if your feedback is primarily negative, take time to prepare what you will say or write.
- Offer continuing support. Feedback should be a continuous process, not a one-time event. After offering feedback, make a conscious effort to follow up. Let recipients know you are available if they have questions, and, if appropriate, ask for another opportunity to provide more feedback in the future.
Source: Receiving and giving effective feedback. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.
Types and examples of feedback
Different types of feedback serve different purposes.
- Goal is to get student to internalize the effective feedback to use the suggested strategies independently on future work.
- Feedback that is intended to be used by the learner to independently move their reasoning to the next level.
- Criteria-based phrases are used to describe the strengths and weaknesses of the learner’s work.
- Limits feedback to one or two traits/aspect of quality at a time.
- Students should have an opportunity to “redo” their work based on the effective feedback.
- “I agree with the pattern that you have identified in the table. I am not convinced that the rule you wrote works for all the values in the table. How could you prove this?”
- Goal is to improve student achievement by telling the learner how to move forward in the learning process.
- Feedback that is intended to tell the learner what needs to be improved.
- Feedback isn’t as effective in getting students to move forward in the learning process.
- “You accurately found the number of students in 4th grade who said chocolate ice-cream was their favorite. You now need to divide this number by the total number of students to get the percent who said chocolate ice-cream was their favorite.”
- Goal is to measure student achievement with a score or a grade.
- Feedback that is intended to summarize student achievement.
- It does not give guidance on how to improve the learner’s reasoning.
- Since it is not intended to move students forward in the learning process, it can be given on summative assessments.
- “Your explanation of your work is the best that you have done. Nice use of sequence words in your explanation.”
- Goal is to make the learner feel good.
- Feedback that is intended to encourage and support the learner.
- It does not give guidance on how to improve the learner’s reasoning.
- Since it is not intended to move students forward in the learning process, it can be given on summative assessments.
- “I like how you completed the assignment.”
Source: Types of Feedback. Milwaukee Partnership Academy (MPA)
Collecting information to inform feedback
‘Checks for Learning’ during the instructional process give you feedback on student learning while the teaching/learning is taking place. There are multiple ways to check on learning. What you choose to use to check for learning depends on what you are assessing. The material below presents these activities, what kind of knowledge you are assessing, how they are done, and how they can be used. Most can be adapted for online use.
|What Am I Assessing?||What Is It?||How is it Done?||How Do We Use the Results?|
|Course Knowledge and/or Skills||One-Minute Paper or Muddiest Point:An assessment where learners are asked quick but deep questions on the material. These methods can be used in online, hybrid, or face-to-face classes.
• Online, have students post to a discussion board.
• In a synchronous (live) online class, students can write on a white-board.
• Use a shared (open for anonymous responses) google document to collect responses.
| For the Minute Paper, ask students to write response to one or two questions during the last few minutes of class and collect the responses. This can be done on paper, index cards, or by online survey. Possible questions are:
• “Most important thing I learned today?
• “What I understood least?”Muddiest Point is similar to Minute Paper but asks students to describe what they didn’t understand and what they think might help. It can be done on paper or by online survey. In large classes, you can break students into small groups and ask each group to create a card
|Review responses before next class meeting to understand what students learned and use to clarify, correct, or elaborate in the next class. Refer to this information at beginning of next class or refer to as you teach.|
Conducted after readings, videos, and other external work to provide information on how students understood key concepts or points.
|Create a series of multiple-choice questions using Canvas. Use software to calculate results and use results to open course activities. Share results and impact on course design with students.||Analyze results using software and build into course activities.|
|Application and Performance Analysis and Evaluation||One-Sentence Summary:
An assessment used to make student understandings visible by summarizing key points or areas.
|Be using this technique, model and write summaries in class before asking students to write them independently. Have students write a one-sentence summary after a portion of a lesson, lecture, or activity. Create a template based on your targeted area for students to construct a single sentence that summarizes targeted material/their understandings.
Possible One-Sentence Summary areas and stems are:
• Description: A ___ is a kind of ____that ___.
• Sequence: ____begins with, continues with ____ and ends with ___.
• Compare/Contrast: ____and ___ are similar in that both ____, but ____while ___.
• Cause/Effect: _____causes _____.
• Problem/Solution: ___wanted ___ but ___so ___.
|Evaluate the quality of each summary quickly and holistically. Note whether students identified the essential components of the idea and the interrelationships. Adjust course activities in response to results.|
An assessment that asks students to create a structure for organizing learning around key concepts
|Prepare a memory matrix based on course lecture or reading that requires students to recall and/or classify key concepts and information. Students fill in the matrix to demonstrate their ability to remember key concepts.||Add up correct and incorrect responses in each cell. Analyze differences and look for patterns among the incorrect responses. Decide what might be the cause and address as you continue teaching.|
|Poll to Understand Misconceptions:
A check for learning that explores and makes student misconceptions visible so they can be clarified
|Ask a question with answer choices that students with a particular common misconception are likely to select, along with the correct answer. Students can hold up responses on colored cards with selection (a,b,c,d) in small classes or use I Clickers in larger ones. Discuss why the incorrect choice was chosen and therefore dispel the misconception.||Tally results to determine where students’ knowledge and skills are and do some in-the-moment teaching. You can also reinforce the correct answer to this concept in your lecture.|
A check for learning that requires students to restate what they have learned or think is important
|In directed paraphrasing, you ask students to write a layman’s “translation” of something they have just learned. Directed paraphrasing should be geared to a specified individual or audience to assess their ability to comprehend and transfer concepts.
Be sure you explain the intended audience is, the purpose, and any limits on speaking time, number of words, or sentences.
An option is to have the paraphrases delivered orally, recorded on video, and submitted on your LMS.
|Categorize student responses according to characteristics you feel are important. Analyze the responses both within and across categories, noting ways you could address student needs.
Share results next day with the students how many responses were “on target” and read a few examples.
If only a third of your students provided “on target” responses, consider spending extra time either reviewing or having them apply the concept.
|Pro and Con Grid:
A check for learning that makes student thinking visible by requires students to analyze content in terms of pros and cons, costs and benefits, advantages and disadvantages
|Complete a pro-con grid based on your outcomes. Ask students to create a grid of the pros and cons for a given decision/problem presented in class.||List the points that students have listed as pros and cons and do a frequency count to determine which points are most often mentioned, which key points are omitted, and whether there is a balance between the two “sides” of the grid. Report back to class and use in next discussion.
Use this technique in any course where questions of value are a focus of course outcomes.
A check for learning that requires students to show both their work and their reasoning behind the work
|Choose 1-3 problems and ask students to write down all of the steps they take in solving them with an explanation of each step.||Identify where patterns of difficulty occur, conceptual difficulties, or lingering misconceptions. Also, this technique can give students direct feedback that lets them clarify their thinking and assess how well they understand an approach or problem. This uncovers conceptual difficulties, lingering misconceptions, and issues in problem solving strategies.|
|Attitudes, Motivation, Values, Self-Awareness as Learner||Journals:
A check for learning that provides instructors and students a running record of their thinking or progress
|Ask students to keep journals that detail their thoughts about the class. May ask them to be specific, recording only attitudes, values, or self-awareness.||Have students turn in the journals several times during the semester so you (and the students) can see how/what they are learning and chart development.|
|Course specific self-confidence surveys:
A check for learning that allows students to assess their needs and their progress in learning
|Students indicate in a survey form how confident they feel about their grasp of each of a list of concepts that have been addressed or how confident they feel about their ability to learn upcoming concepts. Can use a 5-point scale anchored at the ends by “Very confident” and “Not at all confident.”||Review results and identify areas that may need to readdress or give more attention.|
Example Memory Matrix:
Source: Table of Checks for Learning During Instruction. The University of Texas at Austin, Faculty Innovation Center.
Resources and references
Dempsey, J.V. and G.C. Sales (Eds.). (1993) Interactive Instruction and Feedback. Educational Technology Publication. NJ: Englewood Cliffs
Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco: Jossey‐Bass.
London, M. (1997) Job Feedback: Giving, Seeking, and Using Feedback for Performance Improvement. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
McGill, I. and L. Beaty (1995) Action Learning. 2nd Ed. London: Kogan Page Ltd.
Robb, T., Ross, S., & Shortreed, I. (1986). Salience of feedback on error and its effect on EFL writing quality. TESOL quarterly, 20(1), 83-96.
Silva, T., Leki, I., & Carson, J. (1997). Broadening the Perspective of Mainstream Composition Studies Some Thoughts from the Disciplinary Margins. Written communication, 14(3), 398-428.
Wiggins, G. (2012). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70 (1), 10-16.
Zamel, V. (1985). Responding to student writing. Tesol Quarterly, 19(1), 79-101.
Magna Campus Video and Supplemental Materials Resource
How Can I Use Frequent Student Feedback to Improve my Courses?
- Log on to UM Learn
- Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
- Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
- Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Seminar Libraries > 20-Minute Mentors
- In the search box, type in “feedback”
- Tap on “How Can I Use Frequent Student Feedback to Improve my Courses?”