Provide timely and explicit feedback to students to improve learning

January 21, 2014

Grades and scores provide students with some information on the degree to which students’ performance met an instructor’s expectations and criteria, grades do not explain which aspects did or did not meet the criteria and how (Ambrose, et al., 2010, pp. 139-140). Feedback improves learning more effectively when it identifies particular aspects of performance students must improve rather than providing a generic evaluation of performance (such as a grade) or abstract praise or discouragement.

Similarly, too much feedback is not always effective feedback. When we make too many comments or marginal notes, students may be overwhelmed by the quantity of feedback and fail to respond to any of it. Alternatively, when students see many detailed comments, they might limit their revisions and change only the easy-to-fix elements. Essentially, students may accept instructor copy editing and ignore feedback about conceptual or structural changes (Ambrose, et al., p. 140).

When is feedback effective?

  • Students receive specific directions and guidance for subsequent practice.
  • The class includes one or more assignments that give students an opportunity to apply the feedback and improve future work.
  • Feedback is given early enough to allow students to benefit on subsequent work.
  • Feedback is given often enough for students to notice that their work is improving.

Evidence-based strategies for using feedback

Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria. When students do not know what the performance criteria are, they are less likely to practice skills appropriately, and they do not accurately monitor their progress. Communicate performance criteria through a rubric—a scoring tool that explicitly represents the performance expectations for a given assignment. A rubric divides the assigned work into component parts and provides clear descriptions of the characteristics of high-, medium-, and low-quality work associated with each component (see the CUTLA Rubric Development resource page on how to create a rubric).

Create multiple opportunities for practice. Learning accumulates gradually with practice. Multiple short assignments with specific, well-defined learning goals produce more learning than a single major assignment with a larger scope. Create multiple assignments that become increasingly complex to build skills over time. When these assignments build on one another, they enable students to use early feedback to improve later work. A single opportunity to practice a skill in one assignment is unlikely to develop the relevant set of skills and gives students no opportunity to use your feedback.

Set expectations about practice. Students underestimate the amount of time an assignment requires. Provide guidelines about the amount of time students need and the amount and type of practice they should perform to master the knowledge or skills and meet your expectations.

Give examples or models of target performance. Share examples of past student work to illustrate how your criteria can be met in an actual assignment. These examples are even more powerful when you either highlight or annotate key features of the sample that illustrate why the work meets your criteria.

Give examples of common errors to illustrate what you do not want. Examples that illustrate common student errors or misinterpretations or explain why some types of work will not meet your assignment expectations help students distinguish between high- and low-quality work. You can give students additional practice to evaluate their own work (or the work of a peer), applying the criteria in the grading rubric.

Provide feedback at the group level. If you do not have time to make feedback notations on all student papers, identify the most common errors students committed, create a list of these problems, and discuss how students can correct these errors if they appear in their own work.

Require students to describe how they used feedback in subsequent work. Students often do not see the connection between assignments. When students must describe how they used feedback on an early assignment to modify their work on a later assignment, the connection between assignments becomes more transparent. Some instructors assign multiple drafts of a paper and require students to describe how they used prior feedback to improve the current submission. Other instructors create multiple milestone assignments that clearly contribute to a large, integrated, final project.

Ambrose, S. A., et al. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

This tip is based on teaching strategy submitted by Kathy Watson, Associate Dean, Faculty Development, Eckerd College to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

Update: 06/24/14 tjf