Essential Feedback: Give to Get by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator

I know that at this point in the Fall, most of you are in the thick of it, providing solid, inspiring educational experiences for your students. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is that we do, besides present information and then check to see if our students have retained it. Is any learning going on? Do we have any control over whether any learning is going on? I maintain that we do, and that the single most impactful action you can take is to provide effective feedback for your students.

Let’s talk about what feedback means and what it looks like.

When I was in school, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, feedback was simply the grade you received at the end of a paper, test, or project. You were to infer that your efforts were alternately successful or not based on the grade you received. When I first started teaching and had to develop a rubric, that old crotchety woman’s voice in my head said, “I never had rubrics! I either got the grade I wanted or I didn’t, and I had to figure out why!”

And then it dawned on me that the rubric actually helped me communicate my expectations more effectively to my students, that it gave me a shorthand on the scoring part of the grade so I could spend more time on the comments, the marginalia, I included on their papers so I could tell them how their writing was progressing. Thus began my love affair with feedback. It was actually through this process that I truly discovered how to teach, how to pay attention to the individual needs of my students. That’s not to say that it wasn’t, on occasion, overwhelming to look at a stack of 120 argument papers and think about giving individualized feedback on each one of them, but I knew then, and I know now, that this is where change and progress takes place.

Again, as I’ve said in previous musings, it boils down to relationships. When a student perceives that you have closely read their work, paid attention to their progress, made specific commentary about their victories and suggestions about their improvement, they believe they are worthy. A student’s self-perception is the leading indicator of whether or not they will succeed in achieving their goals. You demonstrate your similar belief when you spend the time to give them that learning-centered feedback.

Not all feedback is created equally. Here are some things to keep in mind as you prepare to “up” your feedback game:

Feedback should be timely

It drove me nuts to write papers or take tests in classes, only to have the teacher NOT return the paper or test before the next one was due. How could I know what I did right and what I needed to work on? Yes, it’s a labor-intensive process, but the pay-off on turning around those assignments quickly is BIG. Students do notice and appreciate not living in limbo about how they’re progressing. With papers, I gave myself one week to turn around a whole set—that’s about 100 papers, each 3-4 pages long, with commentary throughout. I know instructors who turned them around in one class period, and I know some who took a month. I found that one week allowed me the time I needed to decorate their pages liberally with enthusiastic feedback. What I also noticed was that when the papers were returned, they looked very closely at my comments and smiled or frowned or laughed, often showing them to their peers. Their work was validated. And by watching their reactions, so was mine. Set realistic return rates for yourself based on your class load and the number of students you have. I’ve gotten so that I set a timer for each paper; otherwise I can lose track of time and spend far too long on any one document and shortchange those that follow.

Feedback should be specific

Don’t just write “good work” or “nice job.” It’s a waste of time and energy. Be very specific. Since I teach English, I’ll give you some examples:
This image is powerful—I’d love to see more like it.
This is telling, not showing. SHOW me this moment—what did it sound like, feel like, smell like, taste like?
What were you thinking when that happened?
Avoid get—it’s a boring verb; there are so many juicy verbs to choose and verbs are the muscles of our sentences.
This essay feels like it actually starts here—the intro is not as compelling as starting your paper right here.
Is this from a source? This doesn’t sound like your voice. Be sure you cite your sources whether you quote, paraphrase, or summarize their information.

Whatever your teaching discipline, your feedback should be equally specific. Students should not have to guess what you’re referring to, and it should be something they can immediately see would be improved by changing it or adding to it. Ask questions when they are being unclear, but don’t just provide the answers. Let them see what their thinking looks like from your perspective so they can see when their communication is not clear to outsiders.

Feedback should attend sensitivity training

Be aware that some of your learners already believe the worst about themselves, and giving them back a paper that has all of their wrongs highlighted and annotated will be overwhelming and defeat the purpose of inspiring them to learn and grow. This is why you must know your students. I also use the rule of 5—only one critique for every 5 positive remarks. And by positive remarks, again, I don’t mean good job or nice work. I mean a specific instance pointed out where they demonstrated their knowledge effectively.

As I’ve also mentioned in previous blogs, I’m a big believer in peer groups to evaluate each other’s work, BUT this can be a tricky wicket. Most students have not undergone feedback training, so I provide a rubric of elements I want them to look for—for instance, I have them underline 5 examples of showing versus telling—after I explain the difference; I have them circle clichés or cliché phrases. This helps them learn what these are for themselves, and it also provides a visual representation of what the student can work on to improve their draft. You don’t have to be the only one providing feedback—you do need to be sure you’re in firm control of the quality of that feedback, though.

Feedback should be tied to goals

Be sure that every time you give a student feedback, you tie it in with a goal either you or they have for that unit. Model what it looks like to connect the work with the goal, and help them see when their steps move them forward. And when they don’t.

I have had students write elaborate papers about the death penalty, only to have to give them the feedback that this topic was one of the forbidden topics I discussed every day of the unit, and that I felt they were re-using a paper they wrote in high school (since the retrieval dates on their Web sources bore that out). And while their argument was interesting and compelling, they did not follow directions, and learning to follow directions is a crucial skill in succeeding in any environment—work or school. I would then give them the option of rewriting the paper and following directions or taking the poor grade as it was. I have NEVER had anyone take the poor grade.

Feedback should involve learners in the process

Other than just receiving your remarks, how can your students react to your feedback? Do you give them opportunities to truly engage? I had to think a minute to see if I did this. Feedback can look however you and they want it to look.

For instance, for every paper my students turned in, they had to write a letter to me about their process of getting the paper ready for submission—they could write about any aspect—writing, researching, losing their electronic copy, peer evaluating, deadlines, hating the assignment because they hate (fill in the blank). They were able to set the table for me before I began to read. I would say roughly 70-80% of them took this pretty seriously and told me about their challenges, their process, their relationship with their peer group members, their attachment to their subject, and occasionally, their changing of their mind based on the research they did on the subject. I accepted this as feedback on how my teaching was preparing them to do the work. At the end of every semester, I also have my students write paragraphs to me detailing their biggest challenges and their biggest victories. I read all of these to see if patterns emerge which tell me I need to be spending more time on a particular unit or with a specific concept.

My students also used their journals for feedback, especially in the 2nd quarter of a class once they figured out that I read all of their entries in the 1st quarter. They talked to me about their thoughts, feelings, ideas, their reactions to school, the works. This was essential to me to let me know they trusted me, they could confide in me, and they knew I was listening, even if we disagreed on certain issues.

Finally, try to remember to set reasonable goals for yourself in providing feedback. You need to do it consistently for it to have any long-lasting value for students, so be sure you budget enough time for it. Feedback, for me, is where trust is created. My students trust me with their thoughts, ideas, and experiences, knowing that I will read them with a true eye to helping them become the best version of themselves. They’re relying on me to help them find patterns of error and patterns of excellence. I take that mission very seriously.

How can you incorporate more feedback into your lessons? Take a look at your syllabus and see where you can include it, even informally. Could there be a quick informal assessment at the end of each unit that allows students to give you feedback on how the lessons were received? Can you look at assignments in a different way—looking for patterns that might help you diagnose trouble someone is having? You are probably innately doing a lot of this, but imagine the results if you went at it with full intention!

And speaking of feedback, we’re looking for some of yours. If you have a lesson that you’ve perfected or some teaching tip that has really caught on fire, please share it with us. We’d like to highlight you in our December broadcast. Check out what you need to submit on our Web site— and go for it! Share your brilliance with your fellow teachers and administrators. Together we rise.

If you’re interested in learning more about the importance of effective feedback, both giving and getting, check out the additional resources at the end of this article.

Additional Resources:

Ajit K. Sachdeva MD (1996) Use of effective feedback to facilitate adult learning, Journal of Cancer Education, 11:2, 106-118, DOI: 10.1080/08858199609528405

David Boud & Elizabeth Molloy (2013) Rethinking models of feedback for learning: the challenge of design, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 38:6, 698-712, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2012.691462

Phillip Dawson, Michael Henderson, Paige Mahoney, Michael Phillips, Tracii Ryan, David Boud & Elizabeth Molloy (2019) What makes for effective feedback: staff and student perspectives, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 44:1, 25-36, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2018.1467877

Elizabeth Molloy, David Boud & Michael Henderson (2020) Developing a learning-centred framework for feedback literacy, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 45:4, 527-540, DOI: 10.1080/02602938.2019.1667955