Everyone loves receiving positive feedback, but in most cases, “Great job!” just isn’t substantial enough. In the classroom, a solo letter grade or generic two-word comment simply does not provide students with much insight into their work. With more technical mathematic and scientific assignments, the feedback may have to be generic because there is likely only one correct answer. But students tend to need more with assignments that require critical thinking and creativity. The learning experience for both teachers and students benefits greatly when teachers implement specific, constructive feedback about what a student has done well (and not well).
That being said, lack of time is one of the biggest challenges teachers deal with on a regular basis, and this especially impacts feedback opportunities. You may know exactly what you want to tell your students about their work, but with time constraints and a potentially high volume of students, it can be difficult to give them the feedback they need. With this in mind, make it your goal to work smarter, not harder. Don’t try to spend exponentially more time than you already do on feedback. Instead, make the effort to optimize your time. By prioritizing the following areas, you can restructure and strengthen the feedback you provide to improve the overall learning experience.
Specific and Actionable
For starters, what exactly does “Great job!” mean to a student? If students read generic, standalone comments at the top of their papers, they will likely set them aside with satisfaction. But they won’t think twice about what made their work great, so they won’t know how to repeat it on the next assignment. Instead, specific and actionable feedback will tell the student exactly what stood out. Hone in on what you liked with comments like these: “You did a great job describing the setting with visual details in this paragraph,” or “Your word choice of ‘_____’ in this sentence describes the character really well.” Feedback like this can help reinforce equally great work in the future because students will know exactly what they did well (specific), and how they can do it again (actionable).
Moreover, students need specific and actionable feedback about how to improve. You can’t just tell them, “This needs revision,” or, “This is incorrect.” Instead, try comments like these: “Experiment with other verbs instead of ‘____’ to give us a vibrant image of this action,” or “Please see page three of your handout for guidance on correct formatting here.” This feedback brings attention to what was done incorrectly (specific) and how to improve for next time (actionable). Commanding comments, such as, “Do it this way,” can come off as controlling and may limit the student’s learning opportunities. However, specific and actionable feedback encourages students to take control, seek answers on their own, and learn from their mistakes. Such feedback can also remind students of readily available resources.
Goal-Oriented and Consistent
Feedback should also be goal-oriented and consistent. Every task we complete has a goal: I tell a joke to make an audience laugh; I cook food to eat it; or I brush my teeth to eliminate plaque. Then there are bigger, overarching goals: If the audience laughs, I can earn a paycheck; if I eat, I’ll survive; if I eliminate plaque, I will prevent cavities and tooth decay. Unfortunately though, some goals may not always be as straightforward and obvious. In the classroom, this can be especially problematic because students won’t know what to focus on.
Therefore, feedback should remind students to step back and look at the assignment as a whole: “How does this particular sentence or paragraph support your thesis?” This question engages critical thinking skills and promotes the goal (thesis) of the project. Furthermore, be sure to mention overarching goals for even more clarification: “The goal of this assignment is to expand your knowledge of the _______ lesson.” And when students are on track to meet their goals, be sure to point that out as well: “This is exactly where your paper should be heading; keep including information like this!”
It is also important to consider the volume of feedback you give students per assignment. If you write 20 notes per page, students most likely will not be able to give each item their full attention. To alleviate this potential flood of feedback, focus on a handful of priorities that will help the student improve the most. Regularly delivering this type of focused feedback helps maintain goal orientation and consistency so long as it is also stable, trustworthy, and accurate. Also, considering potential time constraints, one option that can help increase the variety of feedback students receive is to initiate peer review assignments. If you do this, you will want to train your students on appropriate feedback criteria so their input is just as valuable and focused as yours.
Lastly, feedback should be timely, as in, given sooner rather than later. Although there isn’t a magic number, it is most ideal to provide feedback one to three days after the assignment has been submitted. This way, the material is still fresh in students’ minds before they become fully engulfed by a new project. However, remember that timely feedback does not mean immediate feedback.
Essentially, over the span of one to three days, the teacher can adequately assess what has been submitted, and the student can, in turn, contemplate and evaluate the work they’ve created. Immediate feedback, on the other hand, may not allow enough time for analysis and reflection because it tends to develop from impulsive emotions. You wouldn’t want immediate feedback if you were an actor on Broadway. You would probably prefer that the audience take time to let your performance fully sink in instead of writing an impromptu review on the car ride home. The same goes for the classroom. Timely feedback enables thoughtful consideration by both the teacher and student.
Teacher-Student Feedback Conferences
In the blended learning classroom, you can create another great learning opportunity by holding individual feedback conferences with students. Written feedback—no matter how eloquent you may think you sound—is simply not as clear for some students as a verbal conversation. Being able to individually meet with students to go through their work with them enables a direct, two-way conversation. Teachers can learn more about each student’s process and intentions, and students can ask questions about feedback.
Typically, however, in-person conferences are not an option for fully online classrooms. To start a live conversation, other conferencing methods you can try (depending on the student’s access) include phone calls, Skype, Google Hangouts, or other free messaging programs. If you use one of these options, you should establish rules regarding the use of text message lingo, appropriate discussion length, and topics to cover. If these options are unavailable or too precarious, be sure to carefully consider all of the previously mentioned criteria for your written feedback. Additionally, depending on the type of comments you provide, another way you can help your students absorb feedback is by requiring them to put it to use in the next assignment. It can become part of your evaluation or rubric: “Student uses feedback from previous assignment.” Just make sure your feedback is actionable for them to do so!
By adequately applying the criteria here, teachers can strengthen their feedback and improve the overall learning experience. Students need to receive feedback that is actionable in telling them what to do next, and specific, as in, “Do more of this and less of that.” Feedback should consistently move the student toward small and overarching goals, and should be delivered sooner rather than later. Otherwise, vague, ill-timed feedback will leave students guessing. Their next assignment may completely miss the mark if they misguidedly include less of the good stuff and more of the not-so-good stuff. The clearer and more concise your feedback is, the more effective it will be in generating opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes, move forward, and achieve goals.
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