The goal of every instructor is to help students learn.  In the process of accomplishing this goal instructors employ diverse teaching and learning strategies. Among the strategies is providing students with feedback on their performance. I am referring to feedback that is formative, and useful to assist students with their progress toward meeting the course learning outcomes or summative and provides a final judgment or evaluation of students’ performance in the course.

This message focuses on formative feedback. How many of us have spent time providing students with lots of useful comments on their assignments to only find in the end that the student failed to revise the paper based on our suggestions? It is often frustrating when feedback after feedback yields no impact and the same mistakes are repeated again and again. This begs for the question: Do students really pay attention to their instructor’s comments on assignments or projects? Do they really “care” that instructors give feedback and do they modify their assignment to meet the comments given?

Research confirms that providing students with feedback on their performance is crucial for learning. If so, what kinds of feedback will be most productive?  In their book “How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smarter Teaching”, Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett and others (2010) discuss useful directions on how to provide effective feedback to improve student learning outcomes. These include;

  1.  Consider the content of the feedback: Feedback to students should assist them to achieve the required level of performance. Hence for feedback be effective, it should not only inform students about what is wrong but also provide information about the students current state of knowledge and how to work toward achieving the intended learning outcome. For instance the feedback could inform students what they are or are not understanding, where their performance is good or desires improvement and how the student can direct subsequent efforts to reach the learning outcome. It should also indicate students’ level of performance relative to the stated goal and what they need to improve.
  2. Identify particular aspects of performance: Feedback can also be effective when it clearly highlights the particular aspects of the students’ performance that needs improvement rather than just a generic evaluation of performance. In most cases, instructors will give either a letter grade or a numerical score with no comments and or with a word or sentence of praise or an indication of dissatisfaction.  Research indicates that giving only a letter grade or numerical score is not an effective way to improve students learning. Why? Because it does not explain to the student how come they fall short and on which aspects they did or did not meet the learning outcomes or expectations.
  3.  Targeted Feedback:Too much of everything is bad. Simply giving students lots of feedback about their performance is not helpful. Students are overwhelmed with too much feedback and it may not be clear to them which aspects of their performance require improvement and where to direct future learning efforts. Most students when they are overwhelmed by the numbers of comments attend to the easy to fix comments instead of the necessary ones. A suggestion is to identify those aspects of students’ performance that are of higher priority. Also remember to provide opportunities for students to incorporate that feedback into subsequent assignments.
  4. Timing feedback appropriately: Instructors should consider how soon to provide feedback as well as how often to do this. Generally earlier and more frequent are better. There is no rule governing how frequent and timely to provide feedback. According to Ambrose, Bridges, Lovett et. al. instructors can consider practices that will best support the achievement of the learning outcomes. They argue that more frequent feedback leads to more efficient learning as it helps students stay on track and provides opportunities to correct misconceptions and mistakes before it is too late.

Some principles to remember: In short, feedback must:

  1. focus students on the key knowledge and skills to be acquired
  2. be provided at a time and frequency when students will be likely to use it
  3. be linked to additional practice opportunities for students
  4. be aligned with the goals set for student learning
  5. not contain too little details which can leave students unclear on what they need to improve
  6. not contain too much details so as to overwhelm or mislead students as to what aspects are of higher priority
  7. not be given too infrequently as to leave students struggling without enough information to direct their learning
  8. not be given too frequently as that can potentially lead them to depend on the feedback rather than on themselves.

The question then is how and when do instructors need to give feedback? The instructor’s experience and sense of judgment in terms of the amount and timing is the key. It is important that the instructor focuses on the practical aspect of providing feedback such as the length of time required in composing the feedback, time for students to process and respond to feedback and more.

I believe we will all benefit from each others’ experience regarding providing feedback to students. Please join the discussion.

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M, W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K. (2010) How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass