Offering your students effective feedback: 5 essentials
Imagine a track runner. Right now, her best time is 5:09, but she is working with a trainer to run a 5-minute mile. Now imagine the runner as she approaches her final lap and hears her trainer scream, “C minus!” Most of us would not consider this to be an example of effective feedback.
C minus literally means nothing to this athlete. Sure, she knows that her performance is weak, but she has no information—“You’re not swinging your arms” or, say, “You need to complete this lap 5 seconds faster than your last one”—by which to improve her performance.
Effective feedback and your students
Shouting a letter grade to an athlete is cryptic, confusing and not very helpful in the same way that writing C minus on our students’ work or assigning a letter grade to a teacher’s performance evaluation isn’t very helpful.
There’s no doubt that feedback has a powerful influence on achievement, but before we can offer our students (and teachers) helpful feedback on their performance, we need to more clearly define what feedback is. As we see it, effective feedback (as opposed to criticism, advice and grades) provides descriptive information that students need to reach a specific goal.
5 essentials to offering effective feedback:
Set clearly defined goals
Although learning goals and objectives may be clear to teachers, often students simply complete assignments on good faith (or fear). But if students are to self-assess, we need to remind them of the goals and the criteria by which their work will be evaluated.
As you are designing your assignments or putting together an assignment sheet, you might say something like this:
“As you put together your Power-Point presentation on your science experiment, keep in mind that in addition to describing your conclusions to the audience, you’ll also want to give that audience a sense of purpose. As you put together your presentation, ask yourself the following questions: Why should the audience care about your conclusions? What are the larger implications of your experiment? Why does it matter to you? Why does it matter to the world outside of our science classroom?”
Provide your students with a model
We learn by watching others and mimicking. Singers, musicians, athletes do not learn their trade in a vacuum; they learn by listening, watching and mimicking experts who have already mastered the talent.
The same goes for our students. If you ask them to put together a Power-Point presentation on their recent science experiment, why not provide them with a model of a successful Power-Point presentation? Our students are honored when we think enough of their work that we ask them for permission to share it with future classes. Now that we think about it, we’ve never had a student say “No” when we asked if we could photocopy or burn to CD, a copy of their work.
Avoid overwhelming them with too much feedback
Feedback is nice, but like most things in life, its best when given in moderation. When you are responding to student work, avoid the temptation to respond to everything you see on the page. How often do you read “revisions” only to see the same mistakes? In most cases, students are not intentionally ignoring us. More often than not, they are either confused by our comments (or can’t read them), or they are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of comments.
Make things easier for both of you: Try responding to two (and only two) things in your students’ work. Give them the opportunity to revise. Then find two more things. Rinse and repeat. Remember: We learn through repetition.
Feedback should be timely and ongoing
One of the reasons our students become so good at, say, Guitar Hero and Angry Birds is because they receive timely and ongoing feedback—they also receive second, third, fourth, fifth…changes, so they can’t help but improve. When they play a bum note, or are “killed” by a green pig who stole their eggs, students get to play “We are the Champions” or attack the green pigs over and over again until they master it.
Providing ongoing feedback is becoming more and more possible with advances in technology like student response systems, or clicker technology. Clickers allow students to silently chime in during lectures or respond to multiple choice and simple yes-or-no questions posed by the teacher. The instant—not to mention anonymous and accurate insight—gathered from student response systems can be used by the instructor to guide and assess student learning in real time.
Ask questions that inspire self-reflection
Oftentimes, we use the word feedback to describe words of advice, praise or criticism, but honestly, none of these accurately reflect feedback. Consider the difference between these two pieces of “feedback”:
- “This intro paragraph is all over the place”
- “As I read over the beginning paragraph of your essay, I learned a lot about Arch Duke Ferdinand (which takes up nearly your entire paragraph), but your reader may be caught off guard when s/he gets to your thesis (where you make an argument about chemical weapons). Should your intro start closer to your topic (chemical weapons) so that your reader has a sense of context?”
The first is a fine example of criticism, but unlike the second paragraph, it is not a very good example of feedback. Notice how the second conveys the effects of the writer’s actions to a goal; it also invites reflective thinking and further conversation, both of which are essential to improvement. Notice how the second example, unlike the first, does not tell the performer how “bad” the introduction is; it simply explains the effect it had on the teacher and asks the performer to rethink her approach.