Providing Feedback to Students

Typically students get feedback from us through formal assignments at regular intervals throughout the semester: a few lengthy papers, several exams, a project. These assessments (termed summative) allow us to measure student progress, but they typically don’t help the student a great deal. Feedback occurs as a grade and possibly comments returned with the work- returned with the hope, but not the assurance, that the student will improve. Especially with exams, students may receive little direction on how to work differently so they do improve. But there is another model, one that works better for students, particularly low-achieving students. It can even work better for us as the graders of assignments. That model is formative assessment -  more frequent feedback in less formal ways on smaller assignments in a structured setting.

It’s obvious that practice aids learning. Practice with feedback is even better. So, why don’t we do more practice in our classrooms? For many of us, the answer is that we’d have to do more of the dreaded ‘grading.’ But formative feedback does not necessarily require that we examine each piece of work that each student produces.

Here are a few ideas to increase practice with feedback in your classes. In fact, some of what you already do in the classroom provides feedback; you just haven’t recognized it that way. Note that in these examples, students are asked to do something with the information, not just recall facts.

Use ‘Debriefing’ as Feedback.

- Present a question/problem. Make students commit to an answer using a ‘clicker’ (personal response devices). A less technical method is to make students write down a response. Next, have them discuss with their neighbors and reach a consensus answer. Finally, debrief the class by giving the answer and discussing why/how it is the right one.

- Have students write for 3-5 minutes. They might identify an underlying theme, or two places in the text (or items from lecture) that support a statement. Students could write about the remaining questions they have on the topic. You might pose what if questions: “How would what we talked about today be different if the x (e.g. geography, nation, time period, chemical, reaction environment, slope, known variable, epistemological standing, audience) was different?” Students could propose two potential thesis statements on which they could base a paper. After students finish the writing, you as teacher lay out the types of answers you are looking for (or collect them from students) and explain why they are good.

- Give students a mock essay/answer/solution. Have them spend a few minutes critiquing it and assigning a grade. Then have them share their thinking with a neighbor. Again, you provide feedback to the class in the form of a debriefing.

An important aspect in all of the above scenarios is to make students commit to a response before providing the feedback.

Break Assignments into Smaller Components and Give Feedback.

- Change the structure of large assignments. Have students complete part of the work and turn it in along the way. You provide a critique and let students rework the first product and incorporate your comments. You might have students write a thesis paragraph and then identify evidence to support the thesis as pre-assignments for a 5-page paper. You might have them practice working with a graph or diagram or data set before incorporating these into an exam. Grading these short works will be simpler and allow students to process specific areas before they complete the whole. In some cases, teaching assistants might be able to assist with the grading.

Anticipate Areas of Difficulty.

- Your experience gives you insight to the likely places students will stumble. (Mine regularly confuse features of proteins and genes.) Create an exemplar for an assignment and refer to it rather than writing extensive comments. This pushes students to recognize their own mistakes rather then having them all pointed out.

- If you’ve given students an example and they have been lazy about using it (e.g., format for citations), then simply refer to the example in your feedback and make them do the corrections. The trick here is to stay attentive to whether a student in being lazy or is having conceptual difficulty. Conceptual difficulty is likely going to require that you and the student talk together.

Use Peer-Peer Interactions, including Peer Review.

- Many faculty have used peer editing/peer review as a way to provide feedback. This approach has many advantages including letting students see what other students are capable of and having students apply what they know in a new situation. This is also a complicated technique and requires clarity in instructions to students, as well as clear criteria for assessment. This is a circumstance in which rubrics work well. There is a wealth of literature on this topic.

A Final Note.

Tell students when you are giving them feedback. They may not recognize a debriefing, ‘pass it to your neighbor and grade according to the key,’ or ‘peer editing’ as feedback meant to help them alter what they are doing.


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