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How to Give Effective Feedback to Students

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As teachers, we recognize the critical role in giving feedback to students: to instruct progress and to inspire student motivation and achievement. Effective feedback helps them learn and improve, showing them where they need to make adjustments. But effective feedback to students goes beyond “Good job!” or “You’re not working hard enough” as these do not inform students exactly what is good about their work and specifically what requires improvements. At best, unstructured feedback does nothing to the student, but at worst, such comments can potentially demotivate them in the learning process and cause students not to read nor consider subsequent feedback once they perceive the feedback as not useful or discouraging.   

In a nutshell, effective feedback is information about one’s performance in relation to the goal of the task. If there is no goal, feedback serves no meaningful purpose. It is likened to this scene taken from Alice in Wonderland:

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Therefore, one of the key elements required in giving feedback to students includes being goal-focused. Additionally, being timely, specific, and professional are other elements to be considered when giving feedback to students.

Elements of Effective Feedback

1. Feedback should be goal-focused

The goals refer to the learning outcomes. In giving feedback to students, you could make references to these learning outcomes; how well students are achieving those outcomes, and which aspects had fallen short.

Sometimes feedback to students can be posed as questions to encourage self-assessment. For instance, “One of the learning goals is to distinguish between anchoring bias and default bias. Which portion of your response highlights the differences and how can these differences be highlighted more distinctly?”

Regularly drawing students’ attention to the learning outcomes helps them to keep the end in mind, encouraging them to assess their own work in comparison to the learning outcomes.

2. Feedback is provided timely

Effective feedback shows students how to make changes during the process rather than at the end of the process – when there’s no going back. Should the time-lapse be too great, the student may not have sufficient time to incorporate those feedback into the next assignment before it would be due and thus could be committing the same errors again.

As an example of feedback given during the process, let’s say you see a paragraph in the draft of an essay and tell your student a certain portion needs more detail – point out why and how it relates to the learning outcome. So instead of receiving a graded essay with such a comment (when there is nothing else the student can do to better the grade), he can add that detail right away because he knows what his teacher was looking for.

3. The feedback is specific

Rather than just making vague remarks, provide specific detail about what a student is doing well and where they need to improve. For example, instead of “Good point, but not well-delivered,” say “you made an excellent point in paragraph 3; however, it would have been even stronger if you had used more relevant examples.” The way to help you as the teacher is to think about practical steps which your students can take to better their work and communicate that in a clear and concise manner.

Being specific is important because first, it allows the student to identify what needs improvement in order to succeed. Second, it reinforces positive behavior when the student is doing something right. Third, it avoids confusion by being clear and concise. Fourth, it keeps the student motivated by showing them that their progress is being noticed. Giving proper feedback can help a student become more self-aware of their strengths and weaknesses so they can grow as an individual learner.

4. Feedback is given professionally

Here are three points on how to do so:

Include positive & negative statements: Focus on both the positive aspects of the student’s performance, as well as their weaknesses. Students will disengage from the process if you only point out their mistakes. So, highlighting the positives can help students feel better about themselves in the long run even if they still need to improve upon certain areas of their work.

Choose your words carefully: When providing feedback, it’s important to be mindful that some phrases might come off as condescending or evoke feelings of inadequacy from the student receiving them.

Acknowledge improvements: Lastly, acknowledge the progress made when it occurs; compare previous works with newer ones and point out what has improved over time for instance, “It seems like you’re really improving! The examples you provided are explained more clearly than before”.

Considerations When Giving Feedback to Students

Effective feedback to students can be given in a couple of ways, mainly written or verbal but regardless of the mode, we should always consider the feelings of the students receiving them. Doing so helps to create a trusting and safe learning environment that enables students to thrive!

Constructive feedback for students is also best given privately. Sadly, teachers may have experienced a situation when negative, public feedback is provided to individual students in front of the class as most teachers must manage a large group of students at once. But students’ feelings must be regarded as they will only learn from mistakes when they feel encouraged to, and feel not as though they have failed.

To provide feedback to a group without shaming anyone, it will be advisable to summarise the common mistakes committed and review them in class or you could still share pieces of poorly done work for discussion but pick those from previous year’s classes (with names covered).

Structure of Feedback

A simple yet effective way of structuring your feedback is to include what is going well, what they should start doing, and what they should avoid doing with the continue, start, stop method.

continue, start, and stop

Continue: This refers to the positive aspects of the student’s work and therefore ought to be continued. For instance, “You managed to explain this concept with sufficient depth and reinforced your understanding with the provision of multiple relevant examples, continue doing this in future!”

Start: These will be the qualities of the assignment that the student has not yet demonstrated, and the practical steps they can take to improve their subsequent assignments.

Stop: Giving feedback to students for this component requires increased sensitivity as it is about the less-than-ideal aspects of the assignment that the student needs to stop doing. Providing a rationale for that will be essential as it will students understand how that negative aspect could impact the assignment

The “Start” and “Stop” points could be seamlessly combined when giving feedback to students. For instance “I observed that while an example was given, you could examine the question again to get a better understanding of what it is asking for and provide more relevant examples. Doing this will demonstrate your depth of understanding while examples which aren’t quite relevant will highlight the lack of it.”

Conclusion

In summary, as teachers, we need to consider the elements of good feedback when writing one, or verbally communicating it with our students. When students are given timely and specific feedback that is delivered respectfully in a structured way, they are encouraged to take an active role in their own education. Giving effective feedback to students can inspire them to be responsible for themselves as well as give positive reinforcement when something goes right.

I’m an educator and trainer who’s very passionate about sharing different and fun ways to engage learners. I’ve been interested in creative teaching methods since I was a kid…my favorite movie and inspiration came from Dead Poets Society!
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