Teachers intuitively know that giving feedback on student work is an important part of the learning process. Research on different learning strategies conducted by John Hattie bears out what many know instinctively to be true — in order to improve at something humans need to know what they’re doing well and how they can improve. But giving effective feedback in the classroom can be trickier than it seems. It’s more of an art than a simple practice and requires the teacher to be disciplined and thoughtful about what is worthy of feedback, as well as when to give it.
“The job of feedback is to meet the student where they are and give them what they need to take their next steps,” said Susan Brookhart at the Learning and the Brain conference. Brookhart is an education consultant and author of “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students.” She says often teachers she works with try to close all the education gaps a student has with one round of feedback. But when they do that it’s often too much information for a student to process. Instead Brookhart recommends praising the work’s strengths and then giving just one or two suggestions for how to make it even better.
And, crucially, this feedback must come at a time when the student can immediately act on the feedback, not at the end of a unit or essay when there’s no chance for the student to incorporate the feedback. “Don’t give any feedback on the final grade,” Brookhart said. “If they’re not going to be able to use it, it’s wasted time — yours and theirs.” Instead, she recommends building in time during the trajectory of the work to give feedback that students can immediately use to move them forward in their personal learning journey.
Often discussions about feedback focus on timeliness, but research from Andrew Butler’s lab suggests sometimes delaying feedback can be helpful, too. In his studies, the delayed feedback had the effect of forcing students to return to submitted work a week later, and that extra review helped them retain the information. The same principle can be applied to feedback given immediately, but used by students to improve over a period of time. In a situation oriented more toward process than memorization, using feedback inherently means spacing out learning.
“If they’re not asking where am I going, what am I supposed to be learning by doing this, then feedback is just another set of teacher directions to follow, which may or may not in the student’s mind be related to anything other than the activity,” Brookhart said. She suggests that teachers think very carefully about the learning target and the success criteria for a specific activity and only give feedback on that target. Students want to learn and they want feedback that will help them improve, but they also want to know why it matters. When a teacher can connect the feedback to an important future skill, students have a reason to incorporate it and can see the transfer process more clearly.
A common feedback trap that Brookhart observes can happen when teachers forget the goal of an assignment and give feedback on things like grammar instead of the learning goal. For example, if a seventh-grade science lab is meant to teach a concept, but all the feedback is about how the student formatted the lab, then the teacher has missed an opportunity. “Feedback then becomes what do I need to do to please this teacher, not what do I need to do to learn,” Brookhart said.
She also points out that feedback depends entirely on the learning goals of individual students. One student may have trouble starting a problem, but generally understands the material, so simply reminding her of the learning target might be enough. Another student may have trouble starting because his grasp of the material is a little shaky, but some guiding questions might be enough to spark his thinking. Still a third student may be lost on the content, in which case working through an example with her might be the appropriate level of scaffolding.
FEEDBACK FOR DIFFERENT REASONS
Often teachers think of giving feedback as useful to the student, but it should also be fruitful for the teacher. An individual instance of feedback can give a teacher a close-up look at the student’s abilities with a specific skill, a snapshot of where they are in the scope of the class, and some ideas about where to go in the long term.
“Tell the students what you see in their work,” Brookhart said. That doesn’t mean merely writing “Good Job” or “Needs Work” in the margins. Those comments are evaluative, signaling the end of the conversation. “Without descriptions students don’t have the information they need to take that next step.”
Brookhart gave an example of an elementary class working on persuasive writing. Students were asked to write a letter to the librarian after a book was stolen, offering some reasons why she should buy the book again. One student wrote a paragraph explaining that the book was funny and had mysteries in it, so it was worth replacing. The teacher’s feedback focused almost entirely on the spelling, capitalization and format errors of the letter. And at the end the teacher wrote, “Add more.”
Brookhart unapologetically calls this bad feedback. A student reading this feedback would think the teacher cared only about grammar and format, not about his ideas or persuasiveness, the stated goal of the assignment. “The worst thing about this is that there’s something really good in this that the teacher doesn’t mention,” Brookhart said. The student did offer two specific reasons why he liked the book, but the teacher did not call out those strengths.
“Do not assume this kid knows that he’s got the kernel of persuasion in there. Part of your feedback should be to make explicit, so he knows that you know,” Brookhart said.
Better feedback would be to tell the student he came up with two good reasons and ask him to add some of the missing information, like the title of the book and examples of how the book was funny or had mysteries. Then, the teacher could offer some sentence starters to help the student “add more,” on the principle that he didn’t know how to do that, or else he would have. Brookhart says that because this feedback is related to the skill being learned, it’s more motivating to students, and doesn’t make students feel like they are playing the teacher’s game.
“Teachers that are more effective at formative assessment go for student thinking, not just how correct they are,” Brookhart said. After a feedback session the teacher should understand more about how the student is thinking than she could gain from merely looking at what he wrote. And, she can then use that insight to give the student opportunities to revise the work and push toward stronger understanding of the learning target.
Brookhart says surveys of students are clear on what they want from feedback. “In many different countries, some done in the context of formative assessment and sometimes summative assessment, what students want is information they can use and the opportunity to use it.”
EQUITY IN FEEDBACK
Another key thing to keep in mind when giving feedback relates to equity in thinking. It’s easy to see a moderate- or high-level student’s work that doesn’t have typographical errors and push on the thinking behind it. But often the student whose technical writing skills are lower will get only the typographical feedback without the push on further thinking. While done unintentionally, the difference in feedback reinforces bias and could contribute to different expectations for different students.
This is the difficult thing about differentiated feedback. It will necessarily be different, but kids who struggle should also be held to a high level of thinking, and have their ideas honored, even when they are still working to bring their writing skills up to grade level. When teachers focus only on the elements students are worst at, feedback can be demotivating. For the most part, it’s ideas that drive people to learn, not grammar.