In How Learning Works (2023), the authors note that practice designed to help students master certain skills “must be coupled with feedback that explicitly communicates about some aspect(s) of students’ performance relative to specific target criteria, provides information to help students progress in meeting those criteria, and is given at a time and frequency that allows it to be useful” (Lovett, et. al, 2023). In other words, students will want to know how they are doing relative to assignment expectations and how they can improve to meet these criteria. This kind of feedback is called “formative feedback” because it helps students understand what they have already mastered as well as specific areas that they can improve. Feedback needs to be both ongoing and timely. For example, students should have specific feedback about their performance on a rough draft of a paper well before the final draft is due. Other examples of formative feedback include providing correct answers with explanations on low-stakes quizzes, commenting on student discussions in Canvas discussions, and conferencing with individual students about their progress. Feedback on a final paper, project, case study, or exam is called “summative feedback” because it provides students with a final score or evaluation.
Extensive research over the past several decades strongly supports the value of goal-oriented and timely feedback to improve student learning (see Lovett, et. al, 2023; Wiggins, 2012; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000; Hattie, 2008; Marzano, Pickering, & Pollock, 2001). Research also demonstrates that students should have feedback on specific aspects of their performance rather than more general comments (Black and William, 1998; Cardelle and Corno, 1981). Moreover, frequent and timely feedback has been proven to help students correct errors before students derail their progress in a course (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).
Implementation (adapted from Wiggins, 2012)
- Define the learning outcomes for students in the course.
- Provide concrete and transparent feedback as students work towards course learning outcomes. For example, students drawing diagrams in an Introduction to Chemistry course might get feedback on what they correctly drew as well as important parts that they missed. An instructor in a business course might note students’ most promising ideas in a case analysis while also providing guidance for ways to describe the implementation of those ideas.
- Give students timely feedback so that they have guidance before working on their next assignment. Timely feedback is particularly important when new concepts or skills build upon prior learning.
- Avoid overly technical feedback that students might find difficult to apply. For instance, instead of telling students that they need a firmer grasp of rhetoric, you might point out that their audience for an assignment doesn’t need an in-depth summary of the course text.
- Provide actionable feedback. For example, instead of telling students that they did a good job, let them know what successful strategies they employed that can be repeated on future tasks, including those for future courses.
- Consider providing feedback in a variety of ways—for example, during individual conferences with students, audio or video feedback, or substantial end comments on student papers. Ask students what kind of feedback they would like and when it would be most useful.
- Provide ongoing feedback throughout the course.
- Prioritize feedback that students can apply to other courses and tasks, which research shows is particularly valuable (see, for example, Lovett, et. al, 2023).