Teaching What the Research Says

Here’s How to Give Feedback That Students Will Actually Use

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 16, 2023 4 min read
Female teacher helps young boy to do his school work.
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Feedback is one of the most important ways teachers can improve student learning. But regardless of the quality of the feedback teachers give, it’s only useful if students use the guidance.

New research highlighted at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting here highlighted ways teachers can boost the effectiveness of their feedback to students.

“We think of feedback as useful and important ... maybe one of the most important things that, if done well, could be the mover in what actually makes students learn and work,” said Martin Van Boekel, an assistant teaching professor at the University of Minnesota. “But the reality is, it’s really not that simple. There are a lot of barriers to user feedback that could undermine it, or make students actually do worse than they would have if they got no feedback at all.”

Emerging research from several studies pointed to several ways to develop better feedback to students:

  • Make comments specific rather than general. Teachers could say, “use more examples from the text to support this argument,” for example, rather than labeling a student essay as a “weak argument.”
  • Connect comments to the learning goals and criteria associated with the assignment.
  • Ensure feedback describes what students should do or think about, rather than just evaluating overall quality.
  • Develop a positive class culture around receiving and using feedback without it being a “failure.”

Margaret Heritage, a senior scientist at WestEd and author of the book, Formative Assessment: Making it Happen in the Classroom, also warned teachers to keep feedback separate from grades. She noted that many schools in the United Kingdom create separate grading and feedback policies to encourage students to improve their understanding of an assignment rather than focusing on boosting a score.

Students need to be taught how to use feedback

Van Boekel and their colleagues asked undergraduate students to write an essay summarizing information from an article; the texts were then given feedback and the students were recorded as they thought through their responses to the feedback aloud.

Nearly half of the time, they found students considered teachers’ comments as just text to read, rather than a tool to improve their work or to think about more broadly. By contrast, students spent less than 10 percent of their time thinking through what they didn’t understand about the assignment or content, or inferring ways to improve their work. As a result, students rarely asked for help or clarification in response to feedback, nor did many try to respond to comments in revisions.

“While we assume students are doing these higher-order things [in response to feedback], we’re not scaffolding them,” Van Boekel said. “We need to help students see feedback as information rather than just a score ... and develop this idea that feedback is part of a process” of reviewing and improving one’s learning.
In a separate but related survey, the majority of students told the researchers that the primary purpose of feedback is to give strategies to grow academically and better understand the material, but they personally wanted more task-specific feedback focused on what they did right or wrong in a particular activity.

The more negative judgments students make, the less likely they were to say they were going to review the feedback and make changes to the essay.

Teachers should also monitor how students respond to the feedback they give, said Angela Lui of the City University of New York. “If [students] don’t understand it or think it is not useful, they will not use it,” she said.

For her study, Lui analyzed feedback in 7th grade English-language arts classrooms. Teachers provided both immediate verbal and written feedback as students worked through essay drafts, but also gave students checklists to review their own drafts and revise them before submitting.

She found students were more likely to use feedback to improve their writing if it aligned with their understanding of the assignment’s expectations, and they were able to justify the feedback in their own words.

“We need to shift our understanding of feedback from something given to something received,” Liu said. “If students don’t understand it or think it is not useful, they will not use it.”

A little praise goes a long way

That doesn’t mean teachers should focus only on encouraging students, though, according to a separate study by Anastasiya Lipnevich, an education psychology professor at Queens College in the City University of New York.

As part of an undergraduate course, students wrote a 750-word essay on evidence about climate change. Lipnevich and her colleagues then assigned them to one of three groups. The first group was given no feedback, but was asked to reread their essays and identify ways to improve them. The second group was given detailed comments on improvements. The third group also received detailed feedback, but prefaced with praise: “This is an excellent draft! You did a wonderful job presenting your arguments. Below are a few suggestions on how you can make it even better.”

After getting back comments, all three groups were asked how motivated they were to make changes to their essays. They found students who received detailed comments were more motivated to improve their essays than those who got no feedback. But students who had been told they had an excellent draft already were less likely to rework their essays than those those who did not receive praise.

From AERA

Education Week is reporting live from AERA, the nation’s premier education research conference. Here’s the latest coverage.

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Students read an Earth Day coloring book in Claire Martin's kindergarten class as part of Earth Day activities on April, 22, 2022, at the Discovery Enrichment Center in Benton Harbor, Mich.
Students read an Earth Day coloring book in Claire Martin's kindergarten class on April, 22, 2022, at the Discovery Enrichment Center in Benton Harbor, Mich.
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A version of this article appeared in the May 03, 2023 edition of Education Week as Here’s How to Give Feedback That Students Will Actually Use

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