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January 7, 2021

How to Give Constructive Feedback to Learners

Feedback is essential to a quality education. However, actually delivering it can be tricky. How do you point out students’ areas for growth in a way that doesn’t crush their confidence, but instead encourages them to take their understanding to the next level?

Giving Actionable Feedback

Feedback—whether positive or negative—isn’t useful unless students can act on it. After all, feedback isn’t the final word judging a student’s ability for all time. Rather, it’s a learning tool, meant to help students continue on their journey to master the concepts at hand.

So how do you make sure your feedback is helpful for students moving forward? According to Frontline Education and Edutopia, actionable feedback is:

  • Based on evidence: Whether you’re giving positive or negative feedback, it’s essential to be specific about students’ performance. If you see a student consistently making the same mistake, or applying a concept particularly well, make sure to draw attention to those things. Students won’t necessarily know what “Great work” or “Needs improvement” mean. Instead, tell them what was great about their work or where specifically they need to improve.
  • Focused on the future: Even feedback on summative assessments isn’t the final word on a student’s understanding of a topic. As teachers, our goal is to help students work toward mastery, which is always forward-thinking. Although it’s important to point out specific spots where students misunderstood or misapplied information, the bulk of your feedback should be geared toward how they can improve in those areas in the future.
  • Rooted in humility: Remember, we’re all on a journey of growing and improving, and your students already take your word as authoritative. So do your best to offer feedback that’s objective, respectful, and gentle in tone. Instead of writing notes like “Incorrect” or “You need to work on…”, consider phrases like “I noticed a couple of spots where…”, “Have you considered…”, and “Remember our learning objective about…”
  • Timely: Research has shown that the sooner you can get feedback to students, the more likely they are to learn from it. When students read feedback from an assignment they completed weeks ago, the material isn’t fresh and doesn’t feel relevant to what they’re working on right now. However, if it’s only been a couple of days since they completed an assessment, they’ll be more invested in knowing how they did and more motivated to do better.
  • Focused on objectives: Feedback is an opportunity to remind students of the learning objectives they’re working toward. After all, their ultimate goal shouldn’t be to earn a certain grade or make you happy. Rather, it’s to master a skill that will help them in their future life, school, and work. So when you offer feedback, make sure to connect it to the objectives you stated at the outset of the assignment.

What to Avoid When Giving Feedback

We’ve covered what you should include in feedback. But what about things to avoid? Here are some common pitfalls teachers should watch out for, from Houra Amin:

  • Focusing on the student, not the performance: Sometimes, it can get disheartening to give the same feedback over and over again. However, it’s important to always keep your comments limited to the students’ work, not the students themselves. This is true for positive feedback too. When your feedback is directed toward students (e.g., “you’re so smart!” or “you’re struggling in this area”), then their attention is directed toward “self” rather than their skills. And when students are focused on themselves, they will be more worried about their bruised or inflated ego—not learning the skill.
  • Vague feedback: Checkmarks, circles, points, and rubrics only go so far. Students need to know specifically where they went wrong, what skill they need to work on, and how to improve. For example, if students are practicing long division (while showing their work, of course), it isn’t helpful to merely check whether their final answers are right or wrong. Rather, if possible, you should see at what point in their work students went off base and point them to what material to review to work through the process better next time.
  • Too many details: The flipside of being too vague is being too detailed. Although it’s important to give specific examples and refer to specific objectives, try to avoid several sentences when one or two will do. Otherwise, students might get overwhelmed or confused by the amount of information and get discouraged from reading and applying all of it.

Helping Students Cope with Feedback

Even when you deliver timely, focused, and actionable feedback, some students will have a hard time accepting it. They will take any criticism (even constructive) as a reflection of their academic abilities as a whole or even their character and intelligence.

When your students respond poorly to feedback, they may need more encouragement than merely “chin up” or “don’t take it personally.” Instead, they need a framework to help them rework their mindset and view feedback as a tool, not an attack on their capabilities. ASCD provides the following questions to help students receive feedback in a more appropriate, optimistic manner:

  1. What feedback did you receive? It’s important to start by making sure students understand the feedback correctly. For example, you might provide feedback on an essay encouraging the student to review a recent lesson on sentence fragments. A student in a bad mindset might interpret that feedback as, “I don’t know how to write sentences” or “I suck at grammar.” Make sure to draw the student’s attention back to the true issue: It’s not that she can’t write sentences; it’s just that she sometimes leaves out a subject or predicate.
  1. What do you now believe as a result of this feedback? This question gets to the heart of students’ mindsets. Ideally, students should look at feedback and think, “Okay, I did great on most of the objectives, but I just need to practice a couple of things for next time.” However, that’s not always the belief or internal dialogue students experience. Continuing our previous example, the insecure student who gets feedback on her essay might conclude, “I’m bad at language arts” or “All my essays are terrible.” We hardly need to get into why such limiting beliefs can be damaging for students’ academic and emotional growth.
  1. What are some alternative conclusions that you might draw other than the ones that you have already listed? Once you get to the heart of students’ beliefs, it’s essential to direct them toward a growth mindset. For example, instead of condemning themselves or giving up, ask students what some alternative ways of thinking might be. For our essay example, you might suggest to the student that the issue isn’t that you’re bad at language arts; you just need some practice in this specific area.
  1. As a result of the feedback you received, what are you going to do next? Again, it’s important to direct students toward future action, not past performance. There’s no use dwelling on mistakes or poor understanding. Instead, continually point your students toward the road that will take them to stronger performance in the future.
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