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Virginia Journal of Education
Making Feedback Work
How to make sure the feedback you offer your students helps you both.
by Susan M. Brookhart
Except for the names, this is a true story. Jacob was a student in Ms. Jones’s ninth grade general science class. His favorite phrase was, “I can’t do this—I don’t understand.” He would say this before he even knew what the assignment was. He already classified himself as a failure, resigned to the fact that he would always do poorly in school.
An assignment to write a scientific report on an experiment he had conducted in class was no exception for him. His work was dismal. But Ms. Jones’s response was different this time. She decided the main issue with his first day’s work was that there was just too much information for him all at once. So she gave his first draft feedback: “Let’s write the introduction first. Answer these two questions…”
Ms. Jones told Jacob that once he had written the introduction to call her over and she would give him feedback on what he had just done, and the next step. And as she wrote in a reflection, “That was the last I heard of him for the rest of the days we were writing. He just needed a push in the right direction to help him see that he really did know what he was doing.”
Jacob, like many struggling students, needed feedback different from Ms. Jones’s usual responses to students’ work. But not all that different: He still needed to know what he had done well, what he should work on next, and – importantly – how he could do this (Ms. Jones’s two questions). He just needed the information in smaller bites than some of the other students. In this article, we’ll talk about tailoring feedback to the individual students’ needs, like Ms. Jones did for Jacob. But first, let’s set that discussion up by considering the general principles for effective feedback.
Giving Effective Feedback
Feedback is effective, but only if it helps students improve their work. Thus the most important characteristic of offering feedback is that your students understand it and use it. Whether or not feedback is effective depends on what students need to hear, not what you need to say.
There are some general principles that have been found in both research and practice to contribute to student achievement and improvement. I summarize them here; more details can be found in my book, How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students (ASCD, 2008). These general principles all spring from a deep truth about student learning that we sometimes don’t accommodate very well in traditional school structures: Learning is active. In order for students to improve and achieve, they have to “wrap their minds around” concepts so they truly “own” them. Feedback will be effective to the degree that it shows students something about their work that they might not have noticed themselves, but that they understand in terms of how it fits with what they are trying to learn and accomplish.
Effective feedback is timely. For recall tasks like learning math facts, immediate feedback is best. (That’s why the answers are on the back of flash cards.) For more complex student work, feedback should still be timely. For any student work, feedback needs to come while students still remember what the assignment was and why they were doing it.
Effective feedback focuses on one or more strengths and at least one suggestion for a next step. Why tell students what they already do well? Because some may not recognize their own strengths. Even if they do, it is another thing altogether to have their teacher notice and name the strengths most closely related to the learning target. As far as the next step, sometimes that suggestion is about something students need to do to deepen understanding (for example, think about why a character in a novel did something), and sometimes it’s about something students need to do to improve the work product (for example, add a concluding paragraph).
Effective feedback focuses on the student’s work and work process, not the student personally. So, for example, Ms. Jones talked about Jacob’s science report and about various strategies he needed to do to improve it. She didn’t say he was a poor student, or dumb – or even smart or a good kid or something like that. Feedback should be about the work.
Effective feedback is descriptive, not judgmental. Effective feedback compares work with criteria. Students should know the criteria for good work before they begin an assignment. A description of student work against criteria helps students see where they are now relative to where they intended to go. Sometimes effective feedback compares present performance with students’ own past performance, to describe improvement or to reference past achievement. Effective feedback almost never compares a student’s work to the work of other students.
Effective feedback is positive, clear and specific. “Clear” means clear to the student. It doesn’t matter if you are the Ernest Hemingway of feedback-writing. If a student doesn’t understand what you mean, the feedback cannot be effective. The tone of feedback, whether written or oral, should convey your confidence in the student as a learner. Your feedback should not sound like giving orders – this implies a view of education where teachers boss and students comply. Your feedback should imply that the student is an active reader, mathematician, historian or scientist, who will want to consider the teacher’s response to his or her work. In fact, some of the best feedback is in the form of conversations with students about their work.
Adjusting Feedback for Different Types of Learners
While the general principles for effective feedback apply for all learners, they are broad enough to encompass many different versions of feedback on any given piece of student work. Different students will have different needs. In this article, we’ll consider two broad categories of students, struggling and successful, and how you might adjust feedback in each case. Of course, these are still broad categories and so these suggestions are still somewhat general. Make sure to think about the individual student and his or her specific needs and past experience with the specific content and skills needed for each assignment each time you give feedback.
Helping Struggling Students
Focus on the process. One common reason that some students struggle is that they don’t see the connection between how they go about their work and their results. Focusing your descriptive comments, both about strengths and about areas for improvement, on the process of doing the work will be especially important for these learners. For example, when a beginning reader loses her place, a description of the work (“Here is where you skipped a line”) is less helpful than a suggestion about process (“I see you skipped this line. It might help to try keeping your place with your finger.”) The story of Jacob and Ms. Jones is another example of using process feedback for struggling students.
Use self-referenced feedback. Sometimes a straight description of a student’s work against criteria or rubrics would result in a feeling of “not even close.” While that might be an accurate appraisal, it won’t help feed student growth and achievement. For particularly poor work, describe the student’s work relative to previous work. For example, “Your last book report was way shorter than this one and I couldn’t tell what that book was about. Here I can tell that the book was about a Cat who does tricks. So this is much better. You can be proud of that. Now can you work on telling…by…”
This works in reverse, as well. If the current work is not as good as the previous work, you can describe the relative strengths of the previous work and show the student that you know he can do it. “Your last book report told me more about what you read than this one does. You wrote about the Cat and some of his tricks. So let’s try doing that for this report. Who was the main character? What were some of the main things that happened to her?”
Few points, small steps. Many struggling students, like Jacob, need to focus on a few things or even one thing at a time. Your feedback does not have to contain everything that is needed for the struggling student’s work to become exemplary work in one step. Select the very next thing the student should be working on and forget the rest for the time being. Make sure you focus on a “next step” in terms of the student’s progress on a learning progression and don’t skip or assume some steps in between. One small step done well is progress. A large number of feedback points not taken means no progress.
Use simple vocabulary. Keep your word choice simple and your sentences short. If your feedback needs to contain words students can’t read, use oral feedback. Comprehending your feedback should not become yet another thing the student struggles with.
Check for understanding. If a student doesn’t grasp the main idea(s) in your feedback, it won’t be able to support improvement. Don’t just say “Do you understand?” Instead, try probes like, “What is the most important thing you see here?” or “What is the very next thing you’re going to do on this paper?”
Helping Successful Students
Sometimes successful students don’t get much feedback, because the teacher spends his or her time on needier students. Other times, successful students get feedback about themselves personally (“You’re really smart”) or just general praise (“Great job”) for their work. Successful students need descriptive feedback naming strengths and suggesting next steps, too.
Describing excellent work is harder for some teachers than identifying strengths and weaknesses in poor work. Make the effort to characterize the work a good student has done, naming areas of particular strength as appropriate to the learning target. (“This is a great paper. I especially appreciated the way you made a chart to summarize your information and then discussed it point by point. That made it really clear.”)
Suggest next steps that could be taken, even if they are for enrichment or expansion beyond the requirements of your current learning target and assignments. (“Your project about Roosevelt’s New Deal shows you really understand the economic times between the stock market crash and World War II. You might be interested in reading about Eleanor Roosevelt, too. As first lady, she often went on speaking tours, and she did other social and political work, to support laborers and those in need.) Without taking next steps, students will not grow.
All students deserve effective feedback. General principles for effective feedback should be adjusted depending on the needs of the learner. Major issues for giving feedback to struggling students include focusing on the process, selecting only one or just a few points, giving self-referenced feedback to describe progress or capability, being very clear, and checking for understanding. Major issues for giving feedback to successful students include describing, not merely praising, good-quality work and envisioning next steps for students who have accomplished their current learning goals.
Brookhart, an independent education consultant based in Helena, Montana, is a former professor and chair of the Department of Educational Foundations and Leadership at Duquesne University. She is the author of several books, including How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students.
Feedback: Keeping Your Focus
In her book, How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students, Susan M. Brookhart talks about focusing the feedback you offer, in order to get maximum impact. For instance, feedback should be focused on the work or work process, not the person. The purposes of focusing feedback are:
• To describe specific qualities of student work as they relate to learning targets;
• To make observations about student learning processes and strategies that will help them improve;
• To build students’ efficacy by making connections between their work and their intentional efforts; and
• To avoid personal comments.
Here are a few examples of good, focused feedback:
• Making comments about the strengths and weaknesses of a performance;
• Making comments about the work process you observed or recommendations about a work process or study strategy that would help; and
• Making comments that position the student as the one who chooses to do the work.
Here are a few examples of poorly focused feedback:
• Making comments that bypass the student (for example, “This is hard” instead of “You did a good job because…”);
• Making criticisms without offering any insights into how to improve; and
• Making personal compliments or digs (for example, “How could you do that?” or “You idiot!”).