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April 13, 2022

Providing Meaningful Feedback

Note: This article first appeared in OnPractice on May 13, 2015. It continues to be a relevant topic for teachers to consider and apply.

One of the most challenging—and most rewarding—aspects of being a teacher is the on-going process of giving meaningful feedback to our students. We know that good feedback can be one of the most powerful tools to incite student learning;[1] however, most of us face the dual struggles of knowing just what sort of feedback to give, and how to find the time to do it right. After all, the student-to-teacher ratio is not exactly in our favor! Here are some tips to help you find the balance and maximize your students’ opportunities to learn.

Meaningful feedback is specific.
General statements such as “good job!” or “weak thesis” are not helpful as feedback. These statements do not help students to make the connection between what they have done and what was good or weak. This lack of specific connection may actually serve to disempower and demotivate students, as they find themselves unclear about how to improve their work and grow in their understanding of the content being assessed.

Instead, meaningful feedback is linked to a specific observable or demonstrable skill, outcome or behavior.[2] This enables you to describe what the student did well, or what he can do to improve the area that needs work in order to reach the desired outcome. Examples of meaningful statements might be: “You remembered that multiplying two negative numbers results in a positive number,” or “Your thesis identified the topic, but it doesn’t tell your reader the direction your paper is going to take.”

Rubrics can also provide meaningful feedback, if they are used to highlight specific things that the student did or did not accomplish in a particular topic. In addition to highlighting phrases on a rubric, it can also be helpful to jot down a sentence or phrase that indicates how the student could improve next time.

Meaningful feedback is timely.
Multiple studies have confirmed what we know intuitively to be true: the more timely the feedback, the more effective it is in promoting student learning.[3] This could be as simple as pointing out common student mistakes during a guided practice time in class, or as complex as conducting writer’s conferences with individual students at multiple stages of a research paper. In whatever form it takes, timely feedback enables students to make connections—and corrections—in their thinking while the material is still fresh.

Meaningful feedback fosters student growth. 
This means that it is important to focus both on what the student is doing well as well as areas in which she can improve. Feedback that is only focused on improvement can lead to discouragement and demotivation; however, feedback that is only focused on what a student has done well can inhibit the student’s motivation to get better. A balance of the two is necessary.

One helpful rule of thumb when giving feedback is known as the feedback sandwich (I like to think of it as an Oreo cookie): one thing the student did well, one area in which he can improve, one thing that the student did well.

Another helpful practice is to take the time to acknowledge when students have acted upon previous feedback. For example, when a student who consistently struggles with apostrophes uses one correctly, commenting on the correct usage indicates that you recognize the student’s growth in this area. When students know that you notice their efforts, they are far more motivated to attempt other improvements as well.

Meaningful feedback is understandable.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things we can do for our students is to give feedback to them in language that they do not understand. In order to give specific, targeted feedback, we will need to use academic language. Before we do, however, we need to be sure that our students understand that language. It does no good for me to instruct my students to use a comma to separate two independent clauses joined by a conjunction if they are not sure what an independent clause (or even a conjunction) is.

ASCD contributor Grant Wiggins tells the following story to illustrate this point:
“A student came up to her [teacher] at year's end and said, ‘Miss Jones, you kept writing this same word on my English papers all year, and I still don't know what it means.’ ‘What's the word?’ she asked. ‘Vag-oo,’ he said. (The word was vague!)[4]

To ensure this understanding, we may have to initially spend time explicitly teaching our students to use and interpret academic vocabulary, but once we do, the results will be worth it.

For more ideas on giving meaningful feedback, check out the following on-line resources:
Becky Hunsberger, M.Ed.
Coordinator for Regions: Teams & Transformation
TeachBeyond Global


[1] See, for example, the research of John Hattie & Robert Marzano.
[2] Euroleague for Life SciencesE-Learning: Didactical Recommendations and Quality Assurance. 2012. pg 16.
[3] Stenger mentions two of these studies in her article for Edutopia:  “5 Research-Based Tips for Providing Students with Meaningful Feedback.”  8/06/2014.
[4] Wiggins, Grant.  “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.”  ASCD.  Sept. 7, 2012.

Photo Credits:
Teacher & StudentsWorld Bank Photo Collection par Flickr. CC2.0
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