LESS IS MORE when it comes to student feedback

I find giving students effective feedback to be my most persistent and vexing challenge as a teacher.

By effective feedback, I mean timely, comprehensible, and actionable information for students about how they are doing on the key learning goals for the course, so they can use this information the next time they sit down to do work for my class. Another way of saying this is that I want to give each of my students real-time information about how they are doing against some meaningful standard, so they can improve the work they are doing and, in so doing, learn more.

The challenge of providing effective feedback, and its power when you do, became visible to me (again) when I reviewed feedback from a colleague on my writing.

As I write essays about education, like this one, I get early reactions from colleagues about what I write, to determine whether I am addressing important matters and to get input on how I can improve my writing. One of my colleagues spent time reading one of my essays and provided detailed feedback. It was so detailed that I ignored it as I still had my own ideas on what to change. When I finally reviewed the feedback, I struggled to apply her guidance because some of it no longer applied and I could not tell which changes were most important to make. I shared all of this with my colleague, and we brainstormed about how to make feedback more useful, realizing the same lessons that would apply to me would also apply to our students.

We had three realizations:

  1. Feedback has to be delivered when a student can do something with it.
  2. Feedback needs to be prioritized, and it is probably worth leaving out half of it to make sure the other half actually matters to students.
  3. Feedback must be actionable so students value it and learn from it.

These lessons are not unique, but I believe teachers will be more effective and empathetic about giving feedback when they experience what it is like to be a student who is receiving feedback, as I did in this case when I had to respond to a colleague’s feedback on my writing.

There are challenges to incorporating these lessons on feedback and the only way I have been successful is to incorporate a "less is more" approach.

Timely Feedback

The first challenge I face is providing timely information to students about their work. They need to know how they are doing as they are working, so they can improve and learn before this lesson or unit is complete. Too often, students receive feedback long after it is useful. A grade on a summative assessment on a topic they will not revisit is much less effective than feedback on a formative assessment that is the first of many encounters with the topic. At our school, providing timely feedback in class is not a problem because the class sizes are so small and we discuss what we are working on, which is a great form of formative assessment. When students work outside of school, however, and particularly when they work on longer projects where feedback is only provided at specific points in time (e.g., when they submit their first draft), I find it difficult to give timely guidance as students are working, and technology has helped a lot here. This is why we designed feedback to be a key component of Actively Learn. Leave a comment to let me know other non-technology practices you have used for to provide timely feedback.

Prioritized Feedback

The second challenge is providing comprehensible feedback to students. In other words, do students understand what I am telling them to improve? Sometimes. I have to be very careful not to overwhelm them with feedback on too many items at once, so I have now decided to be far more disciplined about providing feedback. My goal is to make only the most important observations and to make my guidance easier to understand. When students write something for class, I am going to tell them (1) how complete I think the work is (e.g., 50 percent complete) as an overall measure of their progress on the assignment, (2) what they have done successfully, (3) what the highest priority improvement they need to make is, and (4) two or three other high priority improvements, which they can choose to complete. This is in sharp contrast to returning a paper full of corrections in no particular order, some very important, some not very important, with no clear guidance to the students on how to proceed. If I tell my students less, and prioritize what I tell them, I hope to make my feedback comprehensible.

Actionable Feedback

Closely related to comprehensibility or accessibility of feedback is the challenge of making the feedback actionable, or useful, to students. This third challenge involves offering feedback to students that they can and actually do act on to improve their work and their learning. If I tell them what the highest priority improvement is, I need to do so in a manner that makes clear what steps they have to take to make the necessary improvement and, when I review the revised document, makes clear to me whether they took those steps. The most frustrating thing for teachers, after spending enormous amounts of time and effort providing detailed feedback, is that students rarely use that feedback to improve their work in the next iteration. In my experience, the only way around this is to provide a model of what you want students to do, otherwise they cannot or will not do it--just as I did not incorporate the feedback my colleague gave me on my own writing.

In light of these challenges, I have decided to focus on providing students with less feedback, and to make sure the feedback I provide is more timely, clear, and useful. In this way, it may be possible to improve student work and to reduce my workload. And, I will continue to seek feedback on my own work, so I continue to be the student. Please feel free to share yours.


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