Effective Feedback for Deeper Learning

Dr. Natalie Saaris
June 21, 2016

We’re trained to believe that feedback is generally a good thing. It’s crucial in helping us develop new skills and in scenarios where we cannot assess our own performance. In fact, feedback ranks in the top 5-10 highest influences on student achievement, which explains why it’s a foundation of learning from the earliest grades when students compete for teacher praise or gold star stickers. The more feedback the better, right?

Unfortunately, research shows that the impact of feedback varies significantly depending on its focus and context. Much of the feedback that teachers give to students is ineffective or in some cases, detrimental to their learning. A review of 131 studies on feedback found that over a third of feedback interventions actually decreased performance. Well-intentioned educators regularly provide comments to students that decrease students’ intrinsic motivation and discourage them from learning.

This is especially worrisome given the importance of feedback when students are mastering complex tasks such as problem-solving and analysis. Unlike situations where students are purely being asked to memorize and recall information, deeper learning requires the student to reflect on the cognitive process and understand the strategies that lead to successful performance. Feedback is crucial to this metacognitive awareness. If our goal is merely for students to remember facts (“Who were the Axis powers in World War II?”), then letting the student know if the answer is right or wrong will suffice. But if we want students to think about the interplay of ideas (“To what extent was the outbreak of World War II inevitable?”), then we need to give students robust feedback that guides their thinking.  

Luckily, cognitive science offers valuable insight into providing the right feedback to support student outcomes. We’ve combed through the research to figure out the most important elements of actionable, effective feedback for deeper learning.

Feedback do's and don'ts for deeper learning
Research shows us the most important elements of feedback to enhance deeper learning.

1. Emphasize the task, not the student’s ability

Feedback that attributes performance results to inherent traits like intelligence does the most harm to student outcomes. Comments like, “you’re so smart” or “you are an excellent writer” suggest to students that their work is a reflection of their own selves, and that it is their egos that are being judged rather than the quality of their work. This type of feedback directs attention away from the task at hand and toward the self. The student is no longer thinking about the skill or content knowledge he or she is trying to master; instead, the student is thinking about his or her own ego.

In cases where the student receives negative feedback related to the self (“I don’t think that math is your strong suit”), the student generally loses motivation to persevere in the learning process. In cases where the feedback related to the self is positive (“you are a natural analytical thinker”), the feedback causes student to stray away from challenges because he or she wants to protect his or her good reputation by avoiding failure.

To foster a growth mindset and encourage students to take risks to further their learning, feedback needs to be directed at a specific task rather than the student’s ability. Instead of commenting on the student’s “writing talent”, it’s best to point out something relevant to the actual task (“you’ve done an excellent job supporting your argument with evidence from the text.”) This keeps the student’s focus on the learning task while diminishing the effects on his or her ego.

2. Give specific guidance on how to improve

Non-specific feedback is of little use to students, particularly if they are trying to figure out how to master a complex task. Telling a student that he or she has done a “good job!” or needs to “try harder” does not inspire the student to reflect on the cognitive process or figure out how to produce different results going forward. In terms of the measurable impact on student outcomes, non-specific feedback such as praise, rewards, and punishment falls far behind feedback that is specific and geared toward a particular task.

Imagine if you were trying to master a new skill, such as perfecting a free throw in basketball. After several failed attempts to get the ball in the hoop, you finally manage to score. Would it be more beneficial to hear the coach yell “Excellent!” across the court, or would it be better to know exactly why this shot was successful, unlike the previous ones? (“Yes! You bent your wrist 90 degrees before you flicked it, and that made all the difference.”) Taking the time to specify what the student did right or wrong enables the student to succeed when the same strategy or skill is applied in the future.

Of course, giving insightful feedback about the learning process requires understanding the student’s thinking and use of strategies. Some forms of assessment are better suited to this than others. In deciding between a short-answer or a multiple-choice question, the teacher might consider the value of students generating their own original words and reflecting their thought process in their answer. Gaining more visibility into the student’s thinking is what enables teachers to provide the most impactful feedback.

3. Provide regular, ongoing feedback

Most students do not receive nearly as much feedback as they need. In a typical classroom, the incidence of feedback is measurable in seconds per day. Most of the students’ time is spent working alone, which is understandable given the number of students that a single teacher must interact with. But for students who are consistently making the same mistakes without knowing it, infrequency of feedback results in wasted time and frustration.

Efforts to correct this situation generally result in more assessment that gives students information about performance results (scores and grades) rather than insight into the learning process. This is due to the practical constraints of having many students and limited teacher resources. Giving students feedback on their learning behavior and thought process requires a level of individualized attention that teachers in a typical classroom are unable to provide. Handing out more multiple choice questions that can be graded by a machine and reported back to the student often seems like the only option.

Resolving this feedback gap requires thinking beyond the traditional classroom model where teachers are solely responsible for providing feedback via grades and comments. Are there ways for students to gain insight into their own learning process that do not require the teacher’s intervention? Can data on digital platforms be used as a means to provide more frequent and actionable feedback? Could sharing notes and answers enable students to learn from one another and provide peer review? Research on self- and peer-assessment has shown that giving students opportunities to assess their own learning results in greater academic gains and deeper reflection about the learning process. Leveraging students’ abilities to assess their own cognitive process may allow them to think more carefully about the strategies they employ and help them develop their own metacognition for future learning.

4. Focus on process, not results

Too often, assessment in the classroom is used to determine student proficiency instead of inspiring reflection about the cognitive process. We measure student outcomes without understanding how those outcomes came about or what they entail for instruction and student learning. Optimizing feedback requires rethinking the way we assess students.

One starting point might be giving students the opportunity to revise their incorrect answers. In student surveys, we consistently find that one of the most popular features of Actively Learn is the “retry answer” button. Students want to improve and get a second chance to try a different approach to answering a question. Teachers who encourage students to retry their answers send students the message that learning is about reflection and practice rather than mere performance outcomes.

Giving thoughtful feedback that informs deeper learning also enables teachers to improve their instruction. When teachers focus on the learning process rather than performance outcomes, feedback becomes a two-way channel. While a student is the one who “gets” a grade, insight into the learning process informs student learning and also involves the teacher in figuring out the best way to direct students to academic success. It challenges the teacher to diagnose the causes of student performance and play an active role in redirecting the student’s thinking process.


As with so many aspects of teaching, feedback is both an art and a science. Cognitive research can point us in the right direction, but the teacher is still ultimately the diagnostician who figures out how to best help a student. We hope you are able to implement these best practices in a way that furthers your students' growth and leads to deeper learning.


Formative Assessment: Tracking Student Learning in Real Time

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