Feedback is essential for learning. That’s what hundreds of scholarly articles tell us, and that’s what I’ve found as an educator. In my hunt to provide the most effective feedback to students, I’ve read a lot of research. From my research, I’ve distilled a fairly comprehensive list of effective feedback techniques from my fellow educators.
Whether you teach face-to-face, blended, or online, there is something useful in these strategies for everyone. Because this article is thorough (2,000 words), it’s broken up into easily digestible chunks all linked from the table of contents.
Knowing that feedback is an integral part of learning and giving real feedback that works are two very different things. Giving feedback to students is especially difficult for higher education instructors who have limited time and resources and an unlimited supply of students and assignments to assess.
At first, giving feedback to classrooms of students seems impossible, or at least unreachable, considering constraints on educators’ time and energy. Evidence proves that individually tailored feedback is best, but that means giving feedback to a classroom full of individual students. Each requires slightly different feedback delivered in a slightly different way. Luckily the process of giving feedback to students can be more approachable and effective by looking at four components: specificity, timing, mode, and techniques.
The most basic type of feedback (and often the least helpful) is yes/no feedback. It’s the ding of the bell or the buzzer. It’s simply telling a student whether an answer or a performed task is correct or not.
Yes/no feedback isn’t specific enough. It’s the antithesis of effective feedback, which should always be specific. This is especially important in higher education: research papers, presentations, and group projects are just some of the higher education assignments that require more than just “correct” or “incorrect” written at the top of the page.
A close friend of mine had this experience. He, like many of his peers, enrolled in a public speaking course to fulfill a communications requirement. They had several class presentations. The feedback he got on the first presentation set the tone for the rest of the course: there was none.
Well not exactly none. He got a grade.
He said, “This told me I did well, but I didn’t get 100%. I must’ve made some mistakes, right?” You can understand his frustration. How could he improve his performance if he had no way of knowing what he did right or wrong?
This friend would have learned a lot more if his professor provided specific, formative feedback. And that’s exactly what Dr. Valerie Shute, a professor at Florida State University with a PhD in cognitive/educational psychology, found in her impressively exhaustive literature review on feedback research.
After compiling “approximately 170–180 articles, dissertations, abstracts, books, and conference proceedings” about feedback, Dr. Shute’s article asserts that “feedback to the learner should address specific features of his or her work in relation to the task, with suggestions of how to improve.” In other words, effective feedback requires a professor to go beyond handing out a grade.
Not only is specific feedback beneficial, but research shows non-specific feedback can actually be harmful. As with the example of my friend, students become confused, frustrated, and speculative without specific feedback.
Knowing when to give specific feedback is just about as important as how specific your feedback is. It’s tricky, and there isn’t just one correct way. Giving feedback to students at the right time depends on the desired outcome and on the learner.
There are two approaches to feedback timing: giving feedback immediately or waiting and giving delayed feedback. Immediate feedback directly follows the completion of a task. Delayed feedback can take minutes, days, or months depending on how fast a student’s work can be evaluated.
Both offer advantages and disadvantages. In her research, these are the trends Dr. Shute identifies about timing and giving feedback to students:
Delayed feedback is best for creating the best transfer of learning. It’s also good to delay feedback with simple tasks. Students don’t like to be interrupted when they’re completing a basic task. At the opposite end of the spectrum, delayed feedback is particularly effective for complex skills taught to high-achieving students.
Because immediate feedback is—well—immediate, it’s best for quick results and efficient learning. It’s also been shown that immediate feedback works particularly well for retention of verbal, procedural, and motor skills. If the task is new and particularly difficult or you’re working with a lower achieving student, consider using immediate feedback.
Students love feedback, and feedback can be given in a lot of different ways: orally, written, video, etc. So how should you deliver feedback to students? Like many pedagogical principles, it depends on the discipline and the student.
There are three important benefits to oral feedback: it’s often the student-preferred method of feedback, it facilitates dialogue, and it’s quick.
Research shows that students prefer verbal, one-on-one feedback. And oral feedback provides quicker, more immediate interactions between the learner and educator. This allows learners to ask for clarification, boosting the efficacy of the feedback in creative work. Finally, verbal feedback is quick and easy for students and teachers. It takes a lot less time to say something out loud than to thoughtfully write it down.
That’s why Dr. Kylie Budge recommends that teachers “may need to use oral forms of feedback more often in creative disciplines as a means of communicating both the explicit and tacit knowledge associated with complex, creative work.”
Along with the benefits, consider some of the downsides of oral feedback. Citing Kluger and DeNisi’s research, Dr. Shute recommends teachers avoid oral feedback. That’s because Kluger and DeNisi’s research shows that the more removed a person is from giving feedback, the more unbiased feedback will appear to students. Subsequently, Kluger and DeNisi’s research found that students trusted written or computer-delivered feedback more.
There are two positives to written feedback: permanence and objectivity.
Verbal feedback is fleeting, but written feedback will always be there for students to revisit and digest. And as mentioned above, written feedback is also seen as more objective. The negatives? Students may not read your written feedback—especially when it’s attached to a grade. Also writing out feedback instead of saying it really takes up a professor’s time.
Undoubtedly video feedback is ideal for giving feedback in online courses. Even in a more traditional or blended classroom, video feedback offers a unique combination of positives and negatives.
Like oral feedback, video saves time and is even more convenient. Oral face-to-face feedback requires you to meet with students physically. With video you can give feedback anytime, anywhere.
Video is also more permanent than a face-to-face meeting. But depending on the video software the same level of interaction and dialogue in a face-to-face meeting is hard to replicate.
As technology for higher education continues to expand, don’t overlook multimodal feedback. Dr. Shute encourages professors to “exploit the potential of multimedia . . . consider alternative modes of presentations (e.g., acoustic, visual).”
For example, GoReact creates a multimodal feedback experience for giving feedback to students. When students submit a video to instructors for feedback, professors can give feedback to students via an audio recording, a video, a written comment, or all three. And because GoReact is a cloud-based software, students can synchronously or asynchronously respond to instructor feedback with their own audio recordings, videos, or written comments.
Specificity, timing, and the method of delivery aren’t the only considerations to keep in mind when giving feedback to students. This section contains research-driven strategies on how to deliver feedback: what to do and what not to do.
This list of dos and don’ts is based on Dr. Shute’s guidelines in her article for the Review of Education Research. To find out more about the decades of research supporting her findings, read her article.
In addition to pinpointing specific features in a student’s work, instructor feedback should be elaborate. Maybe elaborative feedback seems the same as specific feedback because both require individual attention and tailoring to the learner. But elaborative feedback is a type of specific feedback that builds on the initial correct/incorrect information. Dr. Shute explains elaborated feedback as “the what, how, and why of a given problem.”
Unbiased feedback is the most effective and productive feedback. But do your students know that your feedback is unbiased? Instructors should focus not only on producing unbiased feedback, but also on communicating their commitment to giving fair feedback.
The simpler the better. If you want your students to read your feedback, make it simple. Simple feedback has been shown to be more accessible than complex feedback, and unclear feedback is frustrating for students. If a comment is the length of the Bible or harder to understand than a calculus equation, students won’t bother. By carefully and thoughtfully composing clear feedback, you can simplify while providing the optimal amount of detail.
In your feedback, reference the goals of the course, assignment, or task. This helps students put their progress in context. It also helps them see why your feedback matters in the larger scope of the course. The best feedback speaks to the student’s own goals for the course or assignment. Perhaps they have no interest in writing a convincing op-ed in the future, but you can emphasize their personal goal of persuading other people and using sound logic.
Never discourage students with your feedback. What causes discouragement? In a chapter written by researchers, Susan Askew and Caroline Lodge refer to discouraging feedback as “killer feedback.” That’s when a student feels “there was too much [feedback] and it felt overpowering, it did not connect with their thinking at the time, there was no discussion or dialogue and it did not give any help in how to start making changes.” They also recommend instructors avoid “being overly judgmental, critical, giving unclear or contradictory messages.”
In addition to these tips from Askew and Lodge, pay attention to tone. Ask yourself, ”What’s my tone when I deliver feedback to students?” Often the delivery of the feedback—not the feedback itself—discourages students.
This one is pretty simple: don’t interrupt a student who is focused and engaged. As Dr. Shute explains, “Interrupting a student who is actively engaged in problem solving with feedback from an external source has been shown to inhibit learning.”
Research by Kluger and DeNisi reinforces that comparing your students in feedback does not work. It gets egos involved and that detracts from the learning.
There’s nuance to this one. In a controlled study in 1998, Dr. Ruth Butler divided up students into three groups. The first group received a grade, the second group received a grade and feedback, and the third group just received feedback and no grade. She found that interest and performance was at its highest with the third group. And with the other two groups, she found “general undermining effects on both interest and performance.”
In short, feedback by itself was the most effective.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t continue to accompany grades with helpful feedback. Instead, consider giving feedback first and delaying the accompanying grade or adding more feedback-focused exercises to your curriculum.
Bonus Tip: Use GoReact to give feedback in your classes.
I hope you’ve found value in this guide to feedback for educators. There’s no question that higher-quality feedback is a key component to giving more students that “light bulb” moment, where their understanding of key concepts and their ability to demonstrate new skills clicks in their minds. Being a part of that process is one of my favorite things about being an educator.
This piece is published by the makers of GoReact, an educational technology. GoReact is a cloud-based video software for giving feedback on student speeches, presentations, lessons, and performances. If you liked this article, I recommend you check out GoReact to see if it’s right for you and your classes.
Teaching an online class? Check out 4 Secrets to Giving Feedback Online to Students.