Feedback has the potential to have a powerful effect on student learning, and this year, with estimated student learning loss of four to five months for math and reading respectively, that impact will be more important than ever. In his meta-analysis of feedback studies, John Hattie emphasizes that it’s not how much feedback is given that matters—the feedback must be successfully received, processed, and applied. For students to benefit from feedback, they must have the opportunity to act on it.
Here’s a feedback scenario that plays out far too frequently: Students glance at their assignments, see the grade, and discard the work in the recycling bin, completely disregarding all the feedback I have dutifully written. Or they check the online grade portal without even looking at the feedback I annotated on their digital submissions.
James Nottingham, an education leader based in the United Kingdom, says there are seven steps to effective feedback. I’ve adapted his seven steps and added an eighth step that will lead to deeper learning while making teaching simpler and more rewarding. I’ve also created a brief video summary.
An 8-Step Process for Giving Effective Feedback
1. Know the target: Particularly for major assignments, teachers and students must be clear about the goals. Students need to know what success will look like through examples and well-defined parameters, and one of the best ways to do this is to generate shared goals. For middle and high school students, this might be a cocreated rubric or a cogenerated range of optional assignments that meet clear criteria for success.
2. Develop the first final draft: This is not a rough draft. It’s the best version that students can put together on their first attempt. Teachers or peers can’t give meaningful feedback if students don’t provide the best version of what they can do on their own. Garbage effort = garbage feedback. I remind students that they’re wasting each other’s time if they’re sharing poor quality work when asking for peer feedback in Step 3.
3. Check the target: Using clear parameters, the student or the student and peers should review the first final draft. This is the step where many things can go wrong. Students need to focus on shared goals and good examples. If we don’t provide clear parameters, peer feedback becomes pooled ignorance. For example, when giving feedback on others’ writing, students need to look for no more than one to two points with each reading. They can check for vivid language, student voice, certain grammar rules, or particular content elements—but not all of these at the same time, particularly if they lack expertise.
One simple and slightly cheesy way I addressed peer ability was to develop peer editors among my fifth graders who had demonstrated competence in writing through a series of writing and grammar exercises. When they achieved a certain level of proficiency, they received “golden dictionaries” (cheap pocket dictionaries that were spray-painted gold) that they put on their desks during the revision step to let other students know they were available for peer review.
4. Improve: This step allows students to use feedback to make meaningful progress. They’re no longer ignoring assessments and just looking for a grade—they’re improving their work. Repeat Steps 3 and 4 as many times as necessary to improve the work.
5. Teacher checks the target: This is when I give feedback, and it’s my favorite part of the process. By this time, the work is so much better than it would have been earlier. My life is already so much easier, and more important, students’ work is so much better, because learning has improved, based on feedback.
When I started teaching, I worked myself into the ground trying to give feedback on initial drafts. Eventually, I saw the benefit of giving that work to my students. At this step, it’s still critical to focus feedback on the rubric or criteria for success. I’m not trying to fix everything. I’m giving students feedback so they’ll improve. This should be in the form of genuine feedback, not advice. Grant Wiggins makes the claim that much of what teachers give as feedback is advice that’s unclear and not actionable. Instead of advice, ask questions like “Why did you choose to do this?” “What more can you tell me about this?” or “How does this idea fit with your earlier ideas?” The student is responsible for making the improvement, not mindlessly accepting our revisions.
6. Improve again: Students use my feedback to take their work to a higher level. For those of us who’ve seen our feedback in the recycling bin, this is a rewarding step.
7. Grade: This isn’t about grade inflation. The purpose is to evaluate what students have accomplished after getting meaningful feedback. Students should meet our shared targets, and if not, there’s plenty of evidence of the meaningful support they’ve received along the way.
8. Reflect: Teachers and students should return to the assignment target through the rubric or other criteria for success to celebrate the growth they’ve seen and make a plan for where they’re going next. For example, at the end of a project, we might ask our students, “How are you thinking differently than you were at the beginning of this project?” “Given what you now know, if you were king/queen of the classroom, what would we do next?”
The more we make learning the reward for learning, the more likely we are to create conditions where intrinsic motivation flourishes. This type of work with feedback will result in deeper learning, less shallow coverage of content, and more meaningful growth for teachers and students.