Crafting Feedback That Leads to Learning
Five techniques for giving feedback that helps students improve their work.
When I was a new (and sometimes naive) high school history teacher, in a mistaken attempt to prove my worth I would correct every misspelling, grammatical flaw, and analytical misstep—drenching assignments in red ink. Before long, students accused me of caring more about pointing out flaws than helping them improve. They were right.
In my third year on the job, I really began to consider how to offer feedback—the kind that students find helpful for improving their learning. Here are some key tactics I developed.
Asking Questions Rather Than Making Corrections
If you point out the same blunder once or twice on a given assignment, it’s best to stop there. When I notice the same mistake again, I refrain from making yet another correction. Instead, I highlight the sentence or passage and ask the student to think about what needs revision. This lets students know that I have faith in them to address the problem without me and gives them more responsibility for their learning.
This point was hammered home for me by one of my mentors, Bruce Musgrave, who also served as my former assistant head of school. “David, sometimes it’s best to let students figure out and learn from their own mistakes,” he told me. “It’s important that we recognize when helping, however well-intentioned, hinders the learning.”
Encouraging Face-to-Face Conferences
No matter the quality of written feedback, it can at times come across as callous—even when this isn’t our intent. As teachers, we must keep in mind that while students are resilient, they’re also impressionable. They care deeply about what adults think of them, even if many of them wouldn’t admit as much. Moreover, many students can’t distinguish negative feedback on a piece of work from what a teacher thinks about them as people.
To address this concern, I strive to carve out some one-on-one time with each of my students. It’s important for them to hear the caring tone of my voice as I summarize my comments. I’m also careful to provide positive feedback, which often gives students a boost of confidence.
To make time for such conversations over a few days, I leave some time at the end of lessons, or find a shared free period. While I’m meeting with students during class, the others either revise their work or seek out a peer for additional feedback.
Giving Electronic Voice Feedback
When I have large classes, I’ve found success by providing electronic voice feedback. For this, I use Turnitin, which allows me to record up to three minutes of audio. I often begin by providing a bit of positive feedback—anything from how much I enjoyed the student’s take on a certain issue to effective use of evidence to inform the analysis. This reassures students that I’m not out to get them and am really seeking to help them improve.
Back in 2014, I spoke with Vicki Davis, a fellow teacher and education blogger—and author of one of my favorite books about writing instruction, Reinventing Writing: The 9 Tools That Are Changing Writing, Teaching, and Learning Forever.
“If you have kids who are weak in writing, it’s ideal if you can sit beside them, because you can help them,” she said. “But if you can actually record your voice, included as part of that document, I think that [could be] better almost than face‑to‑face, because while they’re revising, they can play it back. They can hear your voice, and they can hear the context of how you’re saying things—and improve their writing.”
It’s easy and quick enough to email a short audio file. If your school or district doesn’t subscribe to software with voice-recording capabilities, consider Quicktime or other readily available options. I also suggest trying Audacity, a free, open-source audio editor and recorder.
For those who use an iPad or iPhone, I’ve also found success recording feedback on the Voice Memos application, which comes standard with Apple devices that support its mobile operating system.
Guiding Students to Seek and Give Peer Feedback
Whenever I provide feedback, I do my best to reiterate that it’s always a good idea to have a classmate do the same. Nobody has a monopoly on good ideas or suggestions, including the teacher.
I’ve also found that students are often better at explaining or getting across certain points than I am—I readily admit as much in my classroom, and students appreciate the acknowledgment. This goes a long way toward fostering a greater sense of cooperation among students.
Sharing Feedback You’ve Received
To show students that nobody is above feedback, including their teacher, I show marked-up articles from my editors at various publications. Students are always taken aback when I share with them the much-improved published copy, which they realize would not have been possible without helpful editors.
Selfishly, I often enlist student feedback on my own work as well. After all, if something doesn’t make sense to them, it likely won’t make sense to others. I want students to know that I value their criticism, and I’m excited to share with them how my work benefits from their insight. All of this helps build a team mentality in the classroom, a sense that we’re all learning and growing together—which is true.