George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

Feedback That Empowers Students

If it’s tailored to the individual student and clear-cut, feedback can be a formidable learning tool.

June 24, 2022
High school teacher helps student at her desk
Kobus Louw / iStock

Feedback can be a powerful process that greatly impacts student learning when it affirms students’ identities as learners, is clear and direct, and considers the individual attributes of each student.

Here’s an example. A student receives the following feedback from her teacher:

  • Strength: You clearly state your claim, The women’s rights movement began with the suffrage movement but it’s not over yet, and provided a list of recent events, such as the Women’s March of 2017 and the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team’s court case, to support your thinking.
  • Need: Include the counterclaim and how you would respond. What would someone say if they disagreed with you? Where would they find fault with your supporting evidence? What can you include to address these arguments?
  • Next step: Work with your writing partner to talk through the Claim, Support, Question protocol. Do some more research to address the questions that you and your partner generate, and add this information to your essay.

This feedback moves beyond what students often receive in response to their work—statements such as “Great job!” “Shows improvement.” “Add evidence.” The more comprehensive feedback can empower students because it’s individualized to the student; leverages students’ assets, interests, and learning preferences; and builds students’ confidence in themselves. Let’s unpack the above example to see how to accomplish this.

Providing Meaningful Feedback

Strengths: Identify what students can do in relation to the learning target, regardless of whether they’ve achieved mastery. The feedback in our example is based on the following learning target and success criteria for the student:

I can write an argument by doing the following:

  • Stating a claim
  • Providing supporting reasons and relevant evidence
  • Addressing counterclaims

When a teacher identifies what students can do, it communicates the belief that all students are learners and can achieve high expectations. Students know what to repeat in future assignments and, most important, develop confidence in themselves. Often by middle and high school, students who have repeatedly been told what they cannot do have accepted failure as a norm and need support in redeveloping their identity as a learner. Identifying what students can do helps rebuild this identity characteristic necessary for learning.

Needs: Identify where a student is in relationship to the learning target. The language the teacher uses in identifying needs can affect how students receive the feedback. In our feedback example, the teacher states the need—Include the counterclaim and how you would respond—and then provides some questions to prompt student thinking. Zaretta Hammond writes in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain that direct and honest feedback helps students understand that feedback is affirmation that the student can reach the goal. When feedback is cushioned or vague, a student may interpret it to mean that the teacher doesn’t believe in the student’s capability.

Next steps: These directly correlate with the identified needs and provide suggestions on how students can move forward. Too often, students are given feedback but don’t know how to address it. The teacher supports student independence and self-regulation by describing actions that the student can take on their own to strengthen their work. In our example of feedback, the teacher reminds the student to use a thinking routine that has been repeatedly used in class—to identify possible counterclaims and provide stronger evidence to support their reasoning.

Next steps should also consider the individual attributes of the student. For example, if the teacher knows a student is an artist, suggesting that the student use sketchnoting before writing might be a good next step. Students who use oral language to process information might benefit from peer discussion, as mentioned in the example, before writing. A linguistically diverse student might write in the language they are most comfortable with to organize and elaborate on their ideas.

The amount, timing, and format: These can influence how a student receives the feedback and their willingness to act on it. Some students need less feedback more often, while other students prefer to have the time to process and apply the feedback. Feedback can be verbal or written and offered privately or in small groups. The same process for providing feedback will not work for everyone. If a teacher is unsure as to what strategy might work best for the student, the teacher can conference with the student and discuss different strategies. This builds the trust that underlies the successful feedback relationship.

The feedback that students receive from their teachers serves as models for students to engage in peer feedback and self-assessment. When students use the same process with their peers and then apply it to themselves, they’re truly empowered. Students, like their teachers, must have clearly articulated learning targets and a protocol, such as the strengths, needs, and next steps. They must also reflect on the feedback process. Questions such as “How did feedback from your classmate help you revise your work?” “What did you learn from examining your classmate’s work that will help you in revising your own?” and “How did you revise your work after completing your self-assessment?” all help students see the value of the feedback process.

Empowering students through feedback begins with teacher feedback that identifies what the student can do, clearly states areas of needs, and considers the individual attributes of each student in providing next steps. When students receive quality feedback from their teachers, they are primed to engage in peer feedback and self-assessment, and empowered to be self-regulated, independent learners.

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  • Formative Assessment
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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