We know that feedback enhances performance, and research indicates that it is most effective when it is timely and actionable. Yet many of us have watched students toss graded papers into the recycling bin without a glance at the comments. This happens even when students receive the feedback while there’s still time to improve their performance—and their grade. It’s therefore worth considering strategies that will foster student responsiveness to feedback, since the only feedback that really matters is the kind that is acted upon.
Offer Work That Matters and Explain Why
For students to be motivated to act on feedback, they need to understand why what they’re learning is important. For example, if you task students with memorizing Lincoln’s inaugural address, the parts of a cell, or a passage from Shakespeare, remind them that the more they know, the more they can learn. Show them how they can access previously memorized information and apply it as they read, debate, figure out complex ideas and problems, and make connections.
For example, as we examine what it means to be black in America, I intersperse throughout my lesson lines from Langston Hughes’s poems “I, Too,” “A Dream Deferred,” and “Theme for English B” that I have committed to memory. Hughes’s language offers a clarity that I can’t accomplish on my own, and reciting it demonstrates the power of memorization to deepen our understanding and ability to convey meaning.
Whenever possible, we need to offer students choices that enable them to practice skills they’re passionate about and explore topics that pique their curiosity. When students care about the work they’re doing, they will not only be receptive to feedback but will ask for it. An aspiring writer wants to improve his expository piece, a future computer scientist to perfect her code, and a student artist to fine-tune his craft. In my English class, student coders create apps to illustrate poetic themes, artists design found poems through pencil drawings and pastels, and design thinkers build models that symbolize literary concepts.
Although these kinds of opportunities may not meet learning outcomes for every assignment, they create the conditions that support student responsiveness to feedback.
Empathize and Ask Questions
It is difficult for students—and the rest of us—to acknowledge mistakes. It’s easier to crumple the graded paper, toss the rejection letter in the trash, or quickly delete the email than to accept feedback we don’t want to hear. One path toward helping students respond to feedback begins with acknowledging a task’s difficulty, expressing gratitude for their earnest attempt, and asking questions to help them identify their next steps.
We can frame our comments using warm, cool, and hard feedback. We would begin with warm feedback that sounds something like, “This was a really challenging assignment, but I really like the way you....” We can then follow up with cool feedback by asking a probing question designed to help students determine how they might improve: “If I read this aloud to you, can you identify whether your writing conveyed what you were trying to say?” This type of question invites students to collaborate in the feedback process and puts them in charge of deciding how to improve.
Lastly, we can provide so-called hard feedback, which challenges students to expand their ideas. When students are writing essays, I ask them questions like “So what? and “Who cares?,” so they can consider the implications of their work and how they might exceed the goals of the assignment. These three types of feedback work well together, but it’s essential that we only offer hard feedback once we’ve worked with a student and they know and trust us, so they’ll be comfortable taking further academic risks.
Focus on Strengths
Students often receive feedback in the form of a grade, with tests highlighting their incorrect answers, essays marked to show how their thesis is unsubstantiated, and science labs noting their faulty reasoning and incorrect conclusions. Yet neuroscience research indicates that “getting attention to our strengths from others catalyzes learning, whereas attention to our weaknesses smothers it.” The way we learn is by noticing patterns of what we do well and building upon those patterns.
To that end, we can cue students to notice the skills and habits of mind in which they are already proficient. They can then not only work to improve upon them but transfer them to other areas. For example, if a student is persistent and hardworking, you can ask them how they might apply those strengths to an area in which they need to grow. If a student expresses himself more clearly through speaking than writing, you can suggest that he try using a voice-to-text option to see if it results in further clarity in writing.
A guiding principle to remember is that feedback needs to be objective, individualized, and anchored in a student's performance. This way it exists separately from us, so students can draw upon it independently.
Although these strategies are helpful in increasing student responsiveness to feedback, author and educator Dylan William reminds us that “there is just no substitute for the teacher knowing their students.” Knowing our students helps us decide when to push and when to back off. And, of course, students are always more likely to consider and implement feedback when they trust that we care about not only their academic improvement but also their overall well-being.