George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

Maximizing Your Feedback’s Impact

You’ve crafted high-quality feedback. Now here are four tips for helping your students engage with it.

teacher working with student
teacher working with student

Although the importance of meaningful feedback is well-known, one aspect of feedback that’s often overlooked is how students will use it once they receive it.

A recent review of 195 studies shows that how students engage with feedback is just as important as how it’s delivered. Lead author Dr. Naomi Winstone says that as a result of the heavy focus on giving high-quality feedback, the issues surrounding how learners understand and use feedback have been relatively neglected in research. “If we want feedback to have maximum impact on learners’ development, then how learners engage with and implement feedback is just as crucial as the quality and timing of the feedback itself,” she says. “No matter how high quality the feedback teachers provide, it will never have high impact unless we support learners to become ‘proactive recipients’ of feedback.”

So what can we do to help students become proactive recipients? Here are a few tips.

1. Understand the Barriers to Strong Engagement With Feedback

One reason feedback is often difficult to engage with, says Winstone, is the emotional reaction to it. “In many cases, feedback can seem like a threat to our self-esteem, and we often protect ourselves by limiting our engagement with the comments.”

In some of her previous research, Winstone and Dr. Rob Nash uncovered four main barriers to strong engagement with feedback:

  • Awareness of what feedback means and what it’s for: Learners may have a limited understanding of the purpose of feedback or the language used.
  • Knowledge of strategies by which the feedback could be implemented: We equip learners with many useful skills, but how often do we explicitly teach them how to use feedback?
  • Agency to implement strategies: Feedback may not always feel achievable or worthwhile. For example, learners may feel that feedback on one piece of work has little relevance to another piece of work.
  • Willingness to scrutinize feedback and implement strategies: Using feedback is hard. It requires a lot of effort to improve skills and techniques.

Once you understand these barriers, you’ll be able to structure your feedback so that it’s not only clear to the learner what needs to improve, but also what specific steps they should be taking and how this will benefit them in the future.

2. Help Students Develop the Skills to Use Feedback Well

Winstone says students often need support in developing the skills to engage with and implement feedback. She and Nash have identified four important skills, which they call “SAGE recipience skills.”

Self-appraisal: Students need to be able to appraise their own skills, strengths, and weaknesses.

Assessment literacy: Students need an understanding of standards and criteria so they know what a good piece of work looks like.

Goal setting: Students need the ability to set goals for themselves and monitor their progress toward achieving these goals.

Engagement and motivation: Students need the engagement and motivation to put in the hard work required to implement feedback.

Once students understand the importance of improving in a specific area, the motivation to improve will follow naturally, so start by providing clear examples of high-quality work and then give students a chance to reflect on their own work to see if there are areas that need improvement.

3. Provide Students Opportunities to Implement Feedback

In addition to helping students develop the skills to engage with feedback, it’s important to provide them with opportunities to use it.

Winstone says many teachers in the U.K. use Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time, which entails using classroom time to help learners put the feedback they receive into practice. During this time, students might redraft a section of their work using the comments they received or practice a particular skill they need to improve. Allocating classroom time to implementing feedback helps students recognize the importance of acting on feedback rather than just passively reading it.

4. Help Students See That Improvement Is Achievable

Although Winstone’s work focuses heavily on how feedback is used and implemented, she notes that there is still a place for well-crafted and encouraging feedback.

“When writing feedback, teachers can transmit subtle messages which may influence a learner’s engagement,” she says. “It’s important that learners receive the implicit or explicit message that improvement is achievable.” For example, instead of saying, “You’re repeatedly making the same errors. Reread chapter X in your textbook,” you could make the same feedback more encouraging by saying something like, “There are still some errors here, but I can tell you’re making progress in your understanding of this topic. Focus on X and you’ll soon be all the way there.”

Most importantly, though, remember that even the most specific and well-timed feedback cannot be effective if students don’t use it. So providing students with feedback is only the first step. We also need to motivate them to take ownership of their learning by equipping them with the skills necessary to engage with and implement that feedback. 

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Rachel's picture

In my district, a major change in the grading policy occurred this year. Because of this, there has been an increased focus on providing students with timely feedback in order for students to redo assignments and resubmit. Teachers have willingly jump on board with this idea, but there has been little instruction in how to give quality feedback to students and how to make sure students receive and apply said feedback. This article touches on some of the ways teachers can assist students with receiving feedback on formative assessments and following up on the given suggestions. A major hurdle that is not discussed in the article is the fact that students must be engaged in their assignments and activities in order to be motivated to improve them. This goes back to the idea of culturally responsive teaching, allowing educators the freedom to create their own lessons based on student interests, and determine the pacing of their course. If students are not engaged in the content, they are less inclined to internalize their feedback and try again, especially on an assignment they didn't enjoy completing in the first place. Yes, giving feedback to students is extremely important in regards to student achievement, self-assessment, reflection, and having a positive growth mindset. However, students who are not engaged from the start will not see their feedback as valuable, they will view it as being forced to review an assignment that didn't make sense to them to begin with.

Marianne Stenger's picture
Marianne Stenger
Education writer with Open Colleges

Hi Rachel, thanks for your insightful comment.

I absolutely agree. Engagement is so important and if students aren't engaged to begin with, making feedback engaging will certainly be a challenge. This article I wrote a few years back looks at the importance of sparking students' curiosity and how this can help even "boring" topics come alive: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/why-curiosity-enhances-learning-marianne-s...

Nina's picture

As a formative assessment measure, feedback can be used to guide the learner forward and make adjustments to student learning. Feedback should be specific and precise, whether its reinforcing or corrective. Stating specific details is a great way to allow the student to understand exactly why they're being praised or what needs to be corrected. Number 4 is great because I think teachers are used to giving corrective feedback, without stating something positive about what the learner can do, which can often lead students to become less engaged and lack motivation to learn.
Rachel, you made a good point about providing quality feedback to students and how to make sure students receive and apply the feedback. This would be a great topic for a webinar, workshop or professional development.

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