George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

3 Techniques for Providing Students With Feedback

Teachers can take a conversational approach to giving academic and behavioral feedback, helping students focus on what they can do next.

March 1, 2024
shironosov / iStock

Giving feedback on academic or behavioral issues can be stressful for students and teachers alike. However, there are ways to make the process feel supportive and affirming. Feedback is most effective when delivered in an environment that emphasizes care and not just compliance. Students feel supported and more comfortable engaging in learning in classrooms where educators cultivate unconditional positive regard, or valuing and accepting each student as a person worthy of respect and empathy regardless of their current behavior, performance, or circumstances.

What is Feedback?

Feedback is an integral part of the metacognitive process and an essential skill to help our students become more independent and self-regulated learners.

Cognitive psychologists John Hattie and Greg Yates identify several potential functions of feedback. Feedback can be:

  • corrective in nature and focused on skills that a student is learning, 
  • process-oriented and focused on the strategies that a student is using, or
  • delivered to help a student transfer what they have learned in one setting to another context to function as a more effective learner.

In each of these cases, feedback is conversational and relies on asking questions and listening to students’ perspectives on both academic and behavioral issues. It should motivate students to take action and give them a clear path forward by reminding them:

  • Where they are going and what their goals are.
  • What progress they have made so far.
  • How they are doing on the current task.
  • What needs to change.
  • The next small step forward to get from where they are now to where they want to be.  

3 keys to providing better Feedback

Avoid empty praise by elaborating: A common trap that educators fall into is offering praise when they are trying to provide feedback. Praise is not the same as positive feedback because it is often vague, unactionable, and conditional. In fact, recent research has shown that empty praise can be detrimental. When we praise students they become less intrinsically motivated and can develop a fixed mindset.

In contrast, positive feedback may start with a positive comment but elaborates on what the student did well in detail. When providing feedback, the teacher may also ask questions to help the student reflect or gain insight on their process, strategy, or perspective. For example, “Your goal for this lesson is to learn to calculate the mean from data presented in a table. You went from being unfamiliar with this skill on the pretest to getting 7 out of 10 problems correct. That’s fantastic progress! Can you show me what your process looked like for solving number 2? It seems like that problem was trickier than some of the others that you tried.”

Then when the student shows the steps for how they completed the incorrectly solved problem, the teacher could ask them to compare it to the steps they used to solve a problem correctly. This may help the student to identify the error. If the student does not know how to fix the problems that are worked incorrectly because they are different, the teacher would provide direct instruction on the necessary process and the student would correct the problems they missed as a way to practice the correct procedure.

Focus on the skill or process, not the person: When feedback comes across as criticism, students can become defensive and unable to take in what the teacher is saying. Clinical psychologist Susan Heitler says that “criticism complains while feedback explains.” While criticism isolates the student by identifying them as the problem in the past or present, feedback creates a way for the student and teacher to work together as a team. Feedback is actionable and provides students with additional information, insight, or suggestions.

For example, if a student walks in late, a teacher might be frustrated that they are missing an important warm up at the beginning of class and say, “You are two minutes late again. Hurry up and sit down. Everyone else has already started.” This does not clearly express the teacher’s actual intention, which is concern about missing an important part of the lesson. Instead, the teacher could say “Kerry, I am so glad you are here!”

Once the other students have started working or for a few minutes after class seek out a time to talk to the student privately saying, “I have noticed that you have been arriving a few minutes late to class. Is everything OK? I  am concerned that you are missing the warm up. What can we do to solve this problem?”

Focus on the future: Feedback is future-oriented and optimistic. As educators, we give feedback with the positive intention to help students improve because we see their potential and have a vision for what they can accomplish. After receiving feedback, students should be given time to reflect and revise their work or think about what they can do differently in the future. 

In the academic example where the student was working on finding the mean from a data set represented in a table, the student would correct their work using the process they learned. Then they would explain how they corrected their work to the teacher or a peer to make sure they were on the right track. When they tried new problems on this same concept in the future, they would now know the process to use to solve the problems correctly.

With the late student above, the teacher may find out that the student was stopping at the restroom because that is the only time they have to go. Then they may be able to use this information to help the student make a plan where they come in on time, complete the warm up, and then take a bathroom break. After going over this plan together, the student knows what to do in the future to improve their performance in class.

When teachers cultivate the ability to deliver effective feedback that can be heard, understood, and received by students, they can help them to grow not only in their academic skills but also to improve their behavior, motivation, and engagement in the classroom. The process of giving feedback, allowing time for reflection, and making a plan to revise gives students agency and an important role in their own learning.

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