Formative Assessment

Timely Feedback: Now or Never

Feedback is necessary for learning. Be prompt, kind, and specific, and give students opportunities to reflect before revising.

A group of ten high school students are in a library sitting at tables and talking to each other.
Photo credit: U.S. Army RDECOM via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

We don’t know what we don’t know, but with help that can change. Feedback is key to learning. Growth occurs when someone offers a perspective that causes a person to reconsider his or her current stance. The impact of high-quality assessments is partially lost unless feedback is targeted and timely so that the information received is purposeful to the individual’s needs. The same principle applies for students. Here are some ideas on ensuring great returns on formative assessments.

Be Constructive, Kind, and Specific

What if during a professional evaluation, a supervisor spent the entire meeting discussing the problems in performance? How would the employee likely feel? Answer: diminished and lacking confidence in his or her capabilities. This is how students feel when they are only told about their errors. Soon they will likely tune out of the conversation and miss what’s needed.

When receiving constructive feedback, learners need to know what they did well and whether their understanding is on target. Recognizing what’s working reinforces those practices. Too often the inclination is to focus only on what’s missing or underdeveloped. These concerns do need to be addressed, but receiving the message is just as important as delivering it.

Start with what’s working: This is a much kinder approach because individuals feel that their efforts are productive and their time is well spent. They become more receptive to dialogue about what skills and concepts are missing. Word choice is important to feedback. Consider using these starter stems to frame coaching students on giving constructive feedback:

  • I like...
  • I notice...
  • I wonder...
  • What if...?

Kindness doesn’t mean avoiding critique: Ask, “What kinds of details—facts, examples, or illustrations—would help your reader better understand your position?” That’s more helpful than saying, “You need to show more effort in your writing if you want readers to value your position.” How we phrase feedback impacts how it’s received.

Relevant feedback makes the most sense: Specificity of feedback helps the person understand its relevance. Focusing on the specific kinds of details that will be most helpful illuminates a clear direction. Vague feedback leaves behind confusion and resentment.

Combining these three components—constructiveness, kindness, and specificity—helps establish a strong working relationship between those giving and receiving feedback.

Reflections, Then Revisions

A common concern expressed by teachers is that when students are given back assignments they’ve handed in, they don’t look at the comments. We need to teach them how to reflect on feedback. For years, students are conditioned to look for a grade as the only value of a returned assignment. This tends to occur when no time for thoughtful reflection is provided. Consider taking five to 10 minutes to have students review comments through a think-pair-reflect activity, or using guiding questions or thinking maps for students to review and reflect on feedback.

One teacher passes back assignments with no grades, just comments. Students reflect on the feedback. The grade is provided later. Reflection in small groups, alone, or with the teacher helps students find areas to replicate what they know and address areas that are missing what’s needed.

Revision opportunities lead to learning once reflection occurs with sufficient time. The act of making changes after reflection gives students the chance to re-evaluate what they now understand. If we break the cycle of accepting assignments without requiring revisions, students will develop a new culture for practice. First drafts are rough caricatures of achievement. True learning results from reflections, then revisions.

Next-Day Service

Feedback should be within 24 to 48 hours. This idea seems overwhelming for a teacher who sees 150 to 200 students in a day. But if students wait too long for feedback, they risk losing the context for the valued learning of the work. Strive to attain this response time as a goal, not a policy. With diligence, successes will happen when students need them most.

As Grant Wiggins noted, feedback doesn’t have to come solely from the teacher. For example, there could be informal conversations or peer reflections. Technology supports feedback via discussion boards, comments, and videoconferences. Formal feedback needs to be strategically used for greatest impact. Stagger assignments to give yourself manageable, daily portions of student work for review. For greater learning impact, if the turnaround response time is longer than 48 hours, consider rethinking the assessment or narrowing the focus of the outcome.

In The 47th Samurai, Stephen Hunter writes, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” This point  about skill building is wisdom for building a culture that shifts students’ value of feedback. Incorporating these elements take patience and time both in practice and buy-in. Start slow if you feel that need. For many grade levels, teachers must undo a mindset that’s become well established from years of being a student whose first draft is the final draft. Undoing this mindset and that of the posted grade as the only valuable data means providing the rationale for the power of feedback and committing the time for powerful feedback experiences.

Build on this foundation with these feedback resources. Ask colleagues for feedback. Committing to these concepts will empower your students as even more thoughtful learners.