George Lucas Educational Foundation
Formative Assessment

5 Research-Based Tips for Providing Students with Meaningful Feedback

In recent years, research has confirmed what most teachers already knew: providing students with meaningful feedback can greatly enhance learning and improve student achievement.

Professor James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin has been researching the benefits of frequent testing and the feedback it leads to. He explains that in the history of the study of learning, the role of feedback has always been central.

When people are trying to learn new skills, they must get some information that tells them whether or not they are doing the right thing. Learning in the classroom is no exception. Both the mastery of content and, more importantly, the mastery of how to think require trial-and-error learning.

The downside, of course, is that not all feedback is equally effective, and it can even be counterproductive, especially if it's presented in a solely negative or corrective way.

So what exactly are the most effective ways to use feedback in educational settings?

Although there is no quick or easy answer to this question, here are five research-based tips for providing students with the kind of feedback that will increase motivation, build on existing knowledge, and help them reflect on what they've learned.

1. Be as Specific as Possible

In a review of the available research titled "The Power of Feedback," University of Auckland professors Helen Timperley and John Hattie highlight the importance of supplying learners with specific information about what they are doing right or wrong.

For example, feedback like "Great job!" doesn't tell the learner what he did right, and likewise, a statement such as "Not quite there yet" doesn't give her any insight into what she did wrong and how she can do better the next time around.

Instead, researchers suggest taking the time to provide learners with information on what exactly they did well, and what may still need improvement. They also note that it can be helpful to tell the learner what he is doing differently than before.

Has a student's performance changed or improved since the last time you assessed her? Let her know about it, even if she still has a long way to go.

2. The Sooner the Better

Numerous studies indicate that feedback is most effective when it is given immediately, rather than a few days, weeks, or months down the line.

In one study that looked at delayed vs. immediate feedback, the researchers found that participants who were given immediate feedback showed a significantly larger increase in performance than those who had received delayed feedback.

Another research project from the University of Minnesota showed that students who received lots of immediate feedback were better able to comprehend the material they had just read.

Of course, it's not always possible to provide students with feedback right on the spot, but sooner is definitely better than later.

3. Address the Learner's Advancement Toward a Goal

Timperley and Hattie note that effective feedback is most often oriented around a specific achievement that students are (or should be) working toward. When giving feedback, it should be clear to students how the information they are receiving will help them progress toward their final goal.

4. Present Feedback Carefully

The way feedback is presented can have an impact on how it is received, which means that sometimes even the most well-meaning feedback can come across the wrong way and reduce a learner's motivation.

Psychologist and author Edward Deci has identified three situations in which feedback could be counterproductive:

  • When learners feel too strictly monitored: If learners feel that they are being too closely monitored, they might become nervous or self-conscious, and as a result, disengaged from learning.
  • When learners interpret feedback as an attempt to control them: Learners may sometimes interpret feedback as an attempt to control them or tell them how they should be doing something rather than guidance on how to improve.
  • When learners feel an uncomfortable sense of competition: Feedback shared in a group setting could cause learners to feel like they have to compete with their peers. This can be another source of disengagement in learning.

To avoid these situations, Deci suggests fully explaining the purpose of any monitoring, and ensuring that learners understand how the feedback is meant to help them compete against their own personal bests rather than each other.

5. Involve Learners in the Process

The importance of involving learners in the process of collecting and analyzing performance-based data cannot be understated. Pennebaker says:

Students must be given access to information about their performance . . . At the broadest level, students need to know if they actually have mastered the material or not. Giving them information about the ways they are studying, reading, searching for information, or answering questions can be invaluable.

When students have access to this information, they develop an awareness of their learning, and are more easily able to recognize mistakes and eventually develop strategies for tackling weak points themselves.

In the comments below, please tell us about how you give your students feedback, and about how it affects their learning.

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Arun Shrivastava's picture

I have been using an online peer-assessment tool called peerScholar - it allows students to submit their work and then have a set of their classmates anonymously give feedback. It also allows for

Donna Young's picture

Teacher feedback is essential for a productive learning experience in the classroom. My students look forward to my verbal and written responses to their work.

Jackson Bates's picture
Jackson Bates
High school English teacher in Melbourne, Australia

Another key consideration that this article misses is the volume of feedback. While being specific is important, it is also important to focus on one or two priorities for the student that will help them improve gradually.

You can be as specific as you like, but if you specify 100 things a kid needs to work on, you can guarantee they won't work on any of them.

Hamad Almazrouei's picture

Intersting. If I want to give a feedback to one of my teachers (written feedback), what is the best way to give a great feedback?

Martin Diaz Alvarez's picture
Martin Diaz Alvarez
Business Consultant

Feedback should be given in a timely manner. When feedback is given immediately after showing proof of learning, the student responds positively and remembers the experience about what is being learned in a confident manner.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Since learners type, rather than write by hand, their responses, online surveys can do a better job of preserving your students' anonymity and thus increase their ability to be honest in their responses.

Cunliffe Nz's picture

It was great to read this article as a reminder to what constitutes effective feedback. I am looking into using Seesaw as a digital portfolio for my 6 year olds. The discussion out there seems to be around whether we use an authentic platform or one made for school?Any thoughts?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I have started using See Saw this year and love how easy it is to not only keep a digital portfolio but to share student learning with families. A bonus is that it will help me easily share student work captured on iPads on our Smart Board. I highly recommend it.

Arthur Chiaravalli's picture

Dylan, Love your work by the way. I've always wondered about this idea of feedback as quickly as possible. As an English Language Arts teacher, I always felt shamed by this stipulation and a little bitter that the "feedback" required in other disciplines is so much less labor intensive!

For me, I like to think that ideal feedback is TIMELY, which is a different idea altogether. TIMELY feedback could come right before students are about to attempt a subsequent task assessing growth in the same skill. For example, I have my students take engaged note-taking while reading works of literature. I provide feedback on what I saw, acknowledging their strengths and pointing out areas for growth. At that point, when they are about to start a new set of notes, they can make a resolution as to what their focus on the next set of notes will be:

- "I'm going to not just ask myself questions as I read, I'm going to make a conjecture based on what I know thus far."
- "I'm good at expressing personal opinions about the work, but I'm going to try noticing how the author uses literary devices to support meaning."
- "I'm getting good at identifying symbols/motifs in literature, but I'm going make an inference or two about how it contributes to the work as a whole."

I like getting feedback back to students "just in time" to set goals for a new, similar assessment. That may not be immediate. As I see it, I want students to reflect and set a growth goal at that IDEAL moment: when they have an imminent opportunity to improve.

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