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Feedback has been proven to be one of the most important factors to student success (Hattie, 2009). Unfortunately, students are starved for feedback from their instructors (Purdue Global, 2013). Graduate programs focus on teaching their students how to publish, lecture, and grade but not how to provide feedback that improves learning. It was only after studying the gurus of feedback, such as Grant Wiggins (2012), that I learned how to give quality feedback, which led to a sharp improvement in my student reviews and student learning. As someone who has evaluated hundreds of faculty members’ feedback to students, I have learned that faculty can drastically improve student understanding by avoiding a few common feedback errors.
By far the biggest error faculty make in giving feedback is examining student work with a grading rather than a coaching mindset. Faculty go through a student’s work, mentally subtracting points for each error and leaving brief margin comments (such as “vague” or “elaborate on this”) intended only to justify the grade. But these brief comments are unhelpful to students. They think to themselves, “It’s not vague to me; why is it vague to you?” Such feedback does nothing to help students learn and improve.
The problem stems from thinking of assessments as merely a means of measuring learning and that examining student work is about sorting the good apples from the bad via a grade. This is wrong. Assessments should themselves be teaching devices, and they become so through the instructor’s feedback to students. The purpose of feedback is not to justify the grade but rather improve student understanding and performance.
This means that faculty should turn the equation around by making feedback primary and grading secondary. That is, faculty should read student work first to identify how they can help students improve their understanding and performance and only second to determine the grade.
Here is where it helps to think like a coach. Coaches are performance oriented—they are evaluated in terms of their players’ performance—and thus they teach primarily through feedback. They do very little lecturing. Instead, they watch their players perform and provide feedback to improve that performance. They don’t say, “You get a C because your free throw form is wrong,” and walk away—but that’s precisely what we do when we give brief comments merely meant to justify the grade.
Good feedback means first providing feed back (two words), which is information on the person’s past performance. A coach might say, “You are pausing in the middle of your free throw stroke, which is causing the ball to slip to the side and fall off target.” That is information on past performance, and it is given with enough detail that the player knows what is wrong and why.
Similarly, a teacher might say to a student, “Here you start talking about illegal immigration, but that’s off of the topic of English as an official language. Language laws affect both legal and illegal immigrants, and so focusing on illegal immigration obscures your point.” Here, again, the comment concerns past performance, and instead of just leaving the student guessing as to the problem, the feedback explicitly states the problem in a way that they student can understand.
Feed back is then followed by feed forward (again, two words), which is guidance for improving future performance. The coach might follow up by saying, “You need to have a continuous motion, like this. Now you try it.” Applied to example above, the teacher might follow up the comment with something like, “I recommend that you come up with a hypothetical example of an English-speaking American emigrating to France and create an argument that the person can be required to learn French. Then you can apply the same reasoning to the United States.” Now the student has a clear direction to fixing the problem.
Most of the teaching happens through the feed forward, but this guidance is what is most often missing from faculty feedback. Faculty teach through their feedback when they provide concrete guidance on how the student can improve their performance.
The second major error I see is giving praise rather than feedback. Faculty think that they need to motivate students through praise, but praise has actually been shown to undermine learning by shifting the topic from the student’s performance to their character and qualities (Kluger & DeNisi, 1996). It also creates dependency on praise, obscures the message that the students need to hear, and usually does not even motivate the student. What demotivates students are not poor grades but rather poor grades that offer no clear path to improvement. For this reason, students do not want praise; they want information on how to improve. To be clear, occasional praise does not hurt, but praise should never substitute for feedback meant to improve performance.
At base, feedback is just a report of what the instructor sees, nothing more and nothing less. Every landing on an aircraft carrier is followed by feedback from the flight control officer. The officer meets with the pilot and goes down a list of criteria, saying things like, “You were 59 seconds behind the plane in front of you; the target is 60 seconds.” This may sound like the officer is being overly critical, but in reality, they are simply giving clear feedback. They are saying, “Here is the standard, and here is your performance in comparison to it.” That is what students need, not praise.
Faculty also need to provide both positive and negative feedback. Positive and negative feedback are often associated with praise and criticism, but this is not correct. Positive feedback is simply information on what was done well. A teacher might say that “You started with a good introduction that both motivated the reader to continue on by explaining why the topic is important, and provided a brief overview on what you would cover.” Faculty often forget about positive feedback as they focus on fixing student problems, but students need to know what they are doing right because if the instructor only focuses on what they are doing wrong, they might stop doing what they are doing right.
Negative feedback is information on what was not done right. A teacher might say, “Your major problem was that you combined the stakeholder and shareholder theories of corporate responsibility into one theory, whereas they are really very different. Let me explain . . .” As negative feedback is usually the most important for improvement, it should make up the bulk of the feedback, but not to the point of excluding all positive feedback.
The third major feedback error I see is faculty turning themselves into copy editors and writing tutors rather than teaching their subject matter. Despite spending seven or more years of graduate school preparing to teach a specific subject, they end commenting on writing issues to the exclusion of thinking issues. This is understandable; writing errors get under our skin and distract us from conceptual issues. But we better serve their students by commenting on thinking issues before writing issues.
One reason is that writing issues are often at base thinking issues. As one student put it in a Turnitin survey (2013), “Most of my writing issues are a result of muddled thinking. Once my thinking is clarified, my writing will follow.” After all, when we send our own articles for publication and have reviewers point out unclear areas of our work, do we chalk it up to our needing writing instruction or rather our needing to clarify our thoughts?
Additionally, just because students have writing problems does not mean it is the faculty member’s primary job to fix them. Every institution I know of has a writing center. If both the writing center and the faculty member are teaching writing, then nobody is teaching the subject matter. Faculty should point out the general areas that students need to work on at the writing center, and then provide feedback on the thinking issues that they have trained to teach. Students will benefit much more by faculty helping them with their understanding of the concepts of the course—what the faculty member would much rather talk about anyway.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning. New York: Routledge.
Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487
Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254–284. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.119.2.254
Purdue Global. (2013). 10 things students say about instructor feedback. https://purdueglobalwriting.center/2013/11/03/10-things-students-say-about-instructor-feedback
Turnitin. (2013). Office hours: Students share successful feedback tips [Webcast].
Wiggins, G. (2012, September). Seven keys to effective feedback. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 10–16. http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/sept12/vol70/num01/Seven-Keys-to-Effective-Feedback.aspx