When we return work to our students, we hope that they will study our feedback carefully and strive to improve their writing on the next assignment. Indeed, there are times when faculty may observe a student receiving a paper, looking for the grade, and then throwing the paper (with all its feedback) in the trash. Sometimes the students may not have thrown the paper out, but it seems to us that they might as well have done so: many faculty read a second or third round of papers that seem to lack even a trace of evidence that we had given feedback on the first paper at all.
In giving feedback on student work—whether an essay, an oral presentation, a multimedia project, or another assignment—we may give too much of it, focusing on minor details and major issues in ways that make it difficult for students to distinguish the two categories of feedback. Such feedback is problematic by virtue of its quantity.
Feedback may also be overwhelming by virtue of its quality: when we ask students to rewrite a paragraph or an entire essay because we deem it vague or unorganized, they may feel overwhelmed because they don’t understand how to act on such instructions. They often (although not always) didn’t think their argument was vague or unorganized when they wrote it, and without further clarification, they won’t understand our feedback. Such feedback is problematic by virtue of its quality.
If we begin with the premise that the purpose of any assignment is for students to practice and thereby improve a certain skill or set of skills—for example, writing a persuasive argument in formal register—then for students to make progress in this effort they need to have multiple opportunities to practice with assignments with identical or similar learning goals, even if the content of the assignment shifts with the material being discussed in the course of the semester.
Assigning students analogous assignments in a single course extends to them the opportunity to improve their skills if we give them actionable feedback that is appropriate in both quality and quantity and if we incentivize students, through the grading structure or some other means, to use that feedback.
I have found that a more focused approach to feedback on student work, constituting actionable feedback and a grading structure that incentivizes student use of such feedback, leads to substantive improvement in learning outcomes as well as student satisfaction with the learning experience. This approach draws on suggestions made by pedagogy scholars, especially in the field of composition and rhetoric, in a variety of professional development contexts.
Here I provide five suggestions for making feedback more actionable to students to guide them to greater progress in their learning.
You can implement this approach by beginning with the backward development of your assignments, articulating the learning outcomes for each assignment, and ensuring that students have multiple opportunities to improve their skills related to the learning outcomes. Then develop your rubric for the assignments, with one version of the rubric for the first assignment of its type and a second rubric for the second and all subsequent assignments of the same type. The rubric for the second and all subsequent assignments of the same type should include points for improvement in the individualized learning goals (to recognize and reward student progress) as well as points for self-reflection (so students grow their metacognitive skills).
Once your rubrics and assignments are ready, review student work with an eye toward the two or three most important learning goals for each student and identify those goals explicitly in your comments as well as in your grade book. Refer to those records when grading subsequent student work, and praise students for their efforts to attend to the issues you raised. Doing so recognizes students’ agency in their learning process and demonstrates to them that you are a reliable guide for their learning. You may well find, as I have, that this approach engages students more deeply in the learning process than merely posting a grade on their work with feedback they don’t understand or feedback they find overwhelming. At the very least, since I implemented this approach, I haven’t seen a single student throw their papers in the trash.
Benjamin Rifkin, PhD, is a professor of Russian and the dean of the Maxwell Becton College of Arts and Sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson University.