It's not teaching that causes learning. Attempts by the learner to perform cause learning, dependent upon the quality of the feedback and opportunities to use it.
– Grant Wiggins, AAHE Bulletin, 50 (3), p. 7, 1997
Timely and explicit feedback is an essential component of the learning process. Effective feedback identifies specific aspects of student performance that need improvement, and indicates ways in which the student can improve. By contrast, grades provide only a generic evaluation of performance. Although grades and scores provide some information on the degree to which student performance has met the criteria, they do not explain which aspects did or did not meet the criteria and how.
The full benefits of feedback can only be realized when the feedback adequately directs students’ subsequent practice and when students have the opportunity to incorporate that feedback into their work. Mid-semester feedback, combined with another assignment in which to apply it, is much more effective than is feedback at the end of the semester.
It is also important to consider appropriate response times. This involves both how soon feedback is given (typically, earlier is better) as well as how often (typically, more frequently is better). The ideal timing of feedback, however, cannot be determined by any general rule. Rather, it is best decided in terms of what would best support the goals you have set for students’ learning. Generally, more frequent feedback leads to more efficient learning because it helps students stay on track and address their errors before they become entrenched.
That said, simply giving students lots of feedback about their performance is not necessarily effective. Too much feedback tends to overwhelm students. Students are likely to focus on a subset of the comments that involve detailed, easy-to-fix elements rather than on comments that require conceptual or structural changes to their work.
WHAT STRATEGIES DOES THE RESEARCH SUGGEST?
Set expectations about quality. It’s always easier to excel when you know what the standards are. Share details about what your criteria are with your students when you give them the assignment.
Show students examples of good work. It can be helpful to share examples of what “good” work looks like, such as an effective paper or a robust solution to a problem. Sharing samples of past student work can help students see how your performance criteria relate to the actual assignment.
Build in multiple opportunities for practice. Because learning accumulates gradually with practice, multiple assignments of shorter length or smaller scope tend to result in more learning than a single assignment of greater length or larger scope.
Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work. Feedback is most valuable when students have the opportunity to reflect on it so they can effectively incorporate it into future practice, performance, or both. Because students often do not see the connection between or among assignments, projects, exams, and so on, asking students to note explicitly how a piece of feedback impacted their practice or performance helps them see and experience the ‘complete’ learning cycle. For example, some instructors who assign multiple drafts of papers require students to submit with each subsequent draft their commented-on prior draft with a paragraph describing how they incorporated the feedback. An analogous approach could be applied to a project assignment that included multiple milestones.
“Feedback,” writes Wiggins (1997), “is not evaluation, the act of placing value. Feedback is value-neutral help on worthy tasks. It describes what the learner did and did not do in relation to her goals. It is actionable information, and it empowers the student to make intelligent adjustments when she applies it to her next attempt to perform.”
To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium sponsored by Western Kentucky University.
Associate Dean, Faculty Development