We know that feedback is a crucial part of the learning process. When students understand how their learning is progressing, where they can improve, and what steps they can take to move forward, their confidence grows and their effort and persistence strengthen. Without feedback students can struggle with mistakes, misconceptions, and confusion and lose track of their learning path.
We might assume that providing feedback is a simple process: We tell students what they did right, what they did wrong, and how to fix it. Yet, feedback delivered in this way is as likely to be dismissed by learners as it is to be heeded. How feedback is provided, when it’s provided, where it’s focused, and how it’s targeted matters as much as its content.
In fact, feedback provided poorly can have a negative impact on learning; leaving students frustrated, undermining their learning commitment, and even building resentment toward us and the feedback we offer. Given the potential of effective feedback to fuel the learning process, it’s worth getting right. Let’s examine five essential elements of effective feedback that will result in increased learning and confidence.
First, effective feedback results from an interactive process. We need to think of feedback as an exchange of information that leads to greater understanding for students—and us. The interaction should clarify what each party knows and needs to learn. For some students, this part of the process may require us to explicitly teach students what feedback is and how to receive and use it. A priority in the process is for students to ask questions and challenge information that isn’t clear or doesn’t help their understanding. We, too, need to be ready to listen to the perspectives, concerns, and questions students share and respond with support, encouragement, and coaching.
Second, quality feedback is objective and designed specifically for the student. For our feedback to be effective, it must be descriptive rather than judgmental. What we choose to share must be based on data and information we have without interpreting student motivation or guessing about a student’s thought process. The purpose of feedback is not to blame or praise. It is not to offer or withhold approval. Our goal is to share information the student can use to continue learning. We can help the student focus on areas of strength, build confidence, and extend areas where learning is already growing. What we share needs to be specific enough for the student to know what to do next yet stop short of doing the work for students.
Third, feedback is most impactful when it is timely. Sometimes, timely feedback means an immediate, on-the-spot response. In other situations, it might mean a discussion after the completion of a key section of a long-term project. Timely feedback might involve both teacher and student watching a video of the student practicing a skill and discussing what they observe before the student engages in another cycle of rehearsal. Regardless, to be timely, the information must be presented while it is fresh, the student is still engaged in the learning process, and they can use it in a meaningful way. Obviously, feedback presented after a unit is complete or after we have moved on to teaching a new concept has little learning value for students.
Fourth, useful feedback focuses on what students can control—or at least influence. We need to help students see how their efforts can move their learning forward. We also need to be careful to limit the scope of our feedback to avoid overwhelming the student. Further, our feedback must focus on the key strategies and approaches the student has used to this point and those needed to move to the next level of learning. Simply identifying what needs to be done can be of little use unless students know how to approach the work and understand what strategies are likely to lead to success.
Fifth, effective feedback must be connected to the learning goal the student is pursuing. We and the student need to be clear on the learning goal for which we are providing feedback. Without alignment between learning priorities and feedback, we risk confusion and wasted effort. Our feedback conference needs to include agreement on progress made so far, clarity about where learning is relative to the learning goal and an outline of the next two or three steps the student can take to move closer to the goal. However, for some students, we may need to present only one step at a time until the student builds the confidence and strategies to become more independent.
Including these five elements in our feedback practice will support students to build the confidence and skills necessary to accelerate and gain control of their own learning. Once students gain the confidence and competence that result from “owning their learning,” we can coach them to build the independence necessary to continue learning long after they leave us.