More Efficient Feedback

The papers, assignments, and projects are starting to pour in, and you may be starting to feel harried. An efficient feedback strategy can help lower the stress.

When we’re responding to student work, it’s easy to expend a lot of energy and frustration reacting to the surface features (grammatical errors, citation format… etc.), but commenting on sentence-level errors can actually undermine your feedback on higher-order thinking (Bean, 2011). You’ll use your time more strategically—and cultivate more learning—if, before you begin grading, you reflect on why you gave the assignment. What’s the instructional purpose of the project? What did you want students to learn by doing it? What kind of conceptual knowledge did you want to see? What reasoning skills were you asking students to practice?

The instructional goals should guide your feedback, even if you don’t have a rubric. A good assignment is a learning opportunity and a measure of student learning; good feedback lets students know what they are already doing well and what they need to keep practicing in order to accomplish their learning goals. But you can absolve yourself of responding to minor details, or issues that aren’t pertinent to the goals of the assignment. In fact, students will learn more if you don’t respond to everything, but instead give targeted feedback. Learners, especially novice learners, can process only a limited amount of feedback at once, so we must stick to the essentials. What’s most important? What needs most work? What’s working best?

It’s also worth noting that our feedback tends to be almost exclusively corrective. Our attention is caught by errors: too rarely do we comment on what students are doing well. This focus on error can deflate students’ motivation, and can convince them that they’ll never master the skills we want them to attain. Students are more likely to return to their work and keep thinking if we frame our responses as questions instead of critiques. We can harness the power of positive reinforcement by acknowledging their progress, and asking them to build on it.

If you’d like to work on developing an effective rubric, or think about specifications grading or other strategies, we’re always available to help.


Exam Design Workshop: Thursday, April 5 2:00-4:00
We’ll work on designing exams that are accurate measures of student learning in your course and learning opportunities. To RSVP, email