Learning from Feedback

What Will Students Learn From Feedback?

If you want to get good at playing golf, you probably already know that watching great golfers play won’t be enough. You’ll need to practice golfing yourself in order to develop your skills, and your practice will be much more fruitful if you have guidance and feedback from an expert. An expert can look at your performance and tell you what will be most important to practice, help you practice in beneficial ways, and let you know what you’re doing well and what adjustments you need to make to improve. The same is true for any kind of skill development, including the intellectual skills we intend for students to develop in our courses.

Feedback is an essential component of the learning process, and the first steps to helping students learn from feedback actually take place before you give it. First, you must determine what students need to practice, then you need to design opportunities for them to practice it. In other words, we need to set specific goals for students and design tasks that can help them make progress toward those goals. Then, after students have an opportunity to practice, we can observe their performance and provide some feedback in ways that will help them learn.

Timing: When should we provide feedback?

In How Learning Works, the authors describe a practice and feedback cycle in which students practice; we observe their performance; and they receive our feedback in time to apply it to their next attempt. In one course, that might look like asking students to write a rough draft of a paper in which they practice analyzing a text. Then, the instructor provides feedback on their analyses in an effort to help them develop and apply those analytical skills to a subsequent draft. In another course, it could look like giving students a problem to solve, providing time to work on it, listening to them talk through their reasoning, and giving them feedback that they can apply to solving the next problem of that type. Common to both examples is that students need to have opportunities to use the feedback to develop their skills and improve their performance. (If our golf coach gives us great feedback on how to putt, but we don’t have opportunities to putt again, we won’t be able to apply the feedback.)

Priorities: What should our feedback include and emphasize?

Often our activities and assignments can help students make progress toward more than one learning goal at a time. When we give feedback, students need to know which goals they have accomplished and which ones they need to focus on in their next attempt. Letting students know where they have succeeded is essential so that they know what to continue doing in a similar way in the future and the strengths on which they can build. Letting them know what they need to improve is essential so that they can point their efforts in the right direction. When letting students know how they can improve, we need to be specific, so that they can use our feedback to develop a plan. That said, it’s also important to keep in mind that students cannot learn everything in one attempt to practice or from one round of feedback. Too much feedback is overwhelming. As novices, students don’t know which feedback to prioritize, so as experts, it’s instructors’ role to set the priorities for improvement. In other words, we have to analyze students’ work, determine what is most important for them to improve in the next attempt, and help them focus on that. To do so, it can help us to ask ourselves, why did I assign this work in the first place? What was I really hoping they would get out of doing it? Focusing on the goals can also help us avoid getting distracted by minutiae. Providing targeted feedback can also save you time and make the most of your efforts.

Motivation: How can we encourage students with our feedback?

Students put more effort into improving when they believe improvement is possible, when they see value in the work, and when they feel like they have our support. The ways we frame and communicate our feedback can motivate students to put profound effort into their own development or lead them to believe they’ll never be able to succeed. That’s a heavy responsibility, and it’s the dimension of feedback that can make providing it so emotionally taxing: We want to do no harm, and help instead. Here are a few tips for providing motivating feedback:

  1. Be on the side of your students’ learning. Position yourself as their ally or mentor as they grow intellectually, professionally, and personally in your course. Communicate that you have positive regard for them as people no matter their level of mastery, and that you want to help them learn. This is a great framework in which to provide feedback.
  2. Communicate that you have high expectations for all students (by high expectations we mean both level-appropriate and challenging), and you have confidence that they can meet those expectations, then provide specific feedback and other kinds of support that can help them do it. High expectations combined with communicating confidence and providing support are also important elements of inclusive teaching.
  3. Attend to tone. Providing feedback can be taxing both intellectually and emotionally. Sometimes, as we read and analyze students’ work, we may feel frustrated, annoyed, disappointed, or exhausted (other times, we feel delighted, surprised, proud, amused, etc.). Having a variety of positive and negative emotions while evaluating students’ work is totally normal, so we need to take care that we don’t communicate the negative ones to students. Most of us have made the mistake of unintentionally communicating annoyance with our feedback; sometimes just taking a break to gain perspective can be enough to help us reset and use a more encouraging tone.

If you’d like support to provide timely, targeted, motivating feedback, or support with any other aspect of teaching, please email us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu for a consultation. We look forward to working with you!