The Art of Feedback
Years ago, when my students disputed small incremental differences in their grades (why a B+ and not an A-?) I used to quip, "Remember that grading is an art, not a science."
Feedback, both that which is directly a part of the grading process as well as that which is preliminary to or supplemental to the grading process, is definitely more of an art than a science. Yet I have come to understand there are also methods and approaches to be learned that can make feedback more consistent, reliable, objective and fair, even if it never reaches the level of "scientific."
Recent preliminary findings from UMUC's IRAHE Best Practices study demonstrate that one important element in student satisfaction is the perception that faculty give "frequent and sufficient" feedback to students.
Often faculty are uncertain how they can offer constructive feedback without repeating the same stock phrases over and over again. The following demonstrate techniques that can be used in a variety of different teaching situations.
This is the online or written equivalent of the classroom nod. But it must be more than a simple, "That's great" or "Good job." It acknowledges the student's contribution, indicates that the instructor is listening but also stimulates further discussion. An example of this is the following:
Joe and several others have made the point that _____________, but I wonder if anyone has come across any corroborating research for this idea?
Reinforcement indicates to the student that he or she is on the right track and should continue in that vein. This reinforcement can be both public or private in nature. An example of reinforcement might be the following:
This clearly demonstrates your grasp of X, but isn't Y also central to your thesis?
Follow up and elaboration on specific points—
In many cases students make observations but do not adequately follow up on their findings. An example is the following:
You have made a strong statement here about X, but have you considered the ramifications of your theory? Can you expand on this?
Correction and Redirection—
This is a type of feedback that offers a critique and might involve correction of a student who is off track, unresponsive to the assignment or one who has given insufficient attention to the assignment. It's important to focus on just a few of the most important factors when the student has a multitude of errors. An example is the following:
This is an interesting series of observations but they do not seem directly related to the actual assignment questions. In particular, you have not answered the central question of X. You have also given short shrift to the question of Y and need to offer sufficient verification of your findings. What resources have you found to support your conclusions? This paper makes a good start but would gain much by a sharpening of focus.
Open Up Inquiry to Others—
This is a type of feedback that occurs in a public setting in order to facilitate greater participation. An example is:
Joe has made an interesting comment about the prevalence of cell phones being in some part due to the circulation of greater wealth in society and this was echoed by Mary's observation on the proliferation of electronic communication gadgets among the new middle class in China. Does anyone else want to apply this observation to some of the other developing countries we have been studying?
This is another public technique and can be used to help focus student discussion after a busy or potentially confusing round of messages. An example is:
Joe made an interesting comment that was echoed by Mary…But Lance and Janet have noted that this only affects a small minority of the population in each country. It seems that we are coming to a conclusion that this observation does apply to most developing countries.
Suggestions for Further Exploration—
This points the way for students to grow. It is particularly important to include in feedback on major projects and papers. An example is:
Your paper has thoroughly examined the roots of X. Another area that might have been included here is Y. At the very least, this would be a worthy subject for future research since it is closely related to the phenomena you have already noted. There is additional resource material listed under our bibliography that you can explore on this topic.
Tips for Offering Feedback
- Avoid being too terse—give enough information to avoid ambiguity. Students can often misinterpret the specific references for your comments unless you give adequate commentary.
- Be specific and give an indication of when students have taken the right or wrong direction. Assume that students want to grow and develop in their understanding.
- Be tactful and cautious when using humor—teasing or even mild sarcasm is easily misunderstood.
- Don't over-react to awkward or seemingly rude written student communications—students often do not realize how faculty might be interpreting their tone. Assume the best intentions and ask for clarification. Don't escalate—respond to the communicated information and don't respond directly to what you perceive as negative tone. If the communication is public, respond via private email.
- Establish your approach to feedback and make your expectations clear with the first assignment. Give feedback on the first assignment within a short period of time.
- Use multiple methods for communication, depending on what is available to your students and what is appropriate for the type of feedback.
- Don't be distracted by students who raise irrelevant issues in the public classroom setting or in individual communications—redirect attention to the focus of assignments and include responsiveness to the assignment as a key factor of your judgment of student work.
This approach is also one that helps in the case of suspected plagiarism—since plagiarism often introduces something extraneous to the assignment, a focus on the degree of responsiveness can enable you to critique the work without having to make what are often impossible judgments on plagiarism.
- Create rubrics whenever possible to guide students. A well-constructed rubric assists students in the creation of thorough, detailed and responsive assignments. It also eliminates many challenges to your comments and grades.
Depending on the type of assignment, you might use a rubric to provide ready-made feedback and then simply add individualized comments as appropriate.
- Refer back to your course learning objectives whenever appropriate. Helping students understand the connections between their performance, the assignment and the course learning objectives often gives students a better sense of the context within which the assignment or assessment is grounded.
- When you design assignments, make sure that you provide some opportunities for performance assessments that allow students to demonstrate and apply their learning and in appropriate cases, to incorporate real-life examples into their tasks. The latter has particular appeal for adult learners. For longer assignments, stipulate incremental due dates so that you can provide feedback on each different task or stage—this emphasizes the importance of process.
- Use formatting, color, different fonts, notations in Word or other methods to clearly distinguish your written feedback and identify to what your comments pertain. Make sure you explain your methods before the first assignment.
Above all, don't assume students understand your notation system or editing marks and other methods of commentary!
A true story can perhaps serve to illustrate this:
It took me a few months in graduate school and much embarrassment before I realized that when my professor wrote "AWK" in the margins of my papers he was not making derisive, gagging sounds of disgust, but was indicating through use of an editorial mark that I had used "Awkward" phrasing.
UMUC faculty, you might be interested in my upcoming online workshop called, "The Art of Feedback" in which faculty can explore, through the use of case studies and real-life examples, the varieties of feedback and discuss the issues that have arisen for them as instructors. For further information, contact us at email@example.com