Feedback for Learning
Feedback and revision are important parts of any learning experience. From in-class activities and assignments, to peer-reviewed manuscripts, feedback is essential for growth and learning. And yet, if students don’t reflect on or apply notes or comments, it can sometimes feel like feedback doesn’t matter all that much. Giving feedback can feel like an arduous process, and when it goes unused on student assignments, it can leave instructors feeling frustrated. This resource offers strategies to make giving feedback easier and more effective. While there are specific technologies (discussed below) that can help facilitate feedback in an online or hybrid/HyFlex learning environment, the strategies presented here are applicable to any kind of course (e.g.: large lecture, seminar) and across any modality (e.g.: synchronous, asynchronous, fully online, hybrid, or in-person).
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Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2021). Feedback for Learning. Columbia University. Retrieved [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/feedback-for-learning/
Feedback for Learning: What and Why
What is feedback and why does it matter?
Broadly defined, feedback is “information given to students about their performance that guides future behavior” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 125). Feedback can help set a path for students, directing their attention to areas for growth and improvement, and connecting them with future learning opportunities. At the same time, there is an evaluative component to feedback, regardless of whether it is given with a grade. Effective feedback tells students “what they are or are not understanding, where their performance is going well or poorly, and how they should direct their subsequent efforts” (Ambrose et al., 2010, p. 137). In this way, feedback is essential to students’ learning and growth.
It is not enough for students to receive feedback. They also need explicit opportunities to implement and practice with the feedback received. In their How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching, Ambrose et al. (2010) underscore the importance of feedback, coupled with opportunities for practice: “Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback are critical to learning” (p. 125, emphasis in original). They further highlight the interconnection of feedback, practice, and performance in relation to overarching course goals.
Types of Feedback
There is no one size fits all for feedback. While there are common characteristics of effective feedback (discussed further in the following section), the form it takes will change across contexts. It can also come at different points of time during an assignment. You might offer students backward-looking feedback on a final product, after a student has “done” something; this type of feedback is usually given alongside an assignment grade. Or, you might offer forward-looking feedback, providing students advice and suggestions while the work is still in progress. It can be helpful for students to receive both kinds of feedback, with opportunities for implementation throughout. Related, the kinds of questions or prompts you use in your feedback will vary based on the kinds of responses and revisions you’re trying to solicit from students. Types of feedback may include: corrective, epistemic, suggestive, and epistemic + suggestive (Leibold and Schwarz, 2015).
Corrective feedback is specific to how well the student’s work aligns with the assignment.
This feedback highlights areas where the student met assignment goals and expectations, as well as areas for improvement.
|You do a great job of addressing [assignment component/goal.] However, the assignment also asked for x, but x is not present. How might you address [assignment component/goal]?
|Epistemic feedback prompts students to think more deeply about their work. It asks for further clarification, challenging students to delve deeper into particular ideas.
|Could you say more about x. (You may also ask specific questions that further clarification can or should respond to.)
|Suggestive feedback gives students advice for how to improve upon their work. It might also underscore specific areas or ideas for expansion.
|Giving an example of [this concept] would make your description clearer.
|Epistemic + Suggestive
The combination of epistemic and suggestive feedback prompts students to offer further clarification, while also offering specific suggestions.
This can be a helpful combination because it not only asks students to “say more,” but it provides specific suggestions for how they might do so.
|How did you reach this conclusion? Think about the point you made on page x.
These particular types of feedback are not exclusive of each other. It’s very common that the feedback you give will have elements of some, if not all, of these four types. What type you use at what point will depend on the goals of the assignment, as well as the goal of the feedback and the kinds of revision and responses you are trying to solicit.
Characteristics of Effective Feedback
Effective feedback is:
- Targeted and Concise: Too much feedback can be overwhelming; it can be difficult to know where to begin revising and where to prioritize one’s efforts. Use feedback to direct students’ attention to the main areas where they are likely to make progress; identify 2-3 main areas for improvement and growth.
- Focused: To help prioritize the main areas you identify, align your feedback with the goals of the assignment. You might also consider what other opportunities students have had or will have to practice these skills.
- Action-Oriented: Offer feedback that guides students through the revision process. Be direct and point to specific areas within the student’s work, offering suggestions for revision to help direct their efforts.
- Timely: Feedback is most useful when there is time to implement and learn from it. Offer frequent feedback opportunities ahead of a final due date (forward-looking feedback), allowing students to engage with your feedback and use it throughout their revision process. These opportunities for practice will help students develop further mastery of course material.
Strategies for Giving Effective Feedback
This section offers strategies for putting the characteristics of effective feedback into action. These strategies are applicable across class types (e.g.: large lecture, seminar) and modalities (e.g.: in-person, fully online, hybrid/HyFlex).
Create a culture of feedback
Establish a respectful and positive learning climate where feedback is normalized and valued. This includes helping students see the value of feedback to their learning, and acknowledging the role that mistakes, practice, and revision play in learning. Offer students frequent opportunities to receive feedback on their work in the course. Likewise, offer frequent opportunities for students to give feedback on the course. This reciprocal feedback process will help to underscore the importance and value of feedback, further normalizing the process. For support on collecting student feedback, see the CTL’s Early and Mid-Semester Student Feedback resource.
Partner with your students
As McKeachie writes in McKeachie’s Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research, and Theory for College and University Teachers (2011), “Effective feedback is a partnership; it requires actions by the student as well as the teacher” (p. 108). It’s not enough for you to just give feedback; students need to be involved throughout the process. You might engage students in a meta discussion, soliciting feedback about feedback. Engage students in conversations about what makes feedback most useful, its purpose and value to learning, and stress the importance of implementation.
You might also consider the role of peer review in the feedback process. While peer review should not replace instructor feedback, you can take into consideration the kinds of feedback students will have already received as you are reviewing their work. This can be particularly helpful for larger classes where multiple rounds of feedback from the instructor and/or TAs is not possible. For support on engaging students in peer review, see the CTL’s Peer Review: Intentional Design for Any Course Context resource.
Align your feedback with the learning objectives
When giving feedback, be sure that your comments and suggestions align with overall course objectives, as well as the goals of the assignment. One helpful way to be sure your feedback aligns with learning objectives is to have a rubric. A rubric is an assessment tool that “articulates the expectations for an assignment by listing the criteria or what counts, and describing levels of quality” (Malini Reddy & Andrade, 2010, p. 435). Rubrics help make the goals and purpose of the assignment explicit to students, while also helping you save time when giving feedback. They are typically composed of three sections: evaluation criteria (e.g.: assignment learning objectives, what students are being assessed on); assessment values (e.g.: “excellent, good, and poor,” letter grades, or a scale of 1-5, etc.); and a description of each assessment value (e.g.: a “B” assignment does this…). If using rubrics, you might consider co-constructing the rubric with your students based on the assignment prompt and goals. This can help students take more ownership of their learning, as well as provide further clarification of your expectations for the assignment.
Keep your feedback focused and simple
Keep in mind the key skills or competencies you hope students will practice and master in the particular assignment, and use those to guide your feedback. As John Bean writes in Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (2011), “Because your purpose is to stimulate meaningful revision, your best strategy is to limit your commentary to a few problems that you want the student to tackle when preparing the next draft. It thus helps to establish a hierarchy of concerns, descending from higher-order issues (ideas, organization, development, and overall clarity) to lower-order issues (sentence correctness, style, mechanics, spelling, and so forth)” (p. 322). When considering your hierarchy of concerns, keep in mind the stage of the student’s draft: early drafts benefit more from higher-order feedback, as the specifics of the assignment may shift and change as the student continues drafting and revising. A later draft, closer to being “finished,” may benefit from lower-order concerns focusing on style and mechanics.
Consider the timing of your feedback
Be sure to offer multiple opportunities for feedback throughout the course; this frequency will also help support the culture of feedback discussed above. It’s also important that you consider when students will receive feedback from you, and what they will do with it; remember that, “if students are to learn from feedback, they must have opportunities to construct their own meaning from the received message: they must do something with it, analyze it, ask questions about it, discuss it with others and connect it with prior knowledge” (Nicol et al., 2014, p. 103). Give students time to implement your feedback whether to revise their work or apply it to future assignments.
Change up your mode of delivery
While the focus of feedback shifts depending on the assignment goals and your course context, you might also consider changing up the mode of your feedback delivery. Written comments, whether throughout the text or summarized at the end of the assignment, are valuable to students’ learning, but they are not the only way to deliver effective feedback:
- Audio/video feedback: To help save yourself time, and to humanize your feedback, consider using audio or visual feedback (Gannon, 2017; Cavanaugh and Song, 2014). Most instructors can talk through their ideas quicker than they can handwrite or type them, making audio feedback a timesaver. Audio feedback allows students to hear your tone and intended delivery. Audio/video feedback is particularly useful for fully online asynchronous courses, as it allows students an opportunity to connect with you, the instructor, on a more personal level than typed comments might provide.
1-1 meetings: Consider using your office hours or other scheduled meetings to talk with students 1-1 about their work. You might ask students to explain or paraphrase the feedback they received. Prompts can include: 1) What was the feedback?; 2) What did you learn from my feedback?; 3) Based on the feedback, how will you improve your work?
Small group meetings: If you have a larger class, you might consider creating feedback groups where students will have read each other’s work and peers can share their feedback alongside you in a small group synchronous meeting. (This method can work regardless of the assignment being a group project or an individual assignment.) If teaching a fully online or hybrid/HyFlex course, these meetings can be facilitated in a dedicated Zoom meeting, or during class time using Zoom breakout rooms.
Facilitating Feedback with Columbia-Supported Technologies
While there is no shortage of technologies to help facilitate effective feedback, as this Chronicle of Higher Education Advice Guide highlights, it’s recommended that you work with tools supported by Columbia. These tools come with the added benefit of University support, as well as a higher likelihood of student familiarity. The technology you choose should align with the goals of the assignment and feedback; remember, keep it simple. While these technologies can help facilitate feedback for face-to-face courses, they are particularly useful for those teaching in a fully online or hybrid/HyFlex modality.
For further support with setting up one of these platforms and making it work for your course context, please contact the Learning Designer liaison for your school to schedule a consultation, or drop in to our CTL Support Office Hours via Zoom.
CourseWorks offers a number of built-in features that can help facilitate effective feedback, furthering your students’ growth and learning, and helping to save you time in the process. Note: some of these features require initial enabling on your CourseWorks page. For help setting up your CourseWorks page, and further information about CourseWorks features, visit the CTL’s Knowledge Base. The CTL also offers two self-paced courses: Intro to CourseWorks (Canvas) Online and Assessment and Grading in CourseWorks (Canvas) Online, as well as live workshops for Teaching Online with CourseWorks.
If using the CourseWorks Gradebook, you can attach summative feedback comments for your students; this is especially helpful when offering backward-looking feedback on assignments already submitted. For help on adding general Gradebook comments, see the Canvas Help Documentation: How do I leave comments for students in the Gradebook?.
Quiz Tool Feedback
If you are using the CourseWorks quiz tool, you generate automated feedback for correct and/or incorrect responses. For correct responses, you might consider expanding upon the response, making connections across course materials. For an incorrect response, you might direct the student’s attention to particular course materials (e.g.: video, chapter in a textbook, etc.). For help with generating automated feedback in quizzes, see the Canvas Help Documentation: What options can I set in a quiz?.
As previously discussed, rubrics can be a great way to both align feedback with the goals of an assignment, and save time while giving feedback. You can create rubrics for your assignments within CourseWorks to further support this process. It is also possible to copy over and edit rubrics across assignments, which is particularly helpful when reviewing different drafts or components of the same assignment. For further support on creating and using rubrics in CourseWorks, see the Canvas Help Documentation: How do I add a rubric to an assignment?.
Within SpeedGrader, there are a number of ways to provide students with feedback. One key benefit of SpeedGrader is that it allows instructors to view, grade, and comment on student work without the need to download documents, which can greatly reduce the time needed to grade student work. Using the DocViewer, you can annotate within a student’s assignment using a range of commenting styles, including: in-text highlights and other edits, marginal comments, summative comments on large areas of an assignment, handwritten or drawing tools, and more. Comments can also be made anonymously.
You can also offer students holistic assignment comments; these particular comments are not specific to any one part of the assignment, but rather, appear as a summary comment on the project as a whole. There are a number of options for the mode of these comments, including: a brief text comment, an attachment (e.g.: a Word doc or PDF), or an audio/video comment. There is also a space for students to leave a message in response to your feedback, which can encourage them to more deeply engage with, and reflect upon, your feedback. For more detailed instructions on using the different tools, please see the Canvas Help Documentation: How do I add annotated comments in student submissions?
Although Gradescope is more commonly used as an assessment and grading tool, there are a few features to support giving feedback; it is particularly useful when providing feedback on handwritten assignments submitted digitally, or on those assignments using particular software (e.g.: LaTex, other coding and programming languages, etc.). In Gradescope, you can provide comments and feedback using LaTex, making it easier to give feedback on assignments using mathematical equations or formulas. Gradescope also allows for in-text feedback and commenting using a digital pen or textbox; this allows for feedback on hand-written assignments submitted digitally. For more Gradescope support, see the CTL’s Creating Assignments and Grading Online with Gradescope resource.
While Panopto is typically used for recording course videos and lectures, it can also be helpful for providing students with video walkthrough feedback of their assignments. Using Panopto, you can screencast your student’s assignment while also recording your audio feedback. This can help humanize your feedback, while also simulating a 1-1 conference or meeting with the student. An added benefit of using Panopto is that you can edit the recording before sharing it with your student (e.g.: removing pauses, rephrasing comments, etc.). For further support on getting started and using Panopto, see the CTL’s Teaching with Panopto resource.
Like Panopto, you can also use Zoom to record a feedback walkthrough. The one major difference is that Zoom recordings are done in a single take; there is no opportunity to edit the recording. Zoom is also great for meeting with students either 1-1 or in small groups. If using synchronous class time for small group feedback sessions, you can “circulate” between breakout rooms to check in with students and offer feedback. For further Zoom support, see the CTL’s Teaching with Zoom resource, or visit CUIT’s Zoom support page.
Reflecting on Your Feedback Practices
Reflecting back, can you tell if your past feedback practices were effective? Did your students understand and use the feedback you gave? Did their work improve as a result of the feedback given? What small changes to your feedback practices would benefit you and your students?
With an upcoming assignment in mind, reflect on the following questions to guide your future feedback practices:
- How can you make your feedback targeted and concise? Consider the biggest challenge to the student’s success in the assignment.
- What will be the focus of your feedback? Focus on the most important skills or competencies you hope students will gain from the assignment.
- What type of feedback will you give (corrective, epistemic, suggestive, epistemic and suggestive, some other combination)? Connect the type of feedback you offer to the goals of the feedback and revision.
- How much time will students have to implement your feedback and revise? If students only receive feedback on the final products (with or without a grade), how will you help them use this feedback on future assignments?
- How can the student implement your feedback? Suggest places for students to begin.
- When will students receive feedback? What would be most useful to help students implement your feedback and further practice these skills?
- What will be the mode of delivery for the feedback? What technologies will you use?
Resources & References
Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M.C., & Norman, M.K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. Jossey-Bass.
Bean, J. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom, 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass.
Cavanaugh, A.J. & Song, L. (2014). Audio feedback versus written feedback: Instructors’ and students’ perspectives. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 10(1), 122-138.
Desrochers, C. G., Zell, D., & Torosyan, R. Provided meaningful feedback on students’ academic performance. The IDEA Center.
Fiock, H. & Garcia, H. (2019, November 11). How to give your students better feedback with technology advice guide. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Gannon, K. (2017, November 26). How to escape grading jail. Chronicle of Higher Education.
Leibold, N. & Schwarz, L. M. (2015). The art of giving online feedback. Journal of Effective Teaching. 15(1), 34-46.
Malini Reddy, Y. & Andrade, H. (2010). A review of rubric use in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 35(4), 435-448.
McKeachie W.J. (2011). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers, 13th ed. Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Nicol, D., Thomson, A., & Breslin, C. (2014). Rethinking feedback practices in higher education: A peer review perspective. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 39(1), 102-122.
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