Making feedback productive

Although feedback is often associated with assessment we choose to address it as a separate category. We want to make the point that feedback can be informal as well as formally linked to assessment, and that it should be frequent and pervasive, given in a variety of ways not just to individual students but to groups and whole classes, not just by teachers to students, but by students to other students, and by students to teachers. As a response to something that has been said or written or done, feedback is part of ordinary interaction between people; it can take the form of a question as well as a comment or judgment. And it can - probably should - elicit, rather than close down, further response. 

So what makes good feedback?

Timeliness​ There is little point offering comments about, say, the structure of a piece of writing if the writer receives them too late to really engage with them - and most Schools have recognised this by setting clear deadlines for returning work

Time to respond  It’s been said that students should spend twice as long responding to feedback as the reader has spent producing it. If you suspect this is rarely the case, why not allocate seminar/lecture time to students acting on feedback? This could involve doing some new writing – for example, students writing a short abstract of the piece they’ve got back so they focus in on its argument and structure.

Motivation to respond  Students need to feel that looking back over their work is worthwhile. This is why feedback on a draft is often more productive than feedback on an apparently ‘finished’ product. (Follow this link for more on redrafting). Similarly you can motivate students if you next ask them to produce a similar piece of work to the one you have given feedback on: they are more likely to engage with your feedback if it's clear it will help them improve for next time.

Clear direction on what to respond to  Avoid cryptic and gnomic comments on work. Ask questions of the writer or make suggestions that can be acted on.  Instead of ‘Muddled thinking’  or ‘ Awkward sentence’,  ask ‘You seem to be suggesting X here. Is this right? Can you clarify?’ or suggest ‘If you break this sentence down into two parts it may be clearer’.

Positive feedback  Make sure you engage with what is good about the work, including importantly the ideas it contains - and don’t focus too heavily on negative aspects

Limited feedback  Unless you have endless amounts of time, you can’t comment on everything in a student’s text! It’s useful to think in terms of a ‘hierarchy of concerns’ (Bean 1996). The quality and organisation of ideas and the development and clarity of thought are at the top, and more mechanical features, such as spelling and sentence niceties are at the bottom. The idea is not to get bogged down with the bottom of the hierarchy until you are satisfied with the top: the reasoning, the way paragraphs link to one another, the overall coherence and focus.   Don’t do work for the student that they can do themselves; for example, rather than you correcting spelling and punctuation, it’s preferable to put Xs in the margin and ask the student to spot and correct the errors themselves. 

Feedback that more than one student can benefit from  In a cohort of student writers the same issues will come up time and again – things lots of people have done well, concepts several people have had problems with,  conventions that seem to confuse…  Taking examples from a sample of scripts and giving feedback to a whole group may well be a more productive use of your time. You can use the common problems you've identified to structure a section of a class or lecture . Or use technology such as lecture capture to record your feedback and make it available online to the whole group. This approach has the advantage of enabling students to review your comments at their leisure. 

Learning to give feedback   One important way in which students can learn to attend to feedback is through the experience of themselves reading and responding to what others have written. Students have testified that they learn a great deal from this process and that enables them to be more insightful about their own writing. Giving feedback is a better learning experience than receiving it. Discuss.

Receiving feedback from more than one source  Feedback is a matter of judgement; it is also affected by the amount of time and attention a reader can give. Anyone who has received peer reviews on an article they have submitted to a journal knows how judgement and focus of attention can vary. They also know the value of receiving more than one peer review. Students likewise can benefit from seeing different ways in which their work is read – their fellow students are the source of peer review. Read more in our self and peer assessment section.

Remember feedback works both ways   Think about how a short writing task given at the end of or during a lecture and collected in at the end (probably anonymously) could give you, as the teacher, excellent feedback on how students are responding: what they've grasped, what they haven't, what their anxieties are, what questions they have... Next week, or perhaps sooner via the VLE, you can respond to what you've learnt. 

Teachers have lots of good ideas for giving feedback. Read here the feedback practices collated by the School of Geography as part of an Assessment and Feedback working group supported by Thinking Writing. 

Documents you can download from this page: