Teachers intuitively know that giving feedback on student work is an important part of the learning process. Research on different learning strategies conducted by John Hattie bears out what many know instinctively to be true -- in order to improve at something humans need to know what they’re doing well and how they can improve. But giving effective feedback in the classroom can be trickier than it seems. It’s more of an art than a simple practice and requires the teacher to be disciplined and thoughtful about what is worthy of feedback, as well as when to give it.
“The job of feedback is to meet the student where they are and give them what they need to take their next steps,” said Susan Brookhart at the Learning and the Brain conference. Brookhart is an education consultant and author of “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students.” She says often teachers she works with try to close all the education gaps a student has with one round of feedback. But when they do that it’s often too much information for a student to process. Instead Brookhart recommends praising the work’s strengths and then giving just one or two suggestions for how to make it even better.
And, crucially, this feedback must come at a time when the student can immediately act on the feedback, not at the end of a unit or essay when there’s no chance for the student to incorporate the feedback. “Don’t give any feedback on the final grade,” Brookhart said. “If they’re not going to be able to use it, it’s wasted time -- yours and theirs.” Instead, she recommends building in time during the trajectory of the work to give feedback that students can immediately use to move them forward in their personal learning journey.
Often discussions about feedback focus on timeliness, but research from Andrew Butler’s lab suggests sometimes delaying feedback can be helpful, too. In his studies, the delayed feedback had the effect of forcing students to return to submitted work a week later, and that extra review helped them retain the information. The same principle can be applied to feedback given immediately, but used by students to improve over a period of time. In a situation oriented more toward process than memorization, using feedback inherently means spacing out learning.
“If they’re not asking where am I going, what am I supposed to be learning by doing this, then feedback is just another set of teacher directions to follow, which may or may not in the student's mind be related to anything other than the activity,” Brookhart said. She suggests that teachers think very carefully about the learning target and the success criteria for a specific activity and only give feedback on that target. Students want to learn and they want feedback that will help them improve, but they also want to know why it matters. When a teacher can connect the feedback to an important future skill, students have a reason to incorporate it and can see the transfer process more clearly.