Main Body

Practical Steps to Providing Useful Feedback

Planning Ahead Required

Effective feedback requires first that our assignments have been carefully selected, designed, and coupled to course learning outcomes.  If we as educators wish for students to use our comments and ideas to advance their understanding and knowledge of course goals, we must first ensure that the assignments we provide our students will facilitate such improved comprehension and impactful learning.

Therefore, the effectiveness of our feedback depends upon the effectiveness of our assignments – if assignment’s instructions are vague, or its goals unclear, the feedback we give students will be likewise opaque.

Students will struggle to understand your suggestions for improving an assignment if they are first confused as to that assignment’s goals and its relationship to course learning objectives.

As you build an assignment, think about what you hope your students will learn as they complete the activity, and how you can facilitate that learning process.  These four steps – which are further explored below – will help.

  1. Relate activity to larger course structure and course goals.
  2. Identify clearly the learning-objectives students should achieve upon completing an activity.
  3. Provide formative feedback. Do not give feedback only at the end of an activity. As students work on a project, build in multiple occasions for feedback, and give students an opportunity to use that feedback to improve their work.
  4. Encourage student metacognition. Build post-assignment activities that will help students better understand their own process of learning. Such as: what did they learn by completing the activity, where did they struggle, or what portions of the project they found relatively simple, and why?


Create and Use Rubrics

Rubrics have two core functions: they are a helpful tool by which to introduce to students the core learning objectives of an assignment. Moreover, as you grade, they provide a useful framework by which you can address common mistakes. Thereby freeing you to focus your efforts on more impactful feedback.

When students are first introduced to an activity – A rubric is an effective way to create transparency as to what students should learn after they complete an activity. By explicitly defining the grading criteria and the common characteristics of each level of achievement (i.e. what constitutes an “A,” “B,” etc.), students can work towards a final product with a clearer understanding of instructor’s expectations.

After students complete an activity – Rubrics can also make it simple for instructors to offer students meaningful feedback that touches on each of the main grading components of an activity. Grading rubrics provide students a clear comparison to their own work and the criteria to which they were judged.

For more on rubrics see: Rubrics Overview in Teaching in D2L


Make Feedback Formative

Offer feedback throughout the creation process of an activity.

Grades are an imperfect, but (as of yet) irreplaceable method of feedback. A student’s grade reveals how their efforts ranked according to a fixed classroom scale and how well they are meeting university standards. However, grades are poor means by which to express to students their actual comprehension of course content or show them how they might improve. Therefore, no matter how much a student may agonize over their grades, they should be treated as an auxiliary – though mandatory – form of feedback.

Feedback, like the assignments we give students, should be learning opportunities in their own right. Effective feedback does not simply show students what they got wrong or legitimize the grade we gave them. It provides students an opportunity to gain new insights into their work and to improve upon their capabilities long after the assignment has been submitted and returned.

However, we often give students feedback only at the end of assignments, with an accompanied grade. Our student’s rarely focus on the feedback, but instead direct their attention towards their final letter or percentage grade.

Therefore, in larger activities, such as essays, I strongly suggest that you construct the project into an iterative process that offers students one or more opportunities to hand in rough drafts. Students are then more likely to utilize the feedback we (or their peers) give them, and use it to improve their work.


Create a Post-Assignment Reflection Activity

The conclusion of an assignment does not mean that the learning opportunities derived from it are ended.  As a follow-up to any sort of activity (assignment, essay, quiz), ask students to reflect on the activity they just completed, comment on what they learned, and how they learned it.

Metacognition, or thinking about how we learn, is an essential component of deep learning.  Therefore ask students to articulate how they discovered something new while completing the assignment, where they stumbled during the process, and then how they self-corrected.

This type of follow-up exercise will help students become more efficient and intentional learners that are able to set learning goals and then follow through with them.

Post-activity assignments can be completed as an in-class activity, take-home assignment, or even a group project.


Make feedback specific and actionable

The feedback we provide our students must be specific, concrete, and direct. It should provide students with corrective guidance that is easily digestible, guides students towards desired goals, and provides a pathway by which students can critically analyze their own work (meta-cognition).

Your feedback should contain neither praise nor criticism that is not tied to a student’s performance or activity learning-objective.[1] For example, avoid writing “great job!” on a student’s paper. Once you start with this type of vague praise, students will read it and then proceed to ignore most everything else beside their letter grade.

When you provide students with detailed feedback, they are better able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and take practical steps to improve.

For example, explicitly emphasize how a student did a “great job.” In place of a vague commendation try something similar to the following: “you did a great job in your introduction concisely articulating your major arguments and highlighting your main evidence.”

Alternatively, instead of a vague critique, specifically explain the student what they did wrong, how to improve, and why it is important for them to do so. Therefore, avoid a critique such as “poor job on the introduction.” Try instead: “Your introduction fails to articulate your main arguments and your main evidence. You must include both components to help your reader understand what you intend to argue and why it is important.


Personalize feedback

Thoughtful, tailored feedback that uses a student’s name and comments directly to the merits of their paper is essential student success. In addition to showing students how they can best improve, it communicates to them that they are not simply numbers, cogs in the wheel of industrialized education. By demonstrating an interest in our students’ success, we facilitate a closer student-faculty relationship, decrease students’ feelings of isolation, improve student motivation, and increase their investment in our courses.


  1. To find out more on Learning Objectives and Rubrics see Rubrics for Feedback and Grading.


Improving the Feedback We Give Our Students Copyright © 2016 by Lane Sunwall. All Rights Reserved.

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