Trilogy Blog

How to Provide Feedback to Students

Author: Erika R. Carson, Ed.S.

Published: October 8, 2020

Feedback is something we all receive every day – whether it’s positive or negative feedback, we depend on this information as we interact with the people, places, and things in the world around us. However, we sometimes don’t truly understand how to react to the feedback we receive or how to respond to it – we may also struggle with the art of providing quality feedback to others. This is why it is essential that we start teaching and modeling this for students, at an early age – how to receive feedback, as well as how to provide it. More than likely they will mimic the responses and the deliveries of feedback, they observe at home and during school, so we need to be mindful of our actions and reactions to feedback, and provide students with examples of methods for giving and receiving feedback.

Feedback is also very nuanced. In some cases, “yes” and “no” feedback is appropriate. When we are talking about issues like safety or we are dealing with time constraints, yes or no responses may fit the bill. For example, in a science lab with students, if a student asks if they can drink the harmful chemicals on the lab table, the immediate response is no. The feedback the student gets to this question is short and to the point, “No!” This doesn’t mean that the student wouldn’t benefit from a more extended explanation, it just means that timing, in this case, is critical. In addition, the tone that is used by the instructor will also imply this sense of urgency, because feedback isn’t just about what you say or don’t say, is also about how you say it. Just think about being in the theater after a show, there is a huge difference between the audience sitting in their seats and applauding when compared to those times when the audience is on their feet applauding the cast. Also, it is important to consider things like context, timing, experience, consequences, and circumstances. A student who is being told that their writing needs to improve for the first time may respond very differently than a student who has been hearing this feedback for years. Just like other methods of instruction, feedback should be differentiated so that it matches the needs of the students it is being delivered to.

When it comes to providing feedback about a test a student has taken or a paper that a student has written, just marking what’s incorrect is not quality feedback. If a student does not understand why the answer they selected is incorrect or why what they have written doesn’t meet the expectations set by the instructor, it may take them several more times of “crashing into the wall” before they can meet expectations, and by this time it may be too late. This is not to say that students should be given the answers, but they should be supported with the necessary level of scaffolding that they need to find the answers they are seeking within a reasonable amount of time. Even though there has been a shift away from red pen edits in the classroom, I would say that all the times that I had a teacher who marked up my papers and asked me to clarify what I was trying to say or to provide examples to support my position, were truly helpful. These teachers pointed me in the direction I needed to go with their feedback without giving me the answers.

Modeling how to give feedback is just as important as actually giving it. When feedback is delivered in a way that feels like a personal attack, students only focus on how the feedback made them feel, and they will sometimes make a correlation between the subject they are learning and those negative feelings. So it is essential that teachers take the time to show students how to deliver constructive feedback, but also explore the impact that negative feedback can have on people, so these students understand why it’s not appropriate. Providing students with the opportunities to practice these skills is very important, whether through role-play or scenarios, but I would suggest using made-up circumstances before having students apply it in feedback assignments with each other.

With a shift to online learning, practicing this skill may seem like a new challenge, but it’s just a different environment. Instructors can still evaluate students’ papers, students can still exchange papers, etc., but what is different is that students and teachers have a golden opportunity to focus on what is being said with fewer distractions, conversations can be recorded and reviewed, and some students may feel more confident about speaking up when they are safe at home. Developing creative ways for students to provide feedback and allowing them to construct feedback tools and strategies, for the online setting, may engage students even more in the process. 

What is important, is that teachers continue to review this process with their students so that they can help build this skill of giving and receiving feedback. This is a skill that will be essential to their success in school and well beyond their classroom years!

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