You may not realize it, but your students value your feedback. Whether it's a quick nod/shake of the head or pages and pages of feedback on an essay, they want to know what you think of their work.

Having said that, not all feedback is created equal.

Here are some tips for how to be sure you're providing effective feedback.

Focus on one thing at a time (or maybe two).

It can be tempting, when reviewing student work, to mark every little error or flaw, to comment on everything that is done well or that needs improvement, and to write a paragraph or a page of suggestions or accolades. Tempting, yes. Effective? Not usually.

If you’ve ever spent 30 minutes or more reviewing an essay or lab report only to watch a student flip to the back page, scan for the grade, and stuff the paper into a backpack, you know that your painstaking comments and revisions are not always considered as thoroughly by students as you might hope.

Sometimes that’s because there’s just too much there for the student to take in. How are they going to fix their overall structure if they have to look at every last note?

Consider a coach talking to athletes during halftime of a championship game. If that coach were to point out every last thing the players needed to do differently, they’d be so preoccupied by all the instructions that they wouldn’t be able to get anything right in the second half. That’s why coaches only offer one or two bits of advice to their teams: the one or two most important changes that’ll help them win the game. And that’s what you should focus on when offering students feedback about their projects and assignments.

When your student masters that one thing that was most in need of improvement, then you can move on to other areas. But too much feedback all at once can stifle growth rather than stimulate it.

Use the feedback sandwich approach.

If all of your feedback has to do with areas in need of improvement, your students will begin to tune you out. ("Ms. So-and-So is way too harsh. Don’t worry if she doesn’t like it. She never likes anything.")

If all of your feedback is rainbows and unicorns, your students will begin to tune you out. ("Mr. Blah-de-Blah thinks everything is awesome. You can’t take his praise seriously.")

That’s why you need to make sure you offer your students a good balance of both positive feedback that indicates what they’re doing well, and feedback that points out areas in which they could dig a little deeper or work for improvement.

The feedback sandwich technique is a great way to make sure you’re hitting a good balance.

Here’s how it works:

Make sure your first comment points out something the student has done well or gotten right. Follow that up with one or two areas that need improvement. And then, wrap up the feedback with one more positive or a suggestion for the next steps in the process.

Keep in mind that all of the feedback you offer—whether pointing out a strength or a weakness—should be constructive. This brings us to our next tip…

Be specific.

Comments like "Nice work" or "Needs improvement" won’t help anyone understand what they’ve done well or where they need to work to develop new skills. As much as possible, point to specifics.

"Nice work" can become "Nice job varying your sentence structure," and "Needs improvement" can be "Try to vary your word choice more; widen your vocabulary." These are specific, concrete details that really tell a student where their work stands.

And hey—specificity in terms of feedback is important in all subject areas. While a big red X is effective feedback in terms of letting students know they got an answer wrong, feedback that helps them figure out where their calculations or assumptions may have taken a bad turn will be much more likely to result in future improvement.

Be efficient.

Sometimes offering specific, concrete feedback can be a daunting task. That’s why you need to find ways to make your process efficient both for you and for your students.

Rubrics can help with the assessment process in two ways. First, if you have a rubric developed in advance, it will help both you and your students understand what a final product should include to be considered complete and well done. Second, when it comes time for assessment, all of the specifics are already laid out for you so that you can simply make a series of checkmarks or circle various criteria that apply.

Lists of pre-determined comments can also be helpful. If you find that you are constantly pointing out the same errors or strengths to students, you can make a list of common phrases used in the evaluation process and simply check the ones that apply for each piece of student work. Done and done.

One example is this list of common writing errors from the Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you designate a number for each of these common mistakes, you can then mark instances of fragments or dangling modifiers on student papers with the corresponding number and attach the handout (or provide students with copies in advance). That way, you help students understand the errors they’ve made and how to correct them, without having to write "Hi Molly, you used a dangling modifier here; be careful of those!" every stinkin' time.

Be timely.

There’s a reason clichés like "strike while the iron is hot," "don’t let grass grow under your feet," and "make hay while the sun shines" exist.

Timing matters.

If students complete an assignment, and then, two weeks later, you sit down to talk with them about it or hand it back with comments or otherwise seek to address it…they may well have forgotten they ever did it. Who wants to revise an essay on the symbolism of dreams in The Great Gatsby a month after completing the first draft? No one. That’s who. Primarily because it would require re-reading the novel so that everything would be fresh in the mind again, rather than caught up in the dizzying array of information that students take in from one week to the next.

If the iron has grown cold, it won’t matter how many times you strike it—it ain't gonna change shape.

To help students move from reductive labels to dynamic learning ecosystems in education check out this article.

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