Feedback is a skill that does not come naturally for most teachers. Not only does it require educators to have a deep knowledge of the writing process and the traits of proficient writing, but they also must consider the developmental progressions and unique needs of individual students. Additionally, a teacher must be able to prioritize next steps, provide appropriate scaffolds and identify resources to promote student thinking. This is the final installment of a three-part series devoted to exploring the research and recommendations for effective feedback.

By Teresa Rogers

Last month we explored the meaning of Dylan Wiliam’s description of feedback as a “recipe for future action” based upon observations. The video, Austin’s Butterfly, is an excellent example of what is possible if students are given specific, actionable feedback and the time to apply those comments.

If you missed the last article, take a few minutes to watch the video and observe the transformation of student work based on comments received from their peers. The clip is outside of the world of literacy, but as you watch, compare the artistic process to the writing process. Notice the timing of the feedback, i.e., when they offer suggestions on the big, structural issues and when they provide feedback on small, but important details?

In this article we’ll consider the role of success criteria, clarity, manageability and equality in providing feedback.

Establish success criteria
If you walk into any classroom in Kentucky, there is no doubt you’ll find a learning target posted on the board and a teacher using a proficient piece of writing as a model or displaying a rubric on the whiteboard. The day’s learning, however, often drifts far from the learning target or is jumbled in multiple “things to look for” as demonstrated in the model.

Compare that to Austin’s butterfly. The model Austin was given established the success criteria and informed the feedback to getting there. There were no shortcuts or quick fixes, only clear guidance on “this is where you are and this is how to get there.”

Consider how your feedback connects to the day’s learning target. What does that look like? For another perspective, take a few minutes to observe how kindergarten teacher and Laureate Team member Marion Ivy uses specific success criteria to provide targeted feedback for students in her Teaching Channel video, “Targeting Learning with Success Criteria.” Although the success criteria is based on kindergarten standards, the instructional routine is applicable to any grade level.

Make feedback manageable
Probably the hardest decision to make about feedback is the amount to provide. In ‘Embedded Formative Assessment,” education researcher Dylan Wiliam writes that, “Sometimes less is more.”

Wiliam cites a study that examined the amount of feedback students were given. Half were given only enough to “get them unstuck and to make progress,” and the others were given the complete solution to their problem. Researchers discovered that students given the scaffolded response learned more and retained their learning longer than those who were given full solutions. Wiliam reasons that the students who were given the complete solutions failed to make progress because the opportunity for learning was taken away from them.

As teachers, we naturally assume that by pointing out all the “errors” will promote student growth. However, we must provide the opportunity for students to do the heavy lifting of learning. In judging the amount of feedback to give, it’s critical to consider the individual student and how much they can handle. What are the priorities for this student? What is the developmental learning progression for this target?

In “How to Give Effective Feedback to Your Students,” author and associate professor of education at Duquesne University Susan Brookhart encourages us to see things from the student’s-eye view. In which aspects of the learning target has the student done acceptable work? Which aspects would they benefit most from improving upon next?

Be clear
To be effective, students must be understand the language of the feedback. Even in the primary grades, students can begin to grasp and use the language of writing. But just with any new vocabulary or skill, students need explicit instruction, modeling and multiple opportunities to practice using the language.

In his book, Wiliam shares a true story from a teacher. At the end of the school year, a student came to her and said, “Miss Jones, you kept writing this same word on my English papers all year and I still don’t know what it means.” “What’s the word?” she asked. The student replied, “vagoo.” Imagine the teacher’s surprise as she thought of all the times she wrote the word “vague” on the student’s paper, only to realize the futility of her effort.

Be equitable
As teachers, we must be mindful of the impact we have on students.

According to Brookhart, research reveals that teachers talk more often with higher-performing students as if they are “active, self-regulated learners.” Comments for these students typically encourage higher-order thinking and support them to make sense of the task or assignment.

However, feedback for struggling students is more about “getting it right.” Comments tend to point out mistakes to be fixed rather than providing directions and resources for the next step. Students notice these things.

Motivation and self-efficacy, the confidence in one’s ability to complete a task, is often lacking for students who struggle. Their work often falls far below grade-level expectations. Instead of pointing this out on a rubric or providing multiple things for the student to correct, consider comparing their current work to previous work. What area or areas have they improved on? What one or two things are priorities with this assignment?

Another useful area for feedback is the process or processes a student used. Did they create a detailed outline, use spell-check or a peer for feedback? If so, pointing that out can foster self-efficacy for students.

Consider tools or instructional routines that develop independence. These may be anchor charts in the room, online tools or a traditional writer’s notebook. Whatever form it takes, direct students attention to the resource and provide explicit instruction and modeling of its use. Instead of a comment such as, “Add more detail,” consider, “Add more detail. Use your writer’s craft evidence list in your writer’s notebook.”

Creating a supportive environment that fosters growth and independence requires a thorough knowledge of your students and where they are most likely to struggle. If you’d like to learn more about providing resources and meeting individual student needs, check out the Teaching Channel video, “Making Feedback Meaningful.” In this video, high school English teacher and Laureate Team member Sean McCombs demonstrates routines, resources and strategies to keep students engaged and foster deeper independent learning.

Feedback is an ever-evolving art that requires a teacher to process multiple pieces of information. As one considers the impact on learning, both positive and negative, it is critical that we persist to develop and refine our skills. Use the following questions to guide your thinking as you provide feedback to your students.

Is the feedback:

  • Supportive of the student’s work and learning?
  • Focused on the highest leverage move the student can make?
  • Descriptive rather than evaluative?
  • Based on established success criteria?
  • Manageable?
  • Clear?
  • What supports or scaffolds are available for student reference?

More information about the implications of these questions is available in the Kentucky Teacher series on feedback: