Effective Feedback

Instructor feedback consistently improves student learning and achievement (Black & Wiliam, 1998). To be most effective, feedback should be clear, targeted, supportive, and action-oriented.

Parameters for Feedback

An instructor’s feedback strategy should consider many parameters (Brookhart, 2008):


Feedback should always be given as quickly as possible, although more detailed assignments and comprehensive reviews might require more time. To manage the time-consuming responsibilities of feedback, instructors should prioritize feedback for assignments that allow students concrete opportunities for improvement, such as drafts of essays or repeated assignment types. Since feedback is a type of formative assessment, students are much more likely to read it and seek to understand it if they can imagine directly applying feedback to an upcoming assignment. In fact, students are more interested in ongoing learning if feedback is not accompanied by a grade (Butler, 1988).


Instructors should prioritize what they comment on. With too much feedback, students can feel overwhelmed and instructors overburdened. Do not correct every mistake or re-write students’ sentences. Focus on points that relate to your course learning objectives and limit lower-order feedback to that which interferes with meaning. If an international student has persistent language issues, refer him or her to additional campus services for international students. Lunsford (1997) found that three clear and substantial comments was most likely to lead to student action on feedback. Consider giving students a checklist of “next steps” and making explicit priorities for revision or evaluation; e.g., “The most important thing you need to work on in your revision is...”


Instructors can give feedback orally, in writing, or with visual demonstrations. Oral feedback may be preferred if students need to ask questions. Written feedback allows students to refer back to specific points. Visual demonstrations may be best if students need guidance on process-oriented tasks.


Giving feedback to the class as a whole can be helpful if many students have the same difficulties or questions. Individual feedback communicates the instructor’s investment in each student’s work and allows for tailored guidance.

Content of Feedback

Instructors also need to decide what to say to students (Brookhart, 2008):

What's the Focus?

Feedback can concentrate on the product or the process. Avoid personal comments (e.g., “You don’t seem to understand…”), but “process” comments can often help students think critically about their own thinking (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006). When focusing on the product, instructors must decide how much attention to give higher-order issues (structure, reasoning, use of evidence, etc.) as opposed to lower-level issues (grammar, mechanics, word choice, etc.).

What's the Referent?

Instructors should determine the standard by which student work is evaluated. Criterion-referenced comparison feedback refers directly to explicit expectations for a given assignment (such as a rubric). This is especially helpful as students aim for high grades. Self-referenced feedback compares a student’s work to his or her own previous work. This helps students appreciate their own development and progress, which can be very motivating. Norm-referenced feedback refers to other students’ work, which can be helpful in providing examples to aspire to or new ways of thinking about complex problems. For example, providing exemplars of student work has been shown to more effectively communicate criteria for assignments than written or verbal descriptions (Orsmond et al., 2002).

What's the Genre?

Feedback can take many rhetorical types. Feedback might simply describe student writing. This can be helpful in creating a sense that the student is accomplishing what they intend. For instance, feedback can simply identify “this is the thesis statement.” If that is what the student intended, he or she is affirmed. If not, the student may need to rearrange a paragraph or reassess the argument of an essay. More commonly, feedback evaluates, commenting on the effectiveness of the student’s work. Feedback can also be thought of as a conversation, in which the instructor questions the student in order to promote thinking and help students arrive at their own solutions (Nicol & MacFarlane-Dick, 2006). Whatever “genre” of feedback one uses, remember that students have difficulty interpreting instructors’ feedback, even when those comments seem quite straightforward to the instructors themselves. For instance, students are unlikely to know what to do with a comment such as, “your thesis is unclear.”


Although instructors may want to focus on what needs improvement, feedback should also point out what students do well and why. Students often have deep psychological investments in their work, and they are motivated by positive affirmation. But students may also not be aware of what they have done well; explicit positive feedback makes it more likely that students will continue and build on their achievements. Negative feedback is also crucial, since students will likely not improve if they do not know where they have fallen short. For negative feedback to be effective, instructors should pair it with positive feedback and make improvement seem achievable through action steps.

Tools and Techniques

Overview Notes with Marginal Comments

One common approach to feedback is combining overview notes that provide a “big picture” perspective with marginal comments that illustrate specific instances of the strengths and weaknesses described in the overview. While some instructors put the overview at the end of the paper, putting the overview first (head notes) provides the student with a roadmap for interpreting what follows. With hard copy submissions, you can write head notes on a separate page and staple it to the front of the paper. With electronic copies, you can type head notes directly above the beginning of the student’s paper or with a “comment” in Word. If students submit through Canvas, the SpeedGrader function allows in-text comments similar to Word.

Commenting Forms

Using a feedback form that sorts your comments into explicit categories such as “what you are doing well” and “what needs work,” with subcategories such as “higher-order concerns” and “sentence-level concerns” can help ensure that both you and your students take the time to think not only about the weaknesses in their writing, but also strengths. It can also simplify your commenting process by giving you a consistent list of concerns to pay attention to and write about. While less personalized, a pre-written feedback matrix (circling, checking, or using reference symbols for statements such as “the conclusion does not summarize the main points”) can make feedback more efficient and might be appropriate if many submissions have the same issues. Similarly, with electronic feedback, instructors can save common comments and copy them onto student submission.

Face-to-Face Conversation

Talking to students about their papers in person can efficiently convey your thoughts about their work, because you can speak more quickly than you can write. Spending 15-30 minutes with each of your students to give them feedback on their papers can actually take less time than writing out formal comments on those papers. Research demonstrates that students need opportunities to actively construct meaning from feedback (Ivanic et al., 2000). Talking with students can also ensure they understand what you’ve said, because it provides them with an immediate opportunity to ask questions. Students can also be given time to discuss together (in pairs or groups) the comments you have written on their work.

Technology: Audio, Video, or Screencasting

If you like the idea of speaking to your students rather than writing to them but are unable to meet with each of them in person, you might try conveying your comments with audio or visual recording. In Canvas, instructors can create audio or video assignment feedback that attaches directly to a student’s submission by clicking the “media comment” icon in SpeedGrader. Screencasts allow an instructor to “talk through” a paper with a student by creating a video that scrolls through the student’s paper online while recording the instructor’s audio comments about the paper. To see how this works, you can view this sample screencast. In Canvas, instructors can use Kaltura to create screencasts, although these must be created outside the student’s submission/grading page and shared with the student separately (e.g., emailing an embed code).

Getting Students into the Conversation

Students may take a more active role and become more interested in carrying on a conversation when you reply to questions they themselves ask. Whether you reply to your students’ work on paper, electronically, in person, or via video, you can invite them to insert questions and comments in their drafts using the “track changes” function in Word or the “comment” or “note” tools in pdf readers. The same goal can be achieved by inviting students to handwrite comments in the margins of hard copies of their work, or by requiring them to submit cover letters along with their papers. You can then respond directly to their thoughts in addition to commenting on issues they don’t raise. (See a sample paper here.) Instructors can also require students to self-review, which in combination with instructor feedback, can develop students’ interest in their own work and refine their revisions (Boud, 1995).


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Boud, D. (1995) Enhancing learning through self-assessment. (London, Kogan Page).

Brookhart, S. M. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Butler, R. (1988) Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: the effects of task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and involvement. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 1-14.

David J. Nicol & Debra Macfarlane‐Dick (2006). Formative assessment and self‐regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Ivanic, R., Clark, R. & Rimmershaw, R. (2000). What am I supposed to make of this? The messages conveyed to students by tutors’ written comments. In: M. R. Lea & B. Stierer (Eds). Student writing in higher education: new contexts (Buckingham, Open University Press).

Lunsford, R. (1997). When less is more: principles for responding in the disciplines. In: M. Sorcinelli & P. Elbow (Eds). Writing to learn: strategies for assigning and responding to writing across the disciplines (San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass).

Orsmond, P., Merry, S. & Reiling, K. (2002) The use of formative feedback when using student derived marking criteria in peer and self-assessment. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 27(4), 309-323.

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