What is feedback?
Feedback is information provided by an agent (e.g. teacher, peer, experience) regarding one’s performance or understanding of a task. An instructor or peer may provide corrective information, alternative strategies, or encouragement. Instruction and feedback run on a continuum -- both are needed to keep moving forward on course content. Providing correctional feedback is a form of instruction, making the two an intertwined process that takes on the form of new instruction, rather than only informing the student about correctness.
Feedback needs to provide information relating to a specific task or process of learning to take on an instructional purpose (Sadler, 1989). Instructional feedback can be achieved in a variety of ways, such as motivating or engaging students, confirming to students when they are correct or incorrect, reiterating directions, or indicating an alternative approach or line of thinking.
Clearly, feedback can be a powerful tool. Students who receive informative feedback about a task and how to do it more effectively achieve higher learning outcomes than those students who receive praise, rewards, or punishment. Providing cues or reinforcement to learners in the form of audio, video, or computer-assisted instructional feedback is the most effective measure.
There are several ways to provide feedback to learners. Instructional designer and co-founder of E-learner Engaged, Anna Sabramowicz, describes some methods for providing learners with positive and effective feedback in the video below.
Three Feedback Questions
Teaching information to students involves providing constructive tasks and dialog and assessing and evaluating students’ understanding of this information in order to reach the next stage of teaching, which is done through feedback. Approaching feedback through three main questions can help provide the best feedback to the learner.
- Where am I going? (Feed up)
- How am I doing? (Feed-back)
- Where to go next? (Feed forward)
When both teachers and students seek answers to each of these questions learning goals can be achieved.
Where am I going? -- Feed Up: Clarify the Goal
Critical to feedback is laying the foundation of instruction with learning goals. These provide the learners with a clear purpose or roadmap to attain information related to the task or performance, referred to as “success criteria.” When students understand the learning goal, they are more likely to focus on the task at hand. Outlining the learning goals and activities of how they will reach those goals provides students with the understanding of what the instructor’s expectations are so that students can focus on achieving the goals.
With assignments, providing clear expectations and instructions to the students will help them meet the requirements and allows the instructor to align the various assessments. For example, when it's clear that the purpose of a unit is to compare and contrast the branches of government, students know what to expect and the teacher can plan readings, collaborative projects, investigations, and assessments to ensure that students focus on content related to this goal.
Goals inform individuals of the level of performance that is to be attained so that they can direct and evaluate their actions and efforts accordingly; therefore, feedback allows students to track their performance in relation to their goals and redirect their progress as needed. Feedback for goal-driven activities needs to be direct and students need to share a commitment to attaining them as they will be more likely to seek and receive feedback.
How am I doing? -- Feed Back: Respond to Student Work
The feed-“back” dimension covers the individual responses given to students about their work. Instructors provide information directly related to the performance task. Feedback is effective when it consists of information about progress and how to proceed next. Students often seek information about how they are doing and crave feedback as a self-regulatory tool to move forward successfully. Feedback can occur in an email, on a discussion post, or after formal testing. An instructor may find that emailing students progress reports can be the olive branch the students needed to ask specific questions on their success or failures of the instructional content.
For example, in a unit on writing high-quality introductions, a teacher gives students multiple opportunities to introduce topics using such techniques as beginning with a question or startling statistic, leading off with an anecdote, and so on. The teacher provides students feedback on each introduction they have written so the students revise that introduction and use the suggestions to improve their next attempt. Rather than simply noting mechanical errors, the teacher acknowledged areas of success and highlighted things students might focus on sharpening.
Where to go next?
Feed-Forward: Modify Instruction
Instruction is often sequential -- meaning instructors provide learning content and activities, students attempt these tasks, and these are then followed by more instruction and tasks. However, the consequence of this sequence is that giving constructive and effective feedback takes too long. Students are moving on to the next learning task before they receive feedback on the previous activity. Feed-“forward” can have some of the most powerful impacts on learning as it tries to enhance challenges, provide more self-regulation of the learning process, and a deeper understanding of what is or is not understood about the information.
The feed forward aspect of the formative feedback system is often left out. In an effective feedback system, teachers use assessment data to plan future instruction based on student performance. As the instructor analyzes student work, whether checking for understanding or using formative assessment, they use what they learn to modify their instruction. This demands greater flexibility in lesson planning because it means that teachers can't simply implement a set series of lessons.
Even adult learners can struggle with content, which can become apparent during an activity, assessment, or discussion board. If there is an issue from multiple learners, it is time to re-evaluate the instructional materials and remediate where necessary. Remediation can occur through several avenues:
- Redirection in a current discussion board
- Creation of a new, clearer discussion topic to discuss the misinterpretation of a previous discussion
- Feedback directly to the students who need it
Sometimes the content is predetermined for the instructor, which can provide students with a consistent experience. Courses are revised based on student and instructor feedback, which can lead to the reorganization of content to clarify any roadblocks along the way. In self-paced courses, feed-forward can be seen through adding clarification in a discussion post, following up directly with a student about the content, or providing personal examples to clarify confusion. It is important to focus on feed-forward as a teaching and learning opportunity for both the instructor and learners.
Integrating the Three Questions
Feed-up, feed-back, and feed-forward work together across for levels of feedback which closes the gap between where students are and where they are aiming to be. The focus of feedback is critical and the level at which feedback is directed influences its effectiveness. The task, the process, self-regulation, and the “self” are the levels feedback can be directed.
The Focus of Feedback: The Four Levels
The focus of feedback is critical and the level at which feedback is directed influences its effectiveness. The task, the process, self-regulation, and the "self" are the levels feedback can be directed.
About the task
Feedback can be directed towards the correctness or incorrectness of the task or assignment. On this level, feedback may include directions to acquire more, different, or correct information, such as "You need to include more information about the Gettysburg Address."
Feedback can focus on the process used to create the assignment, which aims more at the processing of information or learning process required to understand or complete the assignment. For example, the instructor may suggest that the learner needs to revisit strategies covered in the materials.
Aiming feedback at the self-regulation level can boost confidence and self-evaluation skills. This feedback can influence self-efficacy and self-regulation, such that the students understand how to more effectively continue with the task. For example, the instructor can remind the student what they already know and direct them to check if they have included it, such as "You already know the components of a hypothesis, check to see if your introduction paragraph has one."
Feedback can be personal in the sense that it is directed to the "self," which are often unrelated to task performance. This feedback includes "you're a great student" and "that's a great response, well done."
Structuring feedback appropriately is part of what makes it effective. It should reference the goal or objective that needs to be accomplished by the learner with tangible and actionable items that help obtain the ultimate goal. Only telling learners "good job" or "you did that wrong" does not benefit or help the learner obtain the module objective and move onto the next course goal. While specific and accurate feedback is important, it is not useful to the learner if it overwhelms them or is not understandable. Too much feedback can be counterproductive, whereas focusing on one or two key elements of performance can get the learner to focus.
Providing students with feedback is only useful to learning when it is timely -- not immediate or delayed. Communicate to students when they can expect feedback on activities and assessments. If feedback is delayed for any reason, it is necessary to communicate this delay with students quickly.
As an instructor, it is important to evaluate learner performance as a reflection of teaching. Are there areas where multiple learners are struggling on the same concept? Were the instructions of the task communicated clearly? Could a concept been explained more clearly? Consistent, accurate, and trustworthy feedback helps learners adjust their performance.
As stated before, it is important for the instructor to allot enough time to grade items and provide vital feedback to learners. If the instructor falls behind with providing individual feedback to learners, communicate the delay with the learners while reiterating the activity or lesson objective and encourage the learners to keep moving forward with the course content.
In short, begin with a description about task performance, follow with guidelines for what to keep doing or change (not just the "what" but the "how), and end with encouragement to persist.
Rubrics as Feedback
As mentioned, the importance of the feed-"up" step to feedback highlights expectations to learners. Providing learners with a rubric is part of the feed-"up" step and is an effective scoring tool that lists criteria and articulates the degree of quality for each criterion. Rubrics can improve learner performance by clarifying expectations and showing learners how to meet these expectations, because the rubric defines the level of quality expected out of them. In turn, this helps learners analyze their own work to self-assess areas of improvement.
For the instructor, rubrics save valuable time when evaluating a learner's work. Once items have been self- or peer-assessed, instructors find that the gaps have already been filled in and they can focus on providing more focused and itemized feedback. Also, rubrics provide the instructor with a way to justify grading based on the expectations and criteria outlined within the rubric, which eliminates instructor bias.
Grading student assignments can be a daunting task, especially if the assessment criteria provided was vague and subjective. Providing students with rubrics, an authentic assessment tool, justifies and defends the grades assigned to a given activity. Authentic assessment focuses on complex and subjective assessments that correlate to real-world experiences, during which, the instructor observes students in process, provides feedback, monitors student use of the feedback, and adjusts instruction and evaluation accordingly.
Rubrics provide a formative type of assessment because it is an ongoing part of the whole teaching and learning process. With rubrics as an instructional tool, students become more focused and self-directed as expectations are laid out as a pathway to success.
The advantages of using rubrics in assessment are that they:
- allow assessment to be more objective and consistent
- focus the teacher to clarify his/her criteria in specific terms
- clearly show the student how their work will be evaluated and what is expected
- promote student awareness of about the criteria to use in assessing peer performance
- provide useful feedback regarding the effectiveness of the instruction
- provide benchmarks against which to measure and document progress
Rubrics can be created in a variety of forms and levels of complexity, however, they all contain common features which:
- objective (performance, behavior, or quality)
- range to rate performance
- contain specific performance characteristics arranged in levels indicating the degree to which a standard has been met
Create a Rubric
Rubrics help instructors evaluate authentic, performance-based assessments that is tailored to an instructor's own curriculum and teaching style. In order to develop an effective rubric using the following:
Steps in Rubric Development
- Determine learning outcomes
- Keep it short and simple (Include 4 - 15 items; use brief statements or phrases)
- Each rubric item should focus on a different skill
- Focus on how students develop and express their learning
- Evaluate only measureable criteria
- Ideally, the entire rubric should fit on one sheet of paper
- Reevaluate the rubric (Did it work? Was it sufficiently detailed?)
Terms to use in measuring range/scoring levels
Numeric scale ranging from 1 to 5, for example
After you write your first paragraph of the highest level, circle the words in that paragraph that can vary. These words will be the ones that you will change as you write the less than top level performances.
Presence to absence
Complete to incomplete
Many to some to none
Major to minor
Consistent to inconsistent
Frequency: always to generally to sometimes to rarely
Below are links to rubric examples that can be customized to fit your assignment requirements. Once you have adjusted the rubric for a course activity, you may link to them within an assignment or include them in your syllabus.