Provided meaningful feedback on students’ academic performance

Series Editors: David Pollock, The IDEA Center
Author: Cynthia G. Desrochers and Deone Zell, California State University, Northridge; Roben Torosyan, Bridgewater State University


Feedback that is both affirming and corrective is necessary for people to learn (1). Defined as information on the results of one’s efforts, feedback that is clear, specific and timely motivates students to improve. Since feedback is most often connected to grading that follows assigned work or assessment activities, Walvoord and Anderson (2) say that grading “…encompasses tailoring the test or assignment to the learning goals of the course…offering feedback so students can develop as thinkers and writers, communicating about students’ learning to appropriate audiences, and using results to plan improvements in the classroom…” (p. 1).

Thus, assessment provides feedback for both learners and teachers, and conversely, the absence of prompt, useful feedback reduces interest in learning. Walberg’s meta-analysis of studies of educational interventions that had the greatest impact on student achievement in K-12 classrooms found that instruction that incorporated feedback and correctives was one of most potent (3). A few years later, higher education began focusing on giving prompt feedback as one of its “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education” (4). The authors explain, “Knowing what you know and don’t know focuses learning. Students need appropriate feedback on performance to benefit from courses” (p. 4). Most recently, study of the human brain suggests that we are biologically wired to seek and use feedback (5, 6, 7).

Applying this Teaching Method in the Classroom


If students are to benefit from feedback, it must not only be timely and frequent, but also specific and useful for improving performance by addressing three areas: what students did well, what students need to improve on, and how to make this improvement. Feedback can take a variety of forms: 1) formative or summative, 2) individual or group, 3) written or coded comments, and 4) charts and rubrics of essential characteristics of assignments. Although giving detailed feedback is important, it may be even more important to give it in a timely manner (8, p.17). When learning new and difficult material, for example, immediate feedback can prevent students from developing incorrect conceptions and habits, and when feedback is proximal to the test, paper or project, it is more likely to be understood. On the other hand, feedback that is delayed for some tasks can offer the opportunity for students to self-correct and learn from their mistakes (9.

Setting the tone for feedback

Criticism and grades generate high emotions for both faculty and students. It often helps to first remind students that grading can be subjective but that you grade with fairness and learning in mind. Then assume students want to understand their grades. You can remind students that you are not critiquing them as people but rather, you are critiquing their work, and that it all aims at helping them learn. If we as faculty focus on friendly collaboration, even when we see problems in student work, we act as coaches, not executioners.

Allowing students to have some control of the process may reduce any frustrations they face, as well as assist their learning. For multiple-choice tests, for example, allow students to write out an explanation of why their answer is a correct response. With essay tests, reports, or projects, allow students to write a paragraph explaining why their evaluation of their performance is different from yours. This paragraph can be discussed during office hours. Frame your comments objectively, focusing on the weaknesses of the student’s paper rather than the weaknesses of the student personally. This will maintain the student’s dignity and motivation to put forth effort in the future.

Strategies for effective feedback

  • When providing feedback on tests, save 10 minutes after all tests have been collected to discuss responses to questions with the total class. This may be the teachable moment when students will best remember your test question, their incorrect answer, and your corrections. If you have multiple sections of the same course taking the same test later in the week, a discussion the following week will be the next best time. As you correct tests, make notes for class feedback, recording a balance of what they did well as a class and areas for improvement. When returning tests, you are then prepared to give both total-group and individual feedback. Depending upon the type of test, a coding system can make providing feedback less time consuming (e.g., +A = good argument, +I = good integration, ?E = I question your evidence).
  • Greater frequency of feedback can be attained by scheduling 4 short exams versus 2 long ones. By providing students with formative feedback on early exams you will help improve their performance on subsequent exams when similar thinking skills and format are involved (10).
  • Reports and projects feature student-constructed responses rather than right-wrong answers. Feedback will usually be qualitative and organized around the essential dimensions of the assignment. For example, when students are assigned to write a position paper on an ethical issue related to their career of choice, make a “plus-criteria chart” by drawing a large plus and labeling the four quadrants with the following components of a paper: assignment, organization, format, and language. Under each component, expectations for the position paper are listed. Differing weights might be assigned to each of the 4 components depending upon the experience of the students. For example, format might be worth 20% for a freshman composition, but only 10% for a senior-capstone paper. An alternative to a criteria chart is a rubric, another form of scoring guide that identifies 4 to 6 essential characteristics of the final product and includes a scale with description of a range of performances from “excellent” to “needs work” (8). Instructors can complete the rubric and return it to students with the final letter grade on the project. A benefit of both the plus chart or rubric method of providing feedback is that students can assist in chart and rubric-making, becoming partners invested in the feedback process.
  • When returning tests, reports, and projects, showing the class a good model from last term (or current term with permission from the student) serves as specific feedback of what “hitting a bull’s eye” would look or sound like. Moreover, sharing a weak model you have developed as a non-exemplar is a feedback tool with high potential for student learning, allowing you to discuss differences between surface errors in punctuation and deep errors in organization and concept understanding.
  • Whether grading math problems or a historical analysis, save time by having students submit a self-assessment against a checklist of common omissions or the few vital things every assignment must display. For scientific or technical problems, or any other assignment structured around clear right/wrong answers, return student work marked only right or wrong. Before assigning points, have students not only find and correct their errors, but explain where exactly they went wrong. One study showed that the more students actively verify their own math solutions, the better they perform over time (11).
  • For written work, consider grading some work such as journals, other informal writing, or early drafts of a major assignment with only pass/fail. Shift the emphasis for this kind of work from evaluation to feedback for the student.
  • For early drafts, you might have students provide feedback to each other, after giving them some guidance on providing feedback. (For instance, say, “For first drafts, mark not grammar, punctuation, or written form, but only big-picture issues such as underlining strong thesis statements, noting organizational headings in the margins, and checking that claims are well-supported.”) Reserve your own feedback for later drafts where incentive to improve may be highest, and provide more minimal feedback on final drafts when incentive has decreased. Keep in mind that having students provide feedback to each other should only be done in draft stages and with your coaching as to what constitutes helpful feedback. Remember that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) is a federal law that protects the privacy of student educational records. Therefore, allowing students to see the final grades of another student on tests, reports, or projects is a FERPA violation and should be avoided. When you use peer-provided feedback, it should be formative in nature and not be confused with students grading each other.
  • For feedback to be received as intended, it must be specific and balanced with encouragement. Instead of calling writing “unclear,” guide the student concretely to “Expand and explain. Could you give an example?” (12) and return the work promptly with just a few such suggestions (13). If critical comments are sandwiched between strengths, the receiver often perceives respect and heeds the suggestions better. I have commented, for example, “This showed passion and used primary sources thoughtfully. Now have it add an opposing view. That would show fair-mindedness behind your passion and thought.” In the end, advise students to use ungraded feedback (whether their peers’ or yours) for revision, and graded feedback for broad lessons to carry to the next assignment, class, or professional responsibility.
  • Before making summative judgments (for decisions such as grades), it always helps to give formative feedback (for improvement, during a process) both to reinforce strengths and to explain where work went wrong and what should be done. To manage your feedback workload, only schedule as many assignments as you can respond to, and focus on quality rather than quantity of feedback. For example, limit your suggestions for improvement to the two or three areas where a student is most likely to make progress. This should ultimately result in higher quality work from students.

Applying this Teaching Method Online

Online environments can be a boon for instructors who wish to increase the amount and quality of feedback provided to students in class. Online courses give students private portal access to their own progress reports on a real-time basis, making it possible to answer the perennial “where do I stand” question. In general, feedback moves from being an after-the-fact instance to becoming concurrent (even preventative) and continuous. Such feedback can be provided synchronously or asynchronously. It can be high-stakes or developmental, quantitative or qualitative, and instructor or peer-based. All of this is available in face-to-face classes, but the online environment expands and streamlines access both in terms of time (online is available 24/7) and audiences (feedback can be obtained and aggregated from students as well as instructors). Instructors can provide synchronous, face-to-face feedback through online conferencing or they can rely on electronic tools, such as the commenting tools in word-processing software, the use of screencasting (14), and other online tools such as Turnitin.

Self-paced, multiple-choice questions can be pre-programmed and graded instantly, making feedback available to students immediately upon completion of the activity, and most learning management systems allow you to create instant feedback based on the specific, incorrect choices student make. Students can also provide feedback to each other, both anonymously and identifiably, through tools such as discussion forums, polls, questionnaires, glossaries, blogs, wikis, etc.

To clarify grading, post a rubric (15) for students beforehand. Also, save prior sample student work and your comments—on both strengths and suggestions—and post it (removing anything that identifies the student). That way, students can see what your grading criteria actually look like when work is done well and when it is done poorly. Clarifying grading expectations can be particularly important for nontraditional assignments, like blog posts (16), infographics (17), and digital stories (18), which are sometimes more common in online learning environments.

When responding to problem solutions or writing, use track changes and comments in word processing software (19) to provide not just suggestions but sample improvements. Save time by limiting such changes to a paragraph. Then ask the student to make related revisions throughout the rest and to return both versions to you for comparison before final grading. To provide critical feedback on individual student work, use private email as recommended in a guide to teaching and learning online (20).

Because tone tells all, it may be important in online learning environments to try audio or video feedback (21) to convey respect and encouragement. Some have found that students are more likely to attend to and learn from instructor feedback when it is provided is audio or video form (22). For errors of written form, note that students can revise many of their own mistakes. One scholar quit correcting errors and simply marked an X in the margin next to lines containing errors. Students ended up correcting an astonishing 60% of their own errors (23). Electronically, highlighting an entire line may yield a similar effect.

Assessing this Teaching Method

Do we assign tests, reports, and projects in order to promote student learning, or are they merely instruments for summative evaluation to determine grades? They can and should serve both a teaching and evaluation function (2). But few things are more disappointing to instructors than providing detailed feedback to students, only to have them ignore it. How can you tell if feedback strategies are effective?

  • A straightforward strategy is to simply observe the degree to which students understand and use the feedback. Is the work of your students improving?
  • Of course, one way to assess the effectiveness of your feedback is to consider the ratings students provide on this IDEA item. Did most students give similar ratings, or were responses bifurcated? From open-ended comments, is there (dis)satisfaction with your grading, feedback or both? Do comments extend to all class work, or did a single incident or assignment spark a wish for better feedback or more fair grades?
  • Ask students to explain or paraphrase the feedback they have received to you or to other students. If they cannot explain the meaning of the feedback, it may not be clear or complete. One way to do this is to provide each student with a sheet of colored paper to resubmit in a week, with answers to these questions: 1) What was my feedback to you in this paper? 2) What did you learn about the assignment from my feedback? 3) What did you learn about yourself from my feedback? No grade is recorded until this sheet comes back.
  • Ask students to suggest, on the basis of the feedback, how their or others’ work can be improved. This not only supports learning the content, it also is a metacognitive exercise that addresses how to learn most effectively.

At some point, you may feel that your feedback using these kinds of systems is not being attended to or understood and that individual discussions with students are necessary. While these discussions offer great potential, they undeniably require a great deal of time and under certain circumstances (e.g., with very poor student work or with individuals who may not take criticism well) they pose delicate interpersonal communication issues. Students may be anxious about face-to-face meetings or resistant to the feedback and advice you offer. In these situations, campus resources such as writing centers or subject-specific tutoring or other services can be very valuable, especially if you work with staff to keep track of your students’ engagement and progress. Demonstration of your concern for student progress may gradually lessen students’ hesitation to work directly with you and allow them to be more receptive to direct communication about their work.

References and Resources

  1. Wiggins, G. (1997). Feedback—How learning occurs. AAHE Bulletin, November, 7-8.
  2. Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (2010). Effective grading (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
  3. Walberg, H. (1984). Improving the productivity of America’s schools. Educational Leadership, 41(8), 19-27.
  4. Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE (American Association for Higher Education) Bulletin, 39(7), 3-7.
  5. Zull, J. (2002). The art of changing the brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. See chapter 2.
  6. Zull, J. E. (2011). From brain to mind. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.
  7. Kagan, S. (2003). Cooperative-learning structures for brain-compatible instruction. In J. Cooper et al. (Eds.), Small group instruction in higher education. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. See pp. 303-304.
  8. Stevens, D., & Levi, A. (2005). Introduction to rubrics. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing. See Chapters 1-4.
  9. Goodwin, B., & Miller, K. (2012). Good Feedback Is Targeted, Specific, Timely. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 82-83.
  10. Angelo, T., & Cross, K. P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. See Chapter 1.
  11. Muir, T., & Beswick, K. (2005). Where did I go wrong? Students’ success at various stages of the problem-solving process. Paper presented at Building Connections: Research, Theory and Practice (Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia), Melbourne. Retrieved from:
  12. Bean, J. C. (1996). Engaging ideas: A professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  13. See hints for commenting on work, saving time, and grading criteria at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning site:
  14. Bjorklund, K. (2010). Video grading. Ms Professor B [blog].
  15. Find free rubrics at
  16. Sample, M. (2009). Pedagogy and the class blog. Sample Reality [blog]
  17. Schrock, K. (2012). Infographics as a creative assessment.
  18. Robin, B. (2011). The educational uses of digital storytelling: Rubrics.
  19. Yohon, T., & Zimmerman, D. (2004). Strategies for online critiquing of student assignments. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 18(2), 220-232.
  20. Poe, M., & Stassen, M. L. A. (Eds). Teaching and learning online: Communication, community, and assessment. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
  21. Harrison, J., & Martonis, J. D. (2011).Tips and tricks in for teaching in the online classroom. Faculty Focus, Magna Publications.
  22. Bjorklund, K. (2010). Video grading. Ms Professor B [blog].
  23. Bartholomae, D. (1980).The study of error. College Composition and Communication, 31(3), 253-269.

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