Do you look forward to providing student feedback, or do you dread the thought of having to read through student papers? Do students engage with and respond to your feedback now? Would you like to be certain students are reading the feedback you take time to develop?
As an educator you may spend a significant amount of time developing feedback for your students, especially for their written assignments. The developmental progress of your students is strengthened when you provide meaningful feedback and they respond to it, either through their actions and improved performance or their follow up questions to you. How do you react when students don’t respond to your feedback? What if they continue to make the same mistakes and their performance does not improve? Do you assume that students aren’t reading the feedback provided or perhaps they aren’t interested in it?
It can be very frustrating when you have invested time and thought into the feedback, especially when you have addressed their individual developmental needs, and students do not seem responsive to it. If this has happened to you it may be helpful to reflect upon the feedback provided and consider what techniques are likely to encourage students to be active participants in this process. The following techniques can help you create meaningful feedback, allowing you to discover its power and potential to address the academic and developmental needs of your students, while encouraging students to become engaged in and responsive to the process.
Avoid These Feedback Shortcuts
Instructors know students need more than a letter grade to prompt their continued development and this aligns with the premise of self-directed adult learners who want to be involved in the learning process. Students want to know why they earned the grade received. If they use grades as their primary source of motivation it becomes important to teach them to focus on more than their grades and instead understand the meaning of those grades and what can be learned from it. To accomplish this goal, feedback needs to address the content of what was written, along with the mechanics, and be done in a manner that encourages their progress.
What some instructors rely upon, typically when there is little time available, is canned comments or quickly written commentary. Comments such as "Good Job" offer little value to a student who has spent time developing a written project or assignment. The same is true when a score or a letter grade is the only feedback received for a written assignment or project. Feedback is most effective when it causes students to become further interested in the topics and more importantly, when they reflect upon their work and academic progress. When students are engaged in the feedback process, they are more likely to be responsive to what their instructor provides and learn from it.
The Student's Perspective of Feedback
As you begin to review the feedback provided to your students, have you considered the students perspective and how they may interpret what you have written?
For example, do you find that detailed narratives are more effective than one-word responses or brief comments? Are you talking at students or are you attempting to work with them? Students may be naturally defensive if an instructor is telling them what is wrong without providing supportive comments or constructive criticism. An instructor’s approach to feedback, along with his or her attitude about students and their potential, has a direct bearing on the tone and delivery of the message. Student responsiveness may also be related to their perception of the instructor’s willingness to assist them. This reminds instructors of the importance and impact of their word choices, which can encourage students to be receptive to feedback or cause them to discount it.
There is a perception that grades are somehow tied to a student's self-worth and this causes those students to give up easily when they perceive they have failed. Students think about failure most when they put in what they believe to be their best effort and receive feedback that conflicts with that belief and/or they watch their cumulative grade as an indicator of their progress and it continues to decline no matter how hard they try. Some students are not bothered by less than perfect outcomes and others will believe they have failed if they did not earn all "A" grades. This is why the feedback you provide must be explanatory in nature, to describe the strengths of the submission and the areas of needed development.
Are Students Not Responding to Your Feedback?
If you find that students are not responding to feedback there are additional questions to consider as a means of understanding your students' perspective. Do you believe your students are not reading the feedback or is it possible that they are reading it and intentionally ignoring it?
Another possibility to consider is that students who are struggling from a developmental perspective may not fully understand or comprehend what you have written. If students are continuing to make the same types of mistakes or they receive a low score on the assignment, they may be experiencing frustration and not able to fully recognize how they need to improve their performance. Students may also be confused about the assignment expectations if the criteria have not been fully explained. From your students’ perspective you may also consider if they are comfortable asking questions and if they feel that you are receptive to their inquiries.
How to Encourage Responsiveness from Students
The goal of feedback is to assess their progress with meeting the assignment requirements and learning objectives, while also demonstrating progress with development of specific skills, including writing and critical thinking skills.
Step #1: Use Thought-Provoking Questions
One method of engaging students is to include reflective questions within your feedback which asks them to reflect upon the assignment, the related course topics, and their overall progress. The inclusion of thought-provoking questions may prompt students to evaluate their academic development, while providing an opportunity for meaningful dialogue to occur with them.
Step #2: Develop Follow-Up Questions
If you have provided feedback that includes reflective questions and students do not respond, what approach would you utilize at that point? For an online instructor there is a greater challenge for engaging students because of the lack of face-to-face interaction. Would you consider posting follow-up questions and asking students to respond directly to them? It is understandable that you may not have a lot of time to develop feedback, ask reflective questions, and then develop additional follow-up questions.
Step #3: Provide Follow-Through
This method of follow through may be necessary only for students who have significant developmental challenges; however, consistent effort and follow-up may make a difference for those students who require additional assistance. Follow-through is also necessary whenever there is a student who is struggling, not making progress, making the same mistakes, or facing any other challenges. It is important to make certain they read the feedback and have an opportunity to discuss their progress.
Step #4: Use a Progress Check
Another technique to consider implementing prior to an assignment due date is the use of a self-check, which you can ask students to complete as a means of encouraging an assessment of their own progress. Through the use of a non-graded activity such as a self-check, students can be encouraged to ask questions and this is likely to provide you with an opportunity to offer developmental guidance, resources, and techniques. This would also enhance the feedback provided as you can relate their response or assignment back to discussions you had about their progress in the prior self-assessment.
The purpose of devoting time and attention to the feedback provided is to encourage student engagement in the class and the process of learning. Many of the techniques suggested require an additional investment of time; however, by implementing these strategies you may find that a proactive approach addresses non-responsive students in a way that encourages academic progress and a receptive attitude towards your feedback. This can also strengthen your working relationships with students and help to facilitate effective communication. When you provide feedback that matters, students are likely to start reading it week after week.
About Dr. Johnson
Dr. Johnson has worked in the field of higher education and distance learning since 2005. He specializes in distance learning, adult education, faculty development, online teaching, career management, and career development. Dr. J has a Ph.D. in Postsecondary and Adult Education, a Certificate in Training and Performance Improvement, and a Master of Business Administration, MBA. Presently Dr. J is a Core Faculty member for one of the premiere online universities, fulfilling his life's mission to teach, mentor, write, and inspire others.
As a scholar practitioner, Dr. J was published in a scholarly journal and he has been a featured presenter at an international distance learning conference. He has also published over 200 online articles about adult learning, higher education, distance learning, online teaching, and career development.
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