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Research, such as John Hattie’s Visible Learning, has highlighted the impact of feedback on student learning for years now. (2008) The effect size varies a bit over time and across studies, but there is no question that providing feedback has a positive effect on student learning. In fact, even students readily admit that receiving specific, timely, relevant feedback makes them more likely to revise and helps them to think critically about how to improve and grow.
If we accept the importance of formative feedback, the question becomes what kind of feedback do students need?
Across many formative writing tools, such as Turnitin’s Feedback Studio and Revision Assistant, one of the core values that drives the team of veteran educators is a fundamental belief that students need feedback that identifies areas of weakness AND areas of strength.
There is much more to say about feedback, in general, but for now, let’s explore positive feedback that zeroes in on what students have done well.
There are some perspectives that we can unpack and reframe in order to best serve students’ needs.
1. Traditional View: Students know that they’ve done a good job when they earn a good grade.
Reframed Understanding: A grade may tell students where they fall on a continuum or scale, and a “good” grade may even tell them that their work is high on that scale. By itself, though, it doesn’t guide students to understand specifically what they have done well or what they may not have done well.
Feedback that identifies specific areas where a student has shown particular insight, offered critical evidence, or utilized descriptive imagery gives the student something concrete to revisit with an eye toward doing the same thing in the next task.
2. Traditional View: Writing “Good job!” or similar accolades lets students know they have done well on an assignment.
Reframed Understanding: These acts may inspire good feelings in the student, and perhaps that does have some positive impact on motivation. At the very least, it’s likely to inspire good connotations around the task. That is not without value. Will it, however, help a student to grow?
If students don't have a clear, specific understanding of what they did that merited that positive comment, it is unlikely that they will be able to transfer that understanding to a new task.
That transfer should be the measure of whether feedback is working. Can a student take this feedback and apply it to other parts of the task or even better, to a new task? That is deep learning, and while a nice sticker or even a good grade might create positive feelings, it doesn’t allow a student to understand what specific strategies they should use the next time.
Rather than simply saying, “Good job!” consider adding a specific and actionable comment, such as “Nice use of language in this sentence. Continue choosing words in other parts of your essay that will appeal to your audience's interests or emotions, or help in your purpose of persuading them.”
3. Traditional View: My students know that if I don’t tell them to revise or correct something, then what they’ve written is strong as it is.
Reframed Understanding: In the absence of any information, students will not assume automatically that they have done well. When all students see are comments about what they need to “fix” or improve, what sticks with them is not going to be that everything else is “fine” or that it is good. It certainly doesn’t highlight for them the parts that are truly well-written, nor does it let them know what they might replicate to improve other parts of their work.
Students need help to find the areas of their work that they need to re-examine and revise, but they also need us to shine a light on the places where they have excelled or grown.
4. Traditional View: I only have so much time to give feedback so I have to focus on identifying the most egregious errors.
Reframed Understanding: The principles that apply to feedback on student weaknesses are just as important when highlighting strengths. I can sense the raised eyebrows and looks of doubt that result from reading that sentence, but it’s true. Any teacher who has spent every waking moment of a weekend scribbling notes on student papers knows that TIME can often be the enemy. You may find yourself thinking, “There’s not enough time in the day to do all that needs to be done, and now I have to make sure that I not only point out weaknesses but also identify specific strengths…” and the answer is yes.
Providing specific positive feedback may take more time, but the outcome is that students have a better attitude about writing in general, understand their own strengths, and have an understanding of the skills they want to leverage to improve their writing overall.
We know that feedback works best when it is:
Most people embrace those principles when it comes to helping students understand what they need to improve. Those same principles apply when we’re spotlighting student strengths. From a purely emotional perspective, positive reinforcement impacts motivation and students’ attitudes toward writing and revision.
What if we also work to make sure that students receive timely, relevant, specific, and ACTIONABLE feedback about what they’re doing well?
If a student makes strong word choices and embeds powerful evidence to support a claim, isn’t it just as important that we point that out so that they can do it again?
Consider how empowering it is to say to a student, “This sentence very strategically connects your evidence to the central claim of your argument. Look for other places in your essay where you can strengthen those connections in a similar way.”
Want to incorporate some of these principles in your feedback? Check out the newly released Spotlight Strengths QM sets (for beginning or advanced writers, as needed) developed by our team of veteran teachers. There are two sets so that you can find what best suits your needs: one set is aimed at younger students and the other is geared toward older students. The QMs in these sets crossover different writing genres so you’ll find a nice variety.
Want to provide meaningful student feedback and deter plagiarism? Learn more about Feedback Studio.