Providing Useful Feedback in the Classroom

Feedback Bubble

Feedback is one of the most critical components of student success. There has been a lot of research done around the role of feedback in formative assessment. I will once again cite John Hattie’s work as my school is currently doing a lot of professional development with Visible Learning. Thomas Guskey has also done a lot of work on the role of feedback, including what makes feedback effective, and whether grades can be used as effective feedback. Likewise, most teachers have a lot of colloquial evidence of how feedback has helped them support student growth. Some of the research that has impacted my thoughts on this topic is linked at the end of the post.

As a result of some good discussions with colleagues I am currently reflecting on the strategies I have used for feedback, specifically which ones have been successful and how I can improve the feedback I provide. This is not just a rehash of research or a quippy list of adjectives to describe feedback, but some specific strategies and ideas applied to social studies and humanities courses.

Separate Feedback from the Grade

This can be a hard strategy to always follow, but I have been trying to do it more on formative assessments and those summative assessments where I allow and encourage reassessment. When feedback is provided with a score, students often only see that far and then stop reading. I have had students ask me how to get a better grade who clearly did not read not my feedback. If they had, they would already have the answer to their question.

By separating the feedback from the score I am forcing students to read and think about my comments. In AP World, this has meant allowing them to reflect on their performance, consider whether or not they think my feedback is fair, and engage with me about quality of work without ever discussing grades. I want to make this a larger part of my practice.

Harkness Rubric

A rubric that I use for my Harkness discussions is pictured on the right. It is a single point rubric I created to encourage students to think about both areas of growth and enrichment. I will be taking the score section off the rubric next time I use it. I want students to see only my feedback; I will be encouraging them to argue, explain, or defend their performance if they think any of my feedback is unfair. After a reasonable window of opportunity, I will note the final grade.

I will not be able to do this for every assessment. Since trying it out this year, I have noticed an increase in students engaging with my feedback in a way that directly relates to standards, skills, and expectations beyond the grade. In a standards-based grading system I would make this a core practice for all formative assessments as well as summative assessments through the early part of the semester. This is where feedback is most useful. It is naïve to imagine students will ever stop worrying about grades or chasing certain scores. However, I want to take more responsibility for making sure students do not ignore valuable feedback and recognize its value to learning and growth, thereby helping the grade itself.

Focus Feedback around Goals, Skills, or Standards

It can be easy to overwhelm students with feedback, especially when it’s a large writing assignment like a DBQ essay or research paper. An english colleague shared with me a tip for reviewing student drafts; focus feedback for the class around a single topic or theme. For example, word choice, sentence structure, etc. I have done this with evidence selection, explanations, and contextualization. Smaller, more targeted feedback sessions help students not be overwhelmed in both the quantity of feedback nor the feeling that nothing they have produced measures up.

In AP World I have found some success by focusing feedback around the skills. I almost never provide traditional feedback about grammar, spelling, or anything that is not scorable on the College Board rubric. I am not arguing these things are unimportant, it’s just that I want students to see the feedback as constructive. It’s easy for students, especially younger ones, to see large quantities of feedback as overly critical or as a justification for a poor grade. Likewise, no teacher wants to receive feedback on an observation on everything that did not go well. Strong administrators that I have worked with have recognized that feedback is also more effective when focused around certain domains, standards, or skills. Why should student feedback be any different?

When I give students feedback on DBQs and LEQs I use a scoring rubric that I got from another AP World teacher. A piece of it is in the image below. The full rubric can be found linked here and on my AP World Resource page. It is easily editable to show students exactly what they did, what they didn’t do, and to provide them with common pre-written feedback. In this example, the feedback and “score” are given together, but the score on the DBQ is not the same as the final grade the student will receive for it.

Proficiency scales or skill-based rubrics are a great way to focus feedback around skills and processes that are being assessed. The experience of standards-based grading is probably the biggest reason my own feedback has improved over the last few years. Effective feedback can help students understand how to analyze around a specific skill rather than just telling them they need to provide more analysis, it can help them select more effective evidence rather than telling them they need to include more detail, it can push them to make deeper inferences and connections instead of just task mastering the assignment.

Incorporate Revision and Reassessment to make Feedback Valuable

Ideally, we want our feedback to students to be immediately actionable. Traditional feedback provided with a summative score is not actionable until the next summative assessment. This could be weeks away depending on the type of summative assessment under discussion.

Allowing revision and reassessment gives students an immediate opportunity to use the feedback. This also make it more likely that the feedback will lead to actual learning or growth as students confront it while the content and skill are still fresh. In my experience, this is more common in larger writing assignments and research papers; english teachers are often better at working this process into class time. However, there is a role for revision in the assessment of any historical thinking skill. Students are better served when they can immediately take steps to improve whatever mistakes or errors they made.

Revision does not mean giving away free points or free grades. In larger writing assignments feedback can be targeted around a few key topics or a single paragraph, with students asked to apply that feedback to other parts of the assignment. In smaller assignments, like source-based analysis, students can be asked to repeat or reassess a skill with a different document or different guiding question. Will some students try to game this to their advantage? Yes. However, why should we ignore a practice that can benefit the majority because of a handful of students in the minority? I would rather enjoy the benefits in learning and classroom rapport that revision and reassessment unlock even if it means creating some extra guardrails to disincentivize cheating or system manipulation. This takes a bit of planning and thought, but is not difficult.

In AP World History I allow revision on DBQs and LEQs. I wrote a previous post about reassessment in general, why I believe in it, and why I continue the practice. Some students choose not to revise, but every student receives detailed feedback to help them improve. In some cases, I ask the student to revise the same DBQ or LEQ, and in some cases I ask the student to do a DBQ with different documents or an LEQ on a slightly different prompt. Students and parents appreciate the opportunity and the policy allows me to shift the conversation around grading to how it drives learning and honors growth over time.

Final Thoughts

Providing quality feedback, and setting aside time for students to read it, reflect on it, and revise with it pushes back against the desire to go fast instead of focusing on mastery. Doing this frequently and consistently also helps build a positive classroom culture; Students can tell the difference between a classroom where feedback is being used as a justification for the grade they received and a classroom where feedback is the pathway to both learning and the grades that reflect that learning.

Just please…don’t call it “Feedforward.” That is one piece of edu-babble I detest.

Research & Sources

The Power of Feedback by John Hattie & Helen Timperley

Grade vs Comments: Research on Student Feedback by Thomas Guskey

What Teachers Really Want When It Comes to Feedback by Thomas Guskey & Laura Link

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