The Components of Effective Feedback
There are five components to consider.
Ideally, you will know which course-level learning outcomes are being practiced and assessed. Feedback focused on these learning outcomes is the most relevant to students. Ask the course instructor what the priorities are for the feedback you are going to give. Ensure that the answers align with the course learning outcomes. For example, you won’t want to spend time providing feedback on aspects not essential to the course. You can also ask what extent of feedback is considered appropriate.
Once you have planned what you will likely focus your feedback on, stick to that focus. This can be really challenging! You need to focus your feedback so that you are not providing a blizzard, which each piece of feedback its own unique snowflake. Students can have a difficult time determining which of these pieces of feedback is more important. So, while you may see 100 things wrong with a paper, the student is more likely to read and understand the feedback you give if it is focused. Instead, focus on two or three areas of feedback per paper. Focus on the feedback that will be most beneficial for the student, both for the course learning outcomes and for their future assignments.
It is the student’s responsibility to apply feedback, so try to include links to help students learn the writing skills they need the most help with, e.g. to the APA style guide, to a good reference that explains how to paraphrase. One question that often arises is how to address grammatical errors. These errors can range from annoying to confusing. Generally speaking, the best approach to grammatical errors as a marker is to note to the student that the errors are interfering with your ability to read their paper, and to demonstrate the extent of this issue. Rather than try to fix the grammatical mistakes or rewrite sentences, neither of which teaches students to fix it themselves, (Robb et. al, 1996), choose one section of the paper (e.g., one paragraph), and indicate the confusing sentences and/or grammatical errors in it. Indicating the extent of the errors is your job, not explaining why they interfere with your ability to read the paper.
Unless you have extensive knowledge of how to explain English grammar, it is probably better to refer students to a source or resource that can help them. As mentioned previously, you can encourage students to have a tutorial either online or in person at the Centre for Academic Communication in order to help them reduce the frequency of their grammatical mistakes.
Think strategically. If you are grading final papers at the end of term, there is a good chance that students may not see your feedback. If this is the case, you may want to prepare a sheet with common mistakes that can be posted on the course management system or sent via email to all students, rather than write that form of feedback on papers.
“Timely” also refers to how long it takes to return students’ papers. Students are generally very keen to read your feedback if you hand the papers back soon after they are turned in. Over time, though, their interest in the feedback wanes, as does their memory of that particular assignment. Given that you have to provide feedback, it makes sense to do it at a time when students are most open to absorbing it.
A third aspect of timeliness is whether students can apply the feedback to improve their assignment and resulting grade. Feedback on a draft can be applied for immediate improvement, so if you have the option, provide feedback earlier in the writing process.
The feedback you give should be applicable to future assignments as well as to the one you are currently marking. You may find it helpful to think of “feedback” and “feed-forward”: what advice can you give that will help students do better on the next assignment, in the next course, and in their next year of study? What do they need to know about writing in your discipline?
As well, if you want your feedback to be applicable, make it readable. This is less of an issue if you mark online, but if you are writing feedback by hand, remember that students will need to be able to read it in order to be able to apply it. Students can be quite shy to ask their TAs to explain what they wrote on their papers. If your handwriting is hard to read, you may want to consider typing it.
When marking and providing feedback, it can be easy to become frustrated. Remember that the words that you write on a student’s paper can have a much more negative impact than you intended. How would you feel if a neutral third party were to read your comments? If you feel frustrated when marking, it is a good idea to set the marking aside, take a break, and do something a bit different until you can approach marking and feedback with a more neutral tone.
“The most important thing I learned when I first started grading at the university level was to judge the work, not the student. There are any number of reasons why a student might do poorly on an assignment; a lack of moral worth isn’t one of them. Students should see assignment feedback as an opportunity for growth, not as a commentary on their character.” - Edwin Hodge, TAC Sociology 2015-16
Source: Korpan, Waye, Ami and Tagharobi (2017). Learning and Teaching Centre, University of Victoria. Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 International.