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A chronic complaint among college faculty is that students do not read or act upon the feedback professors provide on student work. But properly conceived feedback to individual students can be as much or more important than anything you present in lecture or have students do in other activities. Here are some tips to make feedback more efficient and effective.

When grading exams, homework, papers or essays, reports, and other student work, professors work hard to provide comprehensive feedback. “Grading” is often spending time describing to students, via red pen or keyboard, how they can do better either on a specific subsequent assignment, or in the future generally. After all that time and effort assessing student work it is disheartening to discover that a student subsequently made halfhearted improvements, or ignored the feedback altogether.

Feedback as Next Steps

Instead of attempting to comment on every issue you find in a student’s work, consider this: If you could only pick a few, what are the next actions on which the student should focus their reflection, time, effort, and courage?

How many next actions or steps depends on assignment design, length, scale, scope, frequency, and so on. But generally, for a short writing assignment you may need to supply only one direction for a next step. For a longer or larger assignment, you might pick several. Likely, these are issues

  • that are fundamentals in your course subject, disciplinary content or style of communication.
  • that are more urgent. For example, if a student has not mastered a particular concept, they may not be able to advance in the course.
  • for which you can quickly highlight numerous instances. That is, a more common problem in their work.

However you choose next actions for each student, you are directing them to focus on a few important issues rather than itemizing every flaw in their assignment submission.

Actionable Feedback

It is possible for faculty provide too much feedback. When students see a carpet of red ink down the margins of their paper, or an essay almost as long as that which they submitted detailing all large and small problems with their work, they can easily become discouraged. They might reason: Is all this worth it, or can I just live with a C? A C grade might not derail their future career plans, but their resignation stops their learning or developing as writers, researchers or creators.

Plus, even if they are willing to consider their professor’s feedback, where do they begin? Where should they spend more time: improving their argument? Improving visual aids? Revisiting their organization? All those sentence construction problems?

Instead, if a student is handed just two or three things to focus on when improving a draft, this seems manageable and realistic. They have time to properly reflect on each issue, experiment with their ideas, seek further advice, revisit the library, and take more thorough action toward those few, specific goals.

After they complete that next draft or assignment, a student will still have other problems in their work. Sure, but if they sincerely worked along your proposed improvements, they have advanced as learners and creators, rather than just got another assignment out of the way.

Efficient Feedback

It is possible for faculty to spend too much of their time grading or providing feedback. If the above is true it becomes counterproductive to pile on with commentary when grading.

By choosing a few action items for each student, you avoid spending time itemizing and commenting on every issue in every student paper, or fall short of that through predictable exhaustion. Plus, if you are asking students to revise a draft or complete a series of similar assignments, you can revisit what directions you gave to each student, when next you assess their work.

Growth as a Course Feature

If the above makes sense to you, then you might consider adopting a multi-stage development assignment, or a series of smaller, similar assignments in your course. Designed to teach as well as assess a set of research, analysis, writing or creative skills, such assignments can help your students systematically learn better scholarship and composition as well as help you understand how students learn, and where they typically suffer setbacks or snags. As students overcome one challenge, you can pose others to them in subsequent assignments, and by the end of the semester they should be demonstrably better at whatever is described in your learning goals and objectives for the course.

Focused, action-item feedback can help students focus on improving their skills and abilities, while saving you time (and aggravation!) as you teach.