Helping Students Persist Through Targeted Feedback

By Amy Sliwinski

The “C’s get degrees!” mindset is a nod to a less cheery truth about students’ perceptions of college grading practices: A 70% is good enough. A traditional teaching approach might be to provide the grade along with some written feedback. Then it’s on to the next topic. But instructors know that the grade represents a clear gap in understanding. If it doesn’t get addressed, it will likely lead to greater challenges later in the course and stifle persistence.

How can we ensure students persist? 

amy sliwinski – headshotOffering students opportunities to learn from their mistakes and improve their work has been one of the most impactful strategies I learned about while earning a Certificate of Effective College Instruction from the Association of College and University Educators (ACUE). In the module on Helping Students Persist in Their Studies, we learned how to provide thorough, timely, and specific feedback, and offer more revision opportunities.

A coworker in my ACUE cohort shared his approach to offering revision opportunities. Students in his classes have an opportunity to resubmit assignments for up to 50% credit of any lost points. I was struck by the brilliance and simplicity of this practice. It provides students a clear opportunity to learn from and improve on their mistakes. Just as importantly, it supports a culture in which effort is more praised than ability.

Connecting to Career Skills

I also appreciate the intentionality of the module’s recommendations for showing students how assignments connect to career skills.

As a former academic advisor and director of an Atlanta-based internship program, I have seen firsthand how the power of support, encouragement, and the opportunity to learn from mistakes can change a student’s trajectory. The struggling student stereotype assumes “laziness” as a characteristic. More often, I found that fear, insecurity, lack of understanding or lack of belief in their own abilities hindered students. Instructors who normalize mistakes help students to keep moving forward and to see their own potential.

Providing Targeted Feedback

In online teaching, student engagement is a challenge. Interaction is often limited to writing, so it can be a mystery whether or not students are even reading your feedback. In-person interaction can also help provide a sense of support and encouragement. Without it, students may get discouraged when they lose points or have trouble understanding content. ACUE inspired me to be very intentional and transparent with my feedback to avoid this kind of confusion. Here are some feedback practices that I now incorporate:

  • First, highlight what the student did correctly or point out at least one thing to celebrate in the submission.
  • Explain specifically what resulted in point deductions.
  • As often as possible, comment on some element of the assignment’s content, like posing a thought-provoking question.
  • Provide resources or suggestions for revisions and improvements.

For example, if they had formatting issues, I might direct them to our online library portal for a Word document template in an appropriate format. I also, as often as possible, comment on some element of the assignment’s content and try to provide a thought-provoking question in response.

In my weekly announcements to the class, I also try to include some personal shout-outs with mentions of content from student submissions.

For example, I’ll highlight a student’s insightful comment on a key concept from the previous week. Or I’ll provide additional thoughts and resources on a particularly popular discussion post. I always try to use student names as a way to show them I am actually reading their work, which can help motivate them to put more care and effort into their assignments.

A ‘great vehicle’ for motivating students

Students may prefer different settings to discuss their work, so I also offer 1:1 opportunities and group Zoom sessions to offer a classroom-esque context.

In the second week of a course, I send a personalized “check-in” email to each student to ask if they have any questions, needs, comments or concerns about the course so far. This has become a great vehicle for interaction and connection and has helped struggling students become motivated to work to catch up in the class.

Many students say it’s made a big difference. It has become a trend for students to comment on how appreciative they are of my intentionality, my personalization, and the depth and detail of my feedback. I have also had a handful of students that have reached out to further discuss class concepts or even personal matters for fun as a result of the intentional efforts I make at connection. As ACUE highlighted, encouraging students and creating opportunities for them to learn from their mistakes has truly resulted in increased engagement, persistence, and student success.

Amy Sliwinski is the Academic Operations Coordinator and an ACUE-credentialed adjunct professor of Human Diversity and Leadership courses at Southeastern University, a private Christian liberal arts university in Lakeland, Florida.

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