Research: Five Principles for Providing Useful Feedback

It took fewer than three semesters for Michael Howell to realize that he might need to change how he provided written feedback to his students.

Dr. Howell, an associate professor at Appalachian State University, used sarcasm and wit in feedback to students during his early years as an instructor. Students complained that the feedback was negative and unhelpful. In one case, his feedback provoked a tearful response from one “grief-stricken” student.

“Worst of all, most students were not performing any better on later assignments, despite being provided with copious, and what I considered helpful, feedback,” Howell writes. “Most of my feedback was simply being disregarded.”

Howell shares his personal reflection in the introduction of a scholarly article published in the latest issue of the Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. Howell reviewed the literature and identified five essential principles of written feedback for college instructors to follow. Check out “The Feedback 5” — as Howell calls them — below and tell us what you think:

1. Provide Timely Feedback
Return feedback as quickly as possible, especially when it is intended to help students perform better on future work. Students are more likely to value prompt written feedback, and delayed feedback lessens its value (Bevan et al., 2008; Duncan, 2007; Wharton, 2013).

2. Provide Balanced Feedback
Positive feedback “can be empowering and motivating, but can also be problematic,” Howell writes. Certain types of praise are considered to be the least effective type of feedback, particularly if it fails to provide helpful information and detracts from the task and performance concerns (Hattie & Temperley, 2007). Examples of unhelpful praise, as documented by researchers, include short effusive comments like “Top notch!” and “Outstanding performance!” Balanced feedback also highlights areas where there is room for growth, as demonstrated in this example:

“Overall, your paper was well-organized and your writing was clear and effective. However, your use of APA formatting was inconsistent. I encourage you to review the formatting guidelines before the next assignment.”

In every case, Howell writes, feedback should be clearly linked to learning objectives from the assignment.

3. Provide Developmental Feedback
Feedback is more effective if it clearly relates to professional performance in the future, which Howell calls “developmental feedback.” Howell provides one example of feedback for a student whose literature review failed to include any empirical sources:

“As a professional social worker making evidence-based practice decisions to help your clients, you will need to be able to identify interventions that are founded on empirical evidence, so you must be able to find research studies in the professional literature.”

4. Provide Direct Feedback
Indirect feedback leads to miscommunication and can take many forms, Howell writes. This often stems from concerns for students’ negative reactions to critiques of their work, which researchers call “sugaring the pill” (Hyland & Hyland, 2001). The result is that students are left feeling unsure about what parts of their work are correct or whether they should make changes in the future.

Howell lists examples of different kinds of indirect feedback to avoid:

  • Hedges: “I’m sorry, but I just don’t feel you are writing clearly.”
  • Interrogatives: “Did you check your spelling carefully?”
  • Suggestions: “Perhaps it would have helped if you had added more citations to better support your arguments.”

Examples of direct feedback are worded in the “imperative format:”

“You have a strong grasp of APA style. In your next paper, continue citing just like you did in this one.”

“In the next social history that is due, write a more detailed description of the sibling relationships, addressing both strong and strained relationships.”

5. Provide Instructive Feedback
“It is not enough to simply identify performance lags or errors,” Howell writes, citing research that shows students probably don’t know how to avoid making the mistakes in their work (Chanock, 2000). Effective instructional feedback has three essential components:

  • Identification of the problem: “Throughout your paper you have used semicolons incorrectly, using them to join independent and dependent clauses.”
  • Clarification or explanation of the problem: “Semicolons are used to join independent clauses that are related.”
  • Instructions for resolving the problem or avoiding it in the future: “For example, ‘Maslow was a very important theorist; he developed a theory explaining peoples’ different needs.'”

Do you have your own examples of effective written feedback? Share them in the comments section, or weigh in on our Teaching and Learning topic.

Howell, M. L. (2016). The Feedback 5: Principles for Providing Effective Written Feedback on Students’ Work. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27(1).

Bevan, R., Badge, J., Cann, A., Willmott, C., & Scott, J. (2008). Seeing eye-to-eye? Staff and student views on feedback. Bioscience Education, 12(1). Retrieved from vol12/beej-12-1.aspx doi: 10.3108/beej.12.1

Chanock, K. (2000). Comments on essays: Do students understand what tutors write? Teaching in Higher Education, 5(1), 95-105.

Duncan, N. (2007). “Feed-forward”: Improving students’ use of tutors’ comments. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 32(3), 271-283.

Hattie, J., & Temperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. doi: 10.3102/003465430298487

Hyland, F., & Hyland, K. (2001). Sugaring the pill: Praise and criticism in written feedback. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10, 185-212.

Wharton, S. (2013). Written feedback as interaction: Knowledge exchange or activity exchange? The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education, 4(1), 9-20. doi: 10.5204/intjfyhe.v4i1.133

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