Providing Students with Feedback

A story in the March 3rd issue of the Daily Princetonian described USG Senate discussions regarding professors’ written feedback on students’ final work. In the article students shared their frustration when they receive very few comments on final work, but faculty also noted that in many cases students do not pick up their final work.

These conversations point out a common point of dissonance between students and instructors. In most cases, instructors view feedback on assignments as key to students’ learning. They expect that students will read comments carefully and apply the ideas to future work. Students, on the other hand, may view these comments primarily as explaining their grade. They may be less able to see how feedback on one specific paper or problem set can guide them on a new assignment. On end-of-semester work, some instructors realize that detailed comments are not going to be as helpful because students will not be doing further work in the course. And students may not even pick up final work in the course if they are satisfied with their grade because to them the learning from the course is over.

As instructors, we do need to provide students with feedback to explain their grades, but more importantly, we need to help students use our feedback to promote their learning throughout the semester. How may instructors encourage students to recognize the value of feedback during the semester and use it productively in later coursework?

  • Clarify expectations for students’ coursework and discuss the role each type of assignment plays in students’ learning. In the language of educational assessment, some types of course assignments, exams, and papers act as formative assessment. These activities provide a direct learning experience for students through the act of doing them, give feedback to students that they can build on for future work in the course, and help instructors gauge the level of learning in their students
  •  Give timely and detailed feedback on formative assessments during the semester so that students receive meaningful guidance on ways in which they have mastered the necessary disciplinary skills and where they still need improvement. Keep a record of comments you share with students and refer to it in their later work. 
  •  Separate the giving of a grade from the giving of feedback. Some instructors post grades on the course Blackboard site and not on written work. The physical separation of grades from the written feedback may help students recognize the two roles these comments play—providing guidance for their learning as well as explaining the grade. 
  • Explain to students your philosophy on the purpose of feedback on final assignments. Some coursework such as final exams, term papers, and theses are forms of summative assessments and provide an overall evaluation of students’ performance in the course. On the most practical level, the feedback on summative assessments explains a student’s grade. In the best case, this feedback reflects back to feedback on earlier work indicating where the student improved upon that work and where he or she fell short. The most useful feedback for students on end-of-semester work also provides general guidance regarding students’ future improvement in the field—their mastery of analytical and critical thinking skills, their ability to make an argument or analyze data, and specific writing strengths and weaknesses. 

For additional resources on providing feedback to students on written work, please see the Princeton Writing Program document Responding to Student Writing. You may also find the McGraw Center ’s Scholar as Teacher tip-sheet called Evaluating Student Work helpful.