If you’ve either been a student or taught a course, you’re probably familiar with feedback in some form or another. However, have you taken the time to consider what made the feedback you received or given valuable? Was that feedback helpful? Did it provide clear and actionable feedback for you to use and grow? 

Why Feedback Matters

Before exploring what is valuable feedback, let’s touch on why feedback matters to students and the learning process. Feedback – at its core – is any response to a student’s performance. However, it is more than just a score or a way to assess student performance. The purpose of feedback is not to just provide a grade, but to provide insight into how students are doing and how they can further improve. This means that feedback is a combination of helpful comments and grades. Receiving feedback is an essential part of the learning process, some argue feedback is the most important part of the learning process. Feedback is often how learners grow in skill throughout a course (Bellon, et al. Teaching from a Research Knowledge Base: a Development and Renewal Process).

Feedback is more than just a tool for the assessment and growth of student performance. Providing feedback can also touch on emotions and engagement. Receiving positive feedback – and not just feedback that praises the student, but even critical feedback provided in a positive and constructive way can actually be encouraging to learners. This can increase learners’ confidence when they do better than expected and in turn raise their confidence. This increase in confidence can make students self-aware and heighten their enthusiasm for the course. 

The final reason why feedback matters and why it’s important to the learning process is due to feedback’s role in aiding students through transitioning from lower cognitive levels to higher cognitive levels. Learners can be provided with clear and specific feedback that can guide them from one level to another with helpful comments. 

What is Valuable Feedback

There are two sides to valuable feedback. There is what makes feedback provided valuable to students and the characteristics that make the feedback provided valuable. 

Feedback is helpful and valuable to learners when the feedback is provided in a timely manner. This means that comments are provided to students with enough time to review and understand the comments provided to them, but then also having enough time between receiving the feedback and starting their next assignment. Feedback is not valuable when students do not have enough time to apply what they’ve learned. Feedback should also be specific and encouraging. While we want to provide encouragement to learners, we do not want to provide empty platitudes that are generic like, “Great work!” Valuable feedback provides the student with clear and specific examples of where the student has done well and provides encouragement and specific feedback for the areas that need attention. Valuable feedback also provides a model by communicating and demonstrating what you’re looking for. Feedback should provide clear instructions, and parameters, and demonstrate what you’re looking for from students. 

The characteristics of valuable feedback take into consideration both what makes feedback valuable and why feedback matters. We’ve distilled valuable feedback into four main characteristics – educative, sensitive to student needs, shows where they stand, and considers motivation. 

  • Educative:
    • Opportunity to teach, not just grade. Explain how to improve with clear, specific examples.
  • Show them where they stand:
    • Explain what they are doing well on and where they need more work.
  • Sensitive to needs:
    •  When giving feedback, where you can, be sensitive to what each student needs in terms of feedback. If a student is doing several things wrong within an assignment, maybe focus on 1-2 larger issues you see that need feedback instead of focusing on all points.
    • It’s also important to remember that we have a diverse group of students who are coming from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Being mindful of what we both do and don’t know about our student populations and how some harsh feedback can affect their progress. 
  • Considers Motivation:
    • We also want to nudge student toward higher levels of success without being discouraging and damaging self-esteem
    • Use comments to teach, not justify the grade
    • Ask questions that will guide further inquiry

How to Provide Valuable Feedback

Providing valuable feedback actually starts sooner than you think when creating and teaching a course. Setting yourself up to be able to provide feedback that is valuable to students starts with setting up your course. 

Setting Up Your Course

  • Provide feedback early and often by scaffolding assignments throughout your course. This will provide you a chance to give clear guidance throughout the process and help guide students to better outcomes. Also consider – how much time are students getting between assignments. How long is it taking me to get feedback to students? Do they have enough time to apply my feedback by the time the next assignment is due?
  • Clear assignment instructions will help your students understand what the assignment is, how it relates to the course, the goals, and what students should be getting out of this assignment. Clear assignment details and instructions will cut down on student confusion and questions by providing all the necessary information in the assignment.
  • Specific and robust rubrics are one of the best tools we have in both providing additional clarity on assignment expectations and ease the burden of grading. 
  • Setting grading and feedback timelines and sticking to it – is paramount to success for students. Knowing ahead of time when they can expect feedback and setting a timeline for when to apply that feedback will help them in all aspects of the course.

Providing feedback

Providing feedback can seem daunting in large classes and can lead us to take shortcuts in providing feedback, which often means it may just be a grade rather than helpful feedback that provides learning opportunities for our students. Thankfully, between setting your course up to be geared towards helpful feedback and tools integrated in Canvas, there are ways to provide helpful feedback at scale.

  • Rubrics: Use the Canvas rubric to quickly provide feedback on where students stand by using categories and levels. In one click you can let a student know where they stand in terms of meeting expectations on the most important focuses of the assignment. 
  • Canvas Comment Library: If you have feedback you leave often for students, use the Canvas Comment Library to save your most frequently provided feedback. However – also be sure that you’re not just leaving general feedback, but comments that will help teach and grow the student’s skills.
  • Canvas Annotations Tools: Use the annotation tools to highlight and leave comments directly on a student’s paper submission. This is a great way to leave specific feedback directly on their assignment and help the learner pinpoint what exactly you’re looking for.
  • Alternative Formats: Canvas also allows you to leave feedback in the form of video or voice recordings. This can be helpful for larger classes as you will not need to write out unique individual comments for each and every student. You can simply use the recording tools to provide a quick audio commentary on their work. This can also be more approachable than written comments and add a level of instructor presence to your course.

Now you have all the tools you need to provide helpful and valuable feedback at scale to your students. All of these approaches will not only allow you to provide the necessary feedback students need to grow and be successful in your course, but you can save time by minimizing student confusion and questions, save time grading, and allow you and the students to focus on what matters most.