Virginia Commonwealth University
May 10, 2010
Bookmark and Share

By Chris Frawley, M.Ed.

We are often frustrated when students aren’t learning the content. We’re actively teaching and making adjustments to our instruction. Yet students continue to struggle to make progress. What’s missing? It could be that our students are not assuming responsibility for their learning and therefore aren’t moving forward as learners. As teachers, we’ve assumed the responsibility to ensure our students learn. How can we engage them in this learning process, help them understand what they know and need to know and show them how to move forward? We have to assist many of our students in understanding that their responsibility for learning is as important as our responsibility.

Male student reading in classroom.

Written feedback on classroom assignments helps students take ownership of their learning and actively engages them in the process.

Every day, teachers review class work and homework, ask questions, engage students in discussions and observe student interactions as a part of ongoing formative assessment. Data from these various assessments help teachers plan instruction and activities to promote student learning. Shepherd (2009) points out that formative assessment — assessment for learning — should include students in the process of understanding the gap between their actual and desired level of performance, as well as how to close the gap. Students typically receive feedback in the form of grades and numerical scores to communicate their progress toward learning goals. However, grades and numerical scores aren’t specific enough to help students improve their progress. If the culture of the classroom focuses on grades or class ranking, then students find ways to get the best grades instead of how to improve their learning (Black and Wiliam, 1998). We need to help students take ownership of their learning and to be actively engaged in the process.

What is feedback?

Feedback is how we can help students grow as learners. Most feedback students receive is ineffective because it does not tell them what they need to do to improve and how to make these improvements (Wiliam, 2007). It tends to focus on performance and ability instead of the critical aspects of student learning. Black and Wiliam (1998) explain that the student will make gains in his learning when we focus our feedback on the specific problems of a student’s work and then tell him what’s wrong with it and how to fix it. For example, Carlos completes a writing assignment that requires him to write a two-paragraph description of a family member. The teacher walks over to his desk to review his writing and engages in this dialogue:

Teacher: This looks great Carlos! I see you have written about your father. What else might you want to say about your dad?
Carlos: He likes to do things around the house.

Teacher: What kinds of things does he like to do?
Carlos: He likes to mow the grass and rake leaves.

Teacher: Great! I think you should add that information to what you have written.
Carlos: OK.

As the teacher walks away, Carlos sits confused because he does not know what to do next. He is unsure of what he has done correctly and how to improve his work. He doesn’t know how or why he is supposed to add the additional information about his dad. The feedback Carlos receives does not move him forward with paragraph writing. Instead, the feedback should be more specific and tell him how he can improve his writing. A different conversation could occur:

Teacher: Each of your paragraphs begins with a topic sentence and ends with a closing sentence that restates the main idea.
Carlos: OK.

Teacher: The second paragraph could be improved by adding two more details. What are some things your dad likes to do for fun?
Carlos: He likes to mow the grass. He likes to rake leaves. He also likes to play football and basketball with me and my brothers.

Teacher: OK. Now, go back and reread the second paragraph. Add two sentences that explain other things that your dad likes to do for fun.
Carlos: (Nods his head and begins to write).

How do I provide effective feedback?

An effective way to provide feedback to your students is written comments on assignments and assessments. Written feedback is concrete and permanent. Students can read and reread the feedback to better understand themselves as learners. Shepherd (2005) and Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall and Wiliam (2004) point out that students are more likely to meet their learning goals when comments focus on the specifics of the learning task and the student’s learning issues. The best comments help the student 1) think about what he is doing well, 2) identify what he needs to do to improve and 3) understand how to improve. Additionally, the feedback should not compare him to other pupils. Without formative feedback, students may be unsure of themselves as learners. A student may receive a letter grade of C or a score of 85 because it’s what we are required to do. Our schools use grades to inform teachers, students and parents about students’ progress learning the content. Does the C or 85 explain to the student how he is progressing as a learner? Confirming and corrective written feedback would assist the student to understand more clearly where he is and what his next step(s) should be.

The comments you write should be more meaningful than “Good work!” or “You’re on the right path!” Tuttle (2009) explains that all oral or written feedback has the same characteristics. Effective feedback:

  • Relates to the standard the student is learning
  • Focuses on critical aspects of the student’s learning
  • Has a descriptive tone
  • Is specific
  • Provides explicit suggestions for improvement
  • Is constructive

These characteristics provide guidance for writing your comments. It might seem a bit overwhelming not knowing how or where to start writing comments. Begin with writing comments that tell students what you can see they know. Generally, it’s easier to identify what students know and can do. For example, you might write, “You included the reasons for English colonization in America in your explanation.” This comment provides feedback in relation to the standard you taught. You could write a specific comment such as, “Your explanation demonstrates an understanding of the difference between meiosis and mitosis,” to reinforce to the student his knowledge of the content. Or, write a comment with a descriptive tone, “You listed the six important events of the story in sequential order.”

After you are comfortable writing comments and providing feedback about what students know and can do, you can move to writing comments about what a student needs to do to improve his learning and how to do it. After reviewing a student’s assignment you might write, “The five layers of the atmosphere are listed out of order. Use your notes to rewrite the layers in order with a one sentence description for each layer.” The comments are constructive and specific about what he needs to do to improve his learning. This example focuses on critical aspects of a student’s learning: “You correctly completed the first three steps of each of the quadratic equations. The remaining steps of each problem are incorrect. Use your notebook to review the steps of a quadratic equation. Then review and correct each problem.” These written comments take a little more time and thought, but can be useful tools for students. They specify where the student is in his learning and how to improve. Additionally, the feedback is even more meaningful when teachers provide students with class time to apply the suggestions for improvement (Black et al., 2004). They read the feedback and then you’re right there to support them as they put it into action.

The time you invest in writing comments will pay off for you and your students. As the teacher, you look at students’ work differently when providing written feedback. You examine their work for specifics of what they know or need to know and then briefly explain how to improve. You have a clearer picture of your students’ content knowledge and skills. The data help you plan instruction and activities more effectively. For students, they need more than grades or teacher corrections on their assignments. They need to know how they are doing relative to the curriculum and your expectations. Written comments provide this feedback. By sharing with students what they did well, what they need to do to improve and how to improve, you emphasize their responsibility in the process of learning. The specificity of your comments encourages students to be reflective about their role as a learner in your class and gives them guidance for their next steps in the process of learning. Everyone wins with written feedback!

Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 9-21.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan. 80(2), 139-147.

Shepherd, L. A. (2005). Linking formative assessment to scaffolding. Educational Leadership, 63(3), 66-70.

Shepherd, L. A. (2009). Commentary: Evaluating the validity of formative assessment and interim assessment. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 28(3), 32-37.

Tuttle, H. G. (2009). Formative assessment: Responding to your students. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education, Inc.

Wiliam, D. (2007). Five “key strategies” for effective formative assessment [Electronic Version]. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Research Brief. Retrieved February 17, 2010.



booksT/TAC Library