Is there the perfect amount of feedback to give a student? Probably not. Is this because “more feedback is better” in which case there does not exist a finite amount of feedback that is best? I do not think so. If anything, I often think that less can be more in regards to feedback. I am not saying this to try and convince myself that I don’t need to write as much feedback. We should, however, keep in mind logistical constraints. We do not have the time and willpower to give all of the feedback we would like to every student.
I would like to propose a philosophy for feedback that I just discussed with my colleague, Anne. The amount of feedback to give an assignment is directly related to the quality of the assignment. For the purpose of this philosophy, I am considering an assignment to be sufficiently complex to merit such feedback, for example an essay. Let me elaborate, a student who receives one line of feedback on an assignment did worse than a student who receives a paragraph. This having been said, the student who receives less feedback is being given bigger picture feedback, e.g. “There is no thesis in this paper.” In comparison, a student who receives more feedback is being given more fine grained feedback, e.g. “The second point in paragraph three is not as well developed as it could be.”
A goal in giving feedback would be to give an amount of information to the student to learn and improve their work without overwhelming them. I want my students to be receptive to the feedback I give. This means that the critiques need to be manageable and often I need to offer suggestions of how the student can improve their understanding. Last year, I was assisting a number of different students in their abstract algebra and analysis proofs. Students from both classes were struggling with developing proofs for general properties, i.e. a cyclic group is abelian or a closed and bounded set is compact. Their attempts at proofs were riddled with errors of all sorts with little to no substance. The feedback I gave them was to play with more examples. That was it. I did not critique their proof structure, logical reasoning, grammar, or anything else. The students were not ready to work on those ideas yet and I did not want to discourage them with an avalanche of things they needed to work on.
Last year I inadvertently used this system in my own class. I was teaching multivariable calculus, an upper division course in my department. As part of my course I had assigned regular paper assignments focused on big picture reflection of the material. One particular paper I received stands out in my mind. It stood above every other paper I had received that term which became clear about halfway through reading the paper. I shifted my mentality on reviewing the paper from providing feedback to editing. After I finished, I looked over the paper, aghast. There were more red marks on this paper than the rest of the class combined. I couldn’t give this back to the student, she would be devastated. To ensure that didn’t happen I wrote up a cover sheet for her paper where I explained that the reason her paper was covered in red was because it was beyond the realm of big feedback. The paper did not require any major work, in which case we could focus on the small things (and there are always a ton of small things). I also talked with her before the following class to make sure that she understood. She did. I intend to make a policy in my writing course this year that more feedback means a better paper.
Where does this leave us? The proper amount of feedback varies based not only on the student but the individual assignment? That is the idea. How does this fit in our limited time as educators? Most students will only need one or two comments on their work. Make sure you focus on one or two big things that the student could work on. Less often will more feedback be necessary. How do I decide how much feedback to give to particular work, then? Think about the student and what they will perceive is within their grasp. Remember, the goal is for them to learn and often this is done through revision. Don’t give so much feedback that they don’t revise.
A few last thoughts on feedback:
- Grades distract from feedback. Try to separate grades from feedback as much as you can.
- Feedback should be focused on the work and not the student. “There is no thesis in this paper” vs “You did not include a thesis in your paper.”
- Feedback should focus on how the work would be improved and not whether the work is good or not.
- Feedback should be given when there is opportunity to improve. My colleague, Sunil, emphasizes to his students that his exams are not a single chance, but a process to show mastery and develop. He allows his students to come to his office after exams to review and revise their exams. The feedback he gives on the first attempt is appropriate since there is an obvious and emphasized developmental learning process.