Giving Feedback to Students

Feedback as a practice of mediation

When we sit down to give students feedback, we're at the intersection of a teaching process and a learning process: on the one hand, instructors have designed assignments, and they’ve planned and delivered lectures and sections; on the other hand, students have attended lectures and sections, and they’ve completed assignments. Feedback is the process that mediates these two moments by a) assessing how much was learned through the teaching (using students' work as evidence) and b) communicating that assessment (using evidence-based comments).

Common Feedback Scenarios and Advice on How to Approach Them

The landing page for Course Heads starts with an overview of the most common scenarios facing professors who are thinking about how writing assignments might figure in their course. In descending order of familiarity with the assignment they have in mind, the professor is:

  1. Pretty familiar = more or less working with the same kinds of assignments they'd use in a departmental course
  2. Less familiar = considering different kinds of writing assignments than ones they've tended to use or considering less writing-centered projects, or 
  3. Not really familiar = overall not used to teaching with writing.

When it comes to giving students feedback on writing assignments, the scenarios facing TFs & TAs correspond to common types of questions that members of the teaching team might ask themselves: 

  1. Ok, I'm pretty familiar with giving feedback on assignments like this, but I have questions about how to work with this particular assignment in Gen Ed, e.g,, How does feedback on this assignment work in Gen Ed versus a sophomore tutorial? 
  2. I've worked with plenty of writing assignments, both in and out of Gen Ed, but I'm less familiar with giving feedback on this kind of assignment, e.g., How do I give feedback on a portfolio or infographic or group work in general? 
  3. Most of my teaching has been in courses that have p-sets and exams, so I'm just not really familiar with giving feedback on writing in general, e.g., What's the best way to get started?  
For each of these scenarios, here's some concrete advice and tools for making feedback in your course more effective:

1. However familiar you are with a kind of assignment, always start with the prompt + rubric

If giving feedback on a particular assignment feels challenging, step back and look at what the prompt is asking students to do and what criteria in the rubric can help you comment on each student's writing. If there isn't a rubric, or if the prompt raises questions instead of answers, try using the assignment decoder exercise for TFs & TAs to clarify the prompt and/or create a rubric with criteria. In fact, it's never a bad idea to take this step before reading a batch of papers, even if the assignment at hand is mostly familiar: Being familiar with certain kinds of assignments is of course an asset when you sit down to read a pile of essays, but familiarity can also lead to "naturalizing" the rubric you're using, which can render it more unconscious and lead to an "I know it when I see it" approach to grading. "Decoding" the prompt and sketching out a rubric (ideally, of course, there's already a rubric that's been shared with students, but that's another story!) will make your commenting more self-aware and consistent from student to student and section to section. 

2. When you're teaching less familiar assignments, remember that all assignments share many of the same elements

Regardless of the genre or modality, deciding how to give feedback on an assignment is a matter of identifying what students are being asked to do and knowing what counts as doing it well. From that perspective, the best place to start (as with #1 here above) is with the prompt + rubric, whether that means meeting with your teaching team to look at some sample submissions of student work and norm feedback across the course (before returning feedback to your students) or doing the assignment decoder exercise for TFs & TAs on your own before sitting down with your students' submissions.

In many cases, the biggest question for instructors in this scenario is about the modality, e.g., a website or museum curation, and a few of the most common strategies for approaching this are: 

  1. Making sure the rubric includes the modality-specific features and criteria you'll be using for feedback on the assignment. For most Gen Ed assignments, mastery of the modality isn't a primary (or secondary) learning objective. Instead, the modality is being used as a way to apply other skills, such as awareness of audience, or putting kinds of evidence into dialogue, or synthesizing concepts from the course into a proposed solution to a real-world problem. Those are things that you can evaluate, and a useful way of doing so is with an "artist statement."
  2. Using artist statements to allow students to articulate the goals they had for working in the modality at hand. By including elements of the rubric into the "questions to answer" for the artist statement itself, you can give students the chance to engage in metacognitive reflection on their own work and get a clearer sense of how the process they engaged in—apart from the product—did or did not produce evidence of how well they met the objectives and goals of the assignment. In that sense, an artist statement is a cover letter that asks students to evaluate their own learning using elements of the same rubric you'll be using to give your own feedback. For more on using artist statements to respond to student work, see the Bok Center's advice on "Responding to Creative Assignments." 

3. Familiarize yourself with the basics of giving effective written feedback

Each of the topics in this section on giving feedback, from Creating an Environment for Feedback to Grading, is covered in greater depth at its own individual page. For a comprehensive self-guided module on giving students written feedback, you can register for "Responding to Student Writing" at the Bok Center's Hit the Ground Running Canvas site.