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    Giving Student Feedback: 7 Best Practices for Success

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    Giving Student Feedback: 7 Best Practices for Success

    Part of being an educator is having the skills to make hard concepts easier to understand, and the ability to make any student feel accomplished no matter how much they're struggling. It's all part of giving student feedback. 

    Proper feedback should enable and inspire. It should make someone feel good about where they are, and get them excited about where they can go.

    These strategies for helping you with giving student feedback could be things that you already practice with your students. If so, then they're merely listed here as refreshers and possibly new takes on old ideas.

    That said, you may also discover a tip here that you can use in your own one-on-one feedback conversations with students. If so, all the better.

    7 Keys to Giving Student Feedback

    1. Make the student feel safe

    Our students want us to know that they need to feel protected and supported in their learning environments. They want to do well and to succeed, and sometimes you'll find a student being overly hard on themselves when they make mistakes or didn't do something as well as they'd hoped.

    Whatever the reasons for this may be, you're in the perfect position to provide comfort and solid reassurance that your classroom is not a place of judgment, but one of empowerment.

    The student may need to know that they aren’t in trouble, and may need guidance in realizing that mistakes are opportunities in disguise. This is the perfect time to promote the concept of useful failure among students.

    When giving student feedback, let them know you’re working on this together, and that you’re there until you both figure it out or get it right.

    2. Stress teamwork

    When giving student feedback, let them know you’re working on this together, and that you’re there until you both figure it out or get it right.

    Sometimes all it takes is for someone to realize they're not alone in order to find a renewed interest in taking up the next step of the challenge. In the words of Helen Keller, "Alone we can do so little, but together we can do so much."

    It's more common than we think. When we believe we didn't do well, especially when everyone around us seems to be excelling, then alone is exactly how we feel.

    As an educator, you're always there for your students at the best times and for the best reasons. Remain available and connected, and your students can draw strength from that.

    3. Use proactive language

    When giving student feedback, be constructive and encouraging. Always speak from a standpoint of exploring what's possible. This isn't to say we should ignore what went wrong—quite the opposite, in fact. It's simply a matter of rethinking how we talk to a student about what needs to be improved. This ties in with the next point, which is also about the language we use in giving student feedback.

    4. Avoid using these 3 words

    This topic is actually a bone of contention for many, so I merely share it here with you to keep the conversation on giving student feedback proactive. I've found that diligently avoiding these 3 words has allowed me personally to keep giving the most responsive and constructive feedback possible.

    So here's what's worked for me ...

    1. Avoid the word "should." Saying should or should have can have a psychological effect on the listener that’s similar to how they would feel if they were being punished. On a subconscious level, it can be mistaken for a comparison to some imaginary standard (presumably set by someone better than we are), although we may have the best of intentions regarding its usage.

    The minute a student begins feeling inferior or not good enough, we’ve lost them for good.

    I've found the word "should" to be limiting and deconstructive in so many ways. If you can find a positive way to incorporate it, then by all means, do so. But I think it will surprise you just how easy it is not to use it at all.

    2. If possible, also try to avoid the words "but" and "however." This is tricky. They seem harmless enough, but here's an interesting fact: they often tend to cancel out what comes before them in a conversation, and it's so subtle an effect that we don't even know it's happened.

    The truth is, it wouldn’t matter how positive or constructive what we’ve said is—the person we are speaking to can ultimately forget all of it right after we slip either one of these into the conversation. It sounds far-fetched, but it's actually been experienced by most of us without our even realizing it. It comes in the form of statements like this:

    "I really like what you did here, but ..."

    "This seems to be a really solid piece of work. However ..."

    An example of turning this around might sound something like this:

    "I really like what you did here, and I think you're on the right track. Why not try adding/continuing with/trying this as well?"

    Once again, I'd like to reiterate that consciously omitting these three words from feedback has worked well for me personally, and I expect many may not agree that it's a plausible strategy. If you like, I'd urge you to consider just experimenting to see if it makes a difference with your students.

    I can only say that staying away from these words has worked wonders for how positively people are affected by my feedback. I haven't used them in my conversations in years, and I sure don't miss them. Neither does anyone else.

    When giving student feedback, be constructive and encouraging. Always speak from a standpoint of exploring what's possible.

    5. Ask guiding questions

    When students believe you're expecting a specific or "correct" answer, they can be very slow or hesitant to respond. Let them know that the focus is on them and that the student feedback is meant to be exploratory.

    These kinds of questions are great when you want to encourage problem-solving and brainstorming, and engage higher-level thinking awareness. By asking guiding questions, you can learn more about where the student may be stuck or what they're interested in discovering in order to move forward.

    Guiding questions such as "What do you think?" or "What's another way we can approach this?" invite reflection and engagement, and a chance for students to develop crucial independent thinking skills.

    As the discussion rolls along, you can shift your perception into high gear. Look for nonverbal cues like nodding, frowning, fidgeting, or looking either down or someplace else in the room, all of which are indicators of the effects your questions are having.

    6. Use visuals

    We are inherently visual learners, and images always have power in learning. This is especially true with our digital learners because of the pervasive visual media they are constantly immersed in.

    A study published on Changing Minds indicates just how much we remember when visuals are added to our learning experiences. Additionally, 3M indicates that employing visuals can increase comprehension by nearly 400%. If a student is struggling with understanding your feedback, it's a perfect opportunity to use diagrams, images, or quick sketches that relate to what you're discussing.

    7. Check for understanding

    When all is said and done, the student is feeling much better about what they've done up to this point, and they are inspired to dive in again and make their project/assignment even better. With this in mind, it's a great time to check that the student fully understands what you've discussed and ask if there is anything else that needs clarification.

    Asking these kinds of questions before the work resumes can be very helpful in hitting the mark with student feedback:

    • Does this all make sense to you?
    • Do you have any other questions or anything to add?
    • Are you seeing some new possibilities for how you can move forward?

    As you continue to inspire your students with positive and empowering feedback, look towards developing your own unique approaches to add to your personal teaching toolbox. Happy learning!

    Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.

    Originally published Jul 21, 2016, updated September 23, 2021

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