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When we return work to our students, we hope that they will study our feedback carefully and strive to improve their writing on the next assignment. Indeed, there are times when faculty may observe a student receiving a paper, looking for the grade, and then throwing the paper (with all its feedback) in the trash. Sometimes the students may not have thrown the paper out, but it seems to us that they might as well have done so: many faculty read a second or third round of papers that seem to lack even a trace of evidence that we had given feedback on the first paper at all.

In giving feedback on student work—whether an essay, an oral presentation, a multimedia project, or another assignment—we may give too much of it, focusing on minor details and major issues in ways that make it difficult for students to distinguish the two categories of feedback. Such feedback is problematic by virtue of its quantity.

Feedback may also be overwhelming by virtue of its quality: when we ask students to rewrite a paragraph or an entire essay because we deem it vague or unorganized, they may feel overwhelmed because they don’t understand how to act on such instructions. They often (although not always) didn’t think their argument was vague or unorganized when they wrote it, and without further clarification, they won’t understand our feedback. Such feedback is problematic by virtue of its quality.

If we begin with the premise that the purpose of any assignment is for students to practice and thereby improve a certain skill or set of skills—for example, writing a persuasive argument in formal register—then for students to make progress in this effort they need to have multiple opportunities to practice with assignments with identical or similar learning goals, even if the content of the assignment shifts with the material being discussed in the course of the semester.

Assigning students analogous assignments in a single course extends to them the opportunity to improve their skills if we give them actionable feedback that is appropriate in both quality and quantity and if we incentivize students, through the grading structure or some other means, to use that feedback.

I have found that a more focused approach to feedback on student work, constituting actionable feedback and a grading structure that incentivizes student use of such feedback, leads to substantive improvement in learning outcomes as well as student satisfaction with the learning experience. This approach draws on suggestions made by pedagogy scholars, especially in the field of composition and rhetoric, in a variety of professional development contexts.

Here I provide five suggestions for making feedback more actionable to students to guide them to greater progress in their learning.

  1. Set appropriate learning goals. Before developing any series of related assignments, I select the learning goals I want students to demonstrate in completing them, choosing, for example, from the essential learning outcomes of the AAC&U’s liberal education program. In the case of a written persuasive argument in formal register, I consider the relevant VALUE rubric in developing my own rubric for the assignments, which in this case could include points for a clearly stated thesis and a coherent argument supported by evidence from the text(s), among other criteria.
  2. Read each paper for macro-level learning goals. In reviewing a student’s paper, I read the paper through at least once before beginning the process of giving feedback. After the preliminary reading, I reflect on what will constitute the two categories of feedback I will provide. The first and most important category will consist of two to three macro-level learning goals for improvement—goals that always relate to one or more categories in the assignment’s rubric. The second, less important category would be any other comments, some of which might relate to a single instance of a writing problem in the essay (e.g., a dangling modifier). In writing my feedback, I explicitly identify the individualized learning goals (of the first category) for the given student on that paper.
  3. Design progress-focused rubrics. The rubric for the second and all subsequent essays in the course has some points dedicated to progress in these individually assigned learning goals. In my grade book, I record not only the points earned on the rubric but also the two to three individually assigned learning goals for each student. When the students submit their next paper, I require them to submit a paragraph or two of reflection describing how they worked to improve their paper in the areas of the individually assigned learning goals. This reflection is also allocated some points in the rubric for the second and subsequent essays.
  4. Incentivize students to take up your feedback and make progress. Students who do not attend to their individually assigned learning goals lose the opportunity to earn progress and self-reflection points, but more importantly, they lose the chance to learn from focused practice. In my experience, students who attend to their learning goals in the feedback and make the effort have greater success in acquiring the skills they practiced in the assignment as well as in their grade for the assignment, all by virtue of having focused their attention on what I have designated as their most important learning goals at this stage in their development. I typically see significant improvement in student work, as demonstrated in the grades the students earn on their assignments, and students report high levels of satisfaction with this approach to their learning experience. Student stress levels seem to lower when they know that they can earn a good grade without submitting an absolutely flawless paper or project. I see that students take the opportunity to attend to the feedback on their work precisely because it is actionable and they believe that they can achieve progress by focusing on just two or three explicitly identified learning goals.
  5. Focus your feedback on the macro-level learning goals. As a faculty member with a doctoral degree in the humanities who has been publishing scholarly articles and book chapters for more than three decades, I have never received a manuscript back from the editor without copyedits: I surely cannot expect better writing—or even flawless writing—from my undergraduate students. Therefore, it is far less burdensome for me as an instructor to focus my attention and my students’ on two to three goals per assignment, rather than two dozen goals. It is liberating for me to realize that I do not have to “fix” every student’s mistakes in every assignment, because they too will have decades to improve as writers and thinkers and public speakers. My more meaningful contribution to their learning process is to help them identify what’s most important for them to improve as we work together in our shared learning community.

You can implement this approach by beginning with the backward development of your assignments, articulating the learning outcomes for each assignment, and ensuring that students have multiple opportunities to improve their skills related to the learning outcomes. Then develop your rubric for the assignments, with one version of the rubric for the first assignment of its type and a second rubric for the second and all subsequent assignments of the same type. The rubric for the second and all subsequent assignments of the same type should include points for improvement in the individualized learning goals (to recognize and reward student progress) as well as points for self-reflection (so students grow their metacognitive skills).

Once your rubrics and assignments are ready, review student work with an eye toward the two or three most important learning goals for each student and identify those goals explicitly in your comments as well as in your grade book. Refer to those records when grading subsequent student work, and praise students for their efforts to attend to the issues you raised. Doing so recognizes students’ agency in their learning process and demonstrates to them that you are a reliable guide for their learning. You may well find, as I have, that this approach engages students more deeply in the learning process than merely posting a grade on their work with feedback they don’t understand or feedback they find overwhelming. At the very least, since I implemented this approach, I haven’t seen a single student throw their papers in the trash.

Benjamin Rifkin, PhD, is a professor of Russian and the dean of the Maxwell Becton College of Arts and Sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson University.