Better feedback makes us . . . better

There’s no question that higher quality feedback is a key component to giving more students that “light bulb” moment, where their understanding of key concepts and their ability to demonstrate new skills clicks in their minds. Being a part of that process is one of my favorite things about being an educator.


White House honoree Ben Hernandez says, “… there is no teaching without learning.”

As a young man, I loved that concept. If there is no learning going on, then there’s no teaching going on either.

As a student I’d sat through many lectures where there was plenty of speaking, but according to Hernandez’s definition, very little teaching.

Sir Ken Robinson talks about this same idea in his wildly popular 2013 TED talk, How to Escape Education’s Death Valley. He echoes Hernandez, saying,

“Teaching, properly conceived, is not a delivery system. You know, you’re not there just to pass on received information. Great teachers do that, but what great teachers also do is mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage. You see, in the end, education is about learning. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on.”

So, why don’t more teachers adopt a collaborative and interactive approach to teaching?

Well, for one it’s difficult. It requires time that often simply isn’t there.

The constraints on educators often results in only summative feedback. “Quite often this situation results in feedback being more judgmental than constructive (Ching, 2014).”

A response to this is to use technology to deliver or support the giving of feedback. For example, quiz tools might include prompts with information about student’s correct or incorrect responses. Once set up, technology solutions provide feedback automatically without additional teacher input.

The downside of this is that feedback is not individual.

Automated feedback is often still a one-way street focused on content delivery rather than a dialogue. There is a view that en masse education (often supported by tech tools) “squeezes out the dialogue with the result that … a monologue is having to carry much of the burden of teacher-student interaction (Evans, 2013).

Despite the necessities that currently drive the monologue approach, it appears likely that educators will likely be forced to evolve. As one author quipped, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world which no longer exists (Askew, 2000).”

Ironically, as more technology adorns the classroom, the seeming disconnectedness of education technology is at odds with demand for more interaction and connectedness. In fact, rather than replace instructors, technology that enhances and enables the relationship between students and teachers serves best. The quality of the student-teacher relationship has great influence on how much impact the feedback and interaction lead to learning (Askew, 2000).

Technology that facilitates relationships rather than basking in its own virtuosity is what has the greatest educational impact. Students themselves prize feedback given human-to-human, a personal communication rather than simply an electronic response to stimuli (García-Yeste, 2013). Even in purely online courses, feedback was seen as essential for building connections between instructors and students. When technology limits feedback to only text-based comments, nonverbal cues that help in building relationships may be absent (Leibold & Schwartz, 2015).

The relationship lies at the root of the effectiveness of formative feedback. There is dialogue and a two-way conversation between human beings. When students also participate by giving feedback in return to instructors, student confidence grows(Jones, Blankenship, 2014), and the relationship between learning and teaching is seen in a more dynamic light as opposed to a one-way transmission of knowledge(Askew, 2000).

In Teaching With the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen explains,

“Feedback must be corrective and positive enough to tell the student what the desired change must be. I also must be timely. For most students, “timely” means immediately following the learning or testing, but for students with high reactivity or with chronic anxiety and stress, it’s often preferable to provide additional time between the learning event and the feedback on their performance. The element of choice is also key. When learners can choose the type and timing of the feedback, they are more likely to internalize and act on that feedback and improve their subsequent performance.

“Students tend to make more mistakes in the early stages of any new learning. Prompt feedback at this time is essential to prevent them from getting too far off course. As students’ experience deepens, their error rate drops, and feedback can be more measured, infrequent, and deliberate.

“What doesn’t make sense is constant one-way learning. Our brain is designed to learn from mistakes. We need to give it a chance to do just that! (Jensen, 2005)”

Mistakes equal opportunities for formative feedback.

Strategy 1: Keep the relationship with students in mind. The stronger the relationship, the more receptive students will be to feedback.

Strategy 2: Look to provide feedback around interactions with students and adapt to student-reported insights. Avoid one-way feedback.

Strategy 3: Provide feedback timely and in keeping with where students are in their learning—promptly during early stages, and more measured and deliberate during later stages.


In addition to the benefits of feedback in various types of learning, there is substantial research on how feedback is perceived. This helps to inform the discussion around buy-in from those receiving the feedback and how likely educators are to use a particular method of feedback. I should acknowledge that there is more research to do in this category before we know definitively and comprehensively how feedback is perceived (García-Yeste, 2013). But the anecdotal evidence helps to orient the conversation around what is reasonable.

Frustrations around feedback exist for both students and teachers. Students complain that feedback is unclear, unhelpful, or not delivered timely. Teachers mostly focus on whether or not students act on the feedback they are given (Evans, 2013).

That doesn’t mean that students don’t want feedback, however. One study showed 95% of students use feedback to improve on the work they do after receiving feedback(García-Yeste, 2013), and 95.4% believed that the quality of their assignments improved directly because of instructor feedback (Jones, Blankenship, 2014).

Not only does feedback improve students’ work, but they like it. Feedback is highly valued by students who perceive it as a sign of how much instructors care about their efforts and whether their grades are justified (García-Yeste, 2013).

Rather than reluctance, students value feedback intended to improve their learning and are open to many types of feedback, including self-assessment, group-to-group feedback, electronic feedback and peer feedback, and appreciate timely and detailed input around the strengths and weaknesses of their work (García-Yeste, 2013).

They prefer a variety of feedback methods to a single method, especially if that method is impersonal. Along those lines, many forms of technology-enabled feedback are inherently impersonal, such as feedback that a quiz question was answered incorrectly. Even if an explanatory note is given and the feedback is more formative, students prefer feedback that is personal and individual from the instructor (García-Yeste, 2013).

What students don’t like is negative feedback delivered publicly. Later we’ll discuss how feedback can be threatening and an attack on a student’s self-esteem. Over half of students in one study indicated that they preferred feedback to be given face-to-face in private (García-Yeste, 2013). One reason for this preference again ties into the relationship between instructor and learner. Students get value from the relationship and their receptivity to feedback and learning as a result of those interactions is enhanced. Some learning technologies, especially those suited to online classes, have privacy built in since student-instructor interactions are between logged in accounts and not in front of a group.

Strategy 4: Remember that students generally like and appreciate feedback. Keep it fresh with a variety of feedback methods.

Strategy 5: Seek opportunities to give feedback face to face.

Strategy 6: Deliver negative feedback in private.

Want to learn even more about feedback? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Feedback for Educators.

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