What Research Says About Giving Effective Feedback to Students

In this Inside SEL Research Brief, we explore the latest research on student feedback and analyze what it means for educators to give effective, meaningful feedback.


Topic Overview:

  • Feedback has long been recognized as a powerful means for promoting learning and growth in students. Recent research supports the notion that providing students with meaningful feedback can greatly enhance their learning and achievement.
  • Yet, not all forms of feedback are considered to be equally effective, and some feedback can even be counterproductive — especially if it is delivered in a solely negative or corrective way.
  • Several studies within the past decade have explored strategies for giving feedback in educational settings, resulting in a variety of research-backed tips for leveraging feedback to increase student’s motivation, performance, and self-esteem.

Key Insights:

  • The more personalized feedback is, the better it will be received. Specific, student-centered feedback should be: (1) delivered to students individually; (2) about their performance, and; (3) presented in a motivation-building way.
  • Our ability to provide meaningful, accurate feedback erodes as time elapses, and this hurts students. Numerous studies indicate that feedback is most effective when it is provided immediately versus a few days, weeks, or months down the line.
  • A review of 131 studies on feedback found that over a third of feedback interventions actually decreased student performance. Well-intentioned educators might be regularly providing comments to students that are actually decreasing their intrinsic motivation and discouraging them from learning.
  • Involving learners in the feedback process helps them to develop self-awareness while equipping them with the decision-making skills to better recognize mistakes and self-identify weak points to address.

Translating Research to Practice:

  • The latest research indicates that in order for feedback to be most effective, it needs to be:
    • Specific & Actionable Researchers suggest taking the time to provide learners with information on what exactly they did well as well as insight into what they did wrong or may still need to improve. Another study found that written comments on students’ work were far more effective (in terms of a positive impact on motivation and performance) when they were targeted, specific and supportive rather than generic (i.e., “Great job!”) or grade-based. Letting a student know that their performance has changed or that you’ve noticed they are doing something different can go a long way. Moreover, feedback should leave students with a sense in terms of what to do differently next time. Giving actionable feedback does not necessarily mean laying out a step-by-step list of instructions for an individual to follow; it is more about painting a picture for students in terms of how they can apply the feedback they have received in a future situation.
    • TimelyOne study found that participants who were given immediate feedback showed a significantly larger increase in performance than those who received delayed feedback. While it can be challenging to provide results on papers or standardized tests instantly, consider options such as introducing small-group peer review processes, in-class test corrections or paper writing workshops.
    • Goal-Referenced — A prerequisite for effective feedback is that an individual has a goal, takes action to achieve that goal, and receives feedback related to these actions within the context of this goal. Researchers largely agree that impactful feedback is most often oriented around a specific goal that students are (or should be) working toward. When giving feedback, it is best to be clear about how the information they are receiving will help them progress toward this goal.
    • Regular & Ongoing — Beyond performance results, educators need to be thinking beyond the traditional classroom model to give students regular feedback on their learning behavior and thought process. Practical constraints of having too many students and limited teacher resources means that this likely won’t be daily or weekly 1-on-1 time, but digital platforms and reflective practices may provide other options. Research on self- and peer-assessment suggests that giving students opportunities to assess their own learning results in greater academic gains and deeper reflection about the learning process.
  • In addition, educators should focus on delivering feedback that is:
    • Task-focused, self-referenced, with identifying next steps — Feedback should target specific features of students’ performance, refer back to their previous performance, and identify actionable next steps (to improve, adjust, or go beyond). Avoid comments such as: “you’re a natural writer!” or “you were born to be a scientist!” as these can be perceived by students as innate and unchangeable. To foster a growth mindset and encourage students to take risks to further their learning, feedback must be directed at a specific task versus the student’s ability or personal characteristics.
    • Not norm-referenced — Comparing students’ performance to that of their peers can be damaging, especially for middle-school students (due to their heightened sensitivity to the opinions of their classmates). Comments from a teacher about “the best lab report in the class” or a “really high class average” do not help students who didn’t perform well. Conversely, singling out a student with praise may set them up for ostracism and come across as rewarding performance versus the intrinsic benefits of learning.
    • Process-focused — Many assessments in the classroom are used to determine student proficiency instead of inspiring reflection about the learning process. Feedback that focuses on the learning process, however, shifts the emphasis from a one-way delivery model (e.g., the student ‘gets’ a grade) to a two-way channel. It challenges educators to diagnose the causes of student performance, bring students into the conversation, and collaboratively find ways to redirect or evolve the student’s thinking process.
Feedback do's and don'ts for deeper learning
Research shows ut the most important elements of feedback to enhance deeper learning. (Source: Actively Learn)


1 thought on “What Research Says About Giving Effective Feedback to Students

  1. Very nice post! Add some unconditional positive regard to mitigate our own dispositions as educators and this will be fantastic! https://notesfromnina.com/2020/03/01/the-power-of-positive-regard/


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