Elements of Effective Feedback

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Unit 5: Elements of Effective Feedback

Elements of Effective Feedback

In this spirit of engagement, we have identified four elements of effective feedback that can be used when giving your students feedback on assignments. The first two elements are inspired by Peter Elbow's work and are a part of exercising your “believing muscle.” The other two are developed from “what works” in coaching. They are as follows:

  • Pointing
  • Summarizing
  • Posing one question for your learner to consider
  • Offering one or two things for improvement

Each are described fully by Peter Elbow in his book called Writing Without Teachers, a book we highly recommend.


Elements of Effective Feedback: 1. Pointing

Peter Elbow writes: “Start by simply pointing to the words and phrases which most successfully penetrated your skull … somehow they rang true, or they carried special conviction. Also point to any words or phrases, which strike you as particularly weak or empty. Somehow they ring false, hollow, plastic. They bounce ineffectually off your skull.” If you approach the work of your students as a reader, a fellow learner who found value in what they have written, your students will begin to see themselves as more than just students who answer questions – they will begin to see themselves as contributors and their sense of engagement and ownership will increase. They will also become more receptive to your constructive criticism.


“As a reader giving your reactions, keep in mind that you are not answering a timeless, theoretical question about the objective qualities of those words on that page. You are answering a time-bound, subjective but factual question: What happened to you when you read the words this time?” Take the time to share with your student the impact that her work had on you as a human being. Don’t always focus just on whether the answer is correct or not.


Elements of Effective Feedback:  2. Summarizing

Tell your students “very quickly what you found to be the main points, main feelings, or centers of gravity [in their writing] … Summarize into a single sentence; then choose one word … Do this informally. Don't plan or think too much about it. The point is to show the writer what things he made stand out most in your head.” When you take the time to summarize the work of your students, you show them that you have read it carefully and that you have a strong grasp of their assignment. This, in turn, shows them that they are not just answering questions, but are given an opportunity to engage in a process of discussing and critiquing key concepts in the curriculum. When you summarize their work, you say to your students: “I took the time to consider carefully your work and point of view” – that alone can have a powerful impact on a young person who’s engaging with a complex topic.


How Not to Give Feedback

In your feedback, do not use words like “good”, “great”, “nice” or “bad.” They are words that do not help a person improve. For example, let's say you wrote a short story and then you gave your short story to a friend or a colleague to read. If that person said, “Hey, that story you gave to me to read was really good,” you might perk up and feel happy about the compliment, but it does not help you improve as a writer. It does not even help you understand what made this story “good.” It doesn’t even explain what “good” really means. In other words, the comment may make you feel very positive about your work, but it is not very constructive – it does not provide the guidance you might need to repeat your success in the future or to build upon this accomplishment.


Feedback that would be more helpful is as follows:

  • “I read the short story you sent to me. The part where you talked about training your dog made me laugh out loud: ‘When I commanded Spike to give me his paw, he just rolled over, yawned, and gave me his belly to rub.’”
  • “My mind started to wander when you started talking about the cows. I tuned out for a while and then I was listening again when you talked about crossing the river. At the description ‘tree branches and rocks swirled past me like a hurricane; the sky darkened to a coal-gray’ I could feel my heart starting to pound in my chest.”
  • An example of summarizing might be: “Home. The comfort of home - its foods, smells, the conversations. Home is like an anchor for your character; it keeps her from drifting off. That's what stays with me after reading your piece.”


The first three responses from above are more valuable to you than the “good”, “nice” or “bad” comments of ineffective feedback because you are receiving specific information about content, including how something in your story affected that particular reader at that particular time. As the writer, you can then choose to re-write or keep those sections the reader pointed to. That's up to you as the writer. You listen to the feedback and then you have control over what you change or don't change.


Elements Effective Feedback: 3. A Question for the Student to Ponder

Tell your student what philosophical question her writing generates for you. What does the completed assignment make you wonder about on a larger level? (Here, we are not looking for rhetorical questions, rather questions that spark your curiosity.) You might even start your question with the words “I wonder …”).


An example might be: “After reading the line in your story, ‘He never strayed too far from home,’ I wondered if the character was helped or hurt by staying so close to home his whole life. What do you think?” This questions shows the student that you read her work carefully and that you took the time to think critically and constructively about her work. It also provides a wonderful opportunity to engage the student in thinking about her own work.


Elements of Effective Feedback: 4. Offering One or Two Things for Improvement

The reason we say to give your student one or two things to consider – and not a longer, more exhaustive list of suggestions – is this: If you highlight one thing for improvement, the student can take that one thing, remember it, and incorporate it into her work in the future. In our experience, highlighting three, four, or more things to improve upon can get overwhelming.


If there are more than one or two things that you think need improvement in content, keep a written record for yourself of those things that need work and, as future assignments come in, check to see if those issues come up again. Chances are that the issue will come up again and you'll have an opportunity to address it at that time. Also, you'll see that the one or two issues you highlighted for improvement previously have been taken care of. Highlighting one or two issues keeps things manageable for the student.


For example, if your student stays general in her descriptions when answering a question, your one idea for improvement might be: “When you talk about your classroom, give me a specific example to support your idea – to make your thought come alive for me.” You might also point to a specific part of the writing and say “You wrote in your assignment, ‘The children seemed curious.’ What did that look like, feel like, sound like, taste like, smell like? Filter your description through the five senses.”


Pointing to things that are effective in your students’ completed assignments is another way to guide them to apply the same technique in other parts of their work. For example, you could say: “When you wrote that ‘Najib's hands were shaking and his voice cracked when he read his paper to the class,’ I felt like I was right there with you. You should use this same kind of descriptive writing – filtering through the senses – in the passage ‘the children seemed curious.’”




Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource. fred. (2008, June 13). Education for the New Millennium. Retrieved May 04, 2010, from TWB Courseware Web site. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. http://i.creativecommons.org/l/by/3.0/88x31.png
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