Teachers know how important feedback is. We know that to help students correct misconceptions, improve skills, and remain motivated, we have to give the right feedback at the right time. But the term “feedback” encompasses a number of different types of responses to students. From an encouraging statement to a deep-dive response on a student’s essay, feedback comes in all shapes and sizes.
But not all feedback is the same. Some types are more effective than others and some are more important than others. All different types of feedback have a role in the classroom, but teachers need to be informed on how to best respond to students.
Feedback Requires Two Sides
The reality for many teachers is that feedback can be a frustrating process. I recall teaching language arts at the high school level. I would spend hours grading papers, intentionally working to give good, quality feedback to students about their thoughts and ideas. As I passed backed the papers filled with my astute comments, the students would typically glance at the final grade and put the paper away. My feedback, although possibly helpful to the students, fell on deaf ears.
Which gets to one of the main realities of feedback: it requires both a giver and a receiver. This important detail can’t be lost in the process. As a teacher, I was focused on myself and giving the feedback, but lost sight of the student who was (supposed to be) receiving the feedback.
Here is a review of different approaches to giving feedback to students with a note of caution for when not to use that type of feedback:
Affirmations: This is probably the most frequent type of oral feedback found in a classroom. An affirmation is simply a teacher acknowledging that a student responded well or correctly. This type of feedback works well when a teacher is looking for specific answers to questions. For example, “When did the Civil War begin?” The teacher will affirm a correct answer or incorrect answer.
Beware: Too often, teachers use affirmations for more open-ended questions. When asking a question that requires critical thinking or could have more than one correct answer, a teacher needs to caution against affirming too quickly. If the first answer is the right one for the other students, they might disengage and quit thinking about the topic. A good solution to this is feedback through questions.
Feedback through questions: This might also be referred to as Socratic questioning. It is in itself a form of feedback to the students, but not in a traditional sense. When critical thinking is desired and teachers want students to push the limits of their thinking, providing questions as feedback does not affirm one answer over another. Socratic questioning takes some training and isn’t appropriate in all contexts, but it can be an effective tool in any classroom.
Beware: The tricky part with this type of feedback is that sometimes students are just plain wrong in their thinking. Teachers can correct misconceptions through questioning, but that can be time-consuming and laborious.
Correcting misconceptions: This type of feedback can be really hard for teachers. We hate to tell students they are wrong and know how discouraging it can be to hear that. It is an important kind of feedback though, in that students can maintain incorrect thinking or skills in certain areas, which can lead to a lack of success down the road.
Beware: Some students, especially those who have a negative attitude toward school, do not respond well to this kind of feedback. As much as possible, teachers should try to correct misconceptions in private with students to maintain a culture of safety and dignity. It is not always possible, but this can be a good goal for teachers. It is also important to create a classroom that is full of encouraging statements and the language of a growth mindset.
Encouragement/motivation: When a student struggles, disengages from school, or has a history of getting answers incorrect, there is a time and a place for encouraging comments from the teacher. Feedback can be verbal praise, stickers on a worksheet, or a special prize or reward for hard work.
Beware: This kind of feedback, although important, does not take the place of quality feedback in the form of specific, timely details about learning. Too often, teachers think that being encouraging is giving feedback when it is not.
These are the most general types of feedback that teachers use during the school day, but they are not necessarily the best choice when it comes to helping students move forward on the learning continuum. Look out for the second part of our feedback series next week, when we will discuss best practices supported by research. Subscribe to the Educator blog to make sure you don’t miss it!