As we make our way into and through summer courses, students are handing in their first assignments. For an instructor, this can be a daunting time. We subconsciously realize that the marks we put on a physical or digital paper stake out the relationship we have with a student for the rest of the course. So what kind of feedback helps students the most in courses? It may not be the kind of feedback you as an instructor got from your instructors in college. The keys that come up over and over again in the research can be summed up in three words: specific, timely, and personal.

  1. Feedback should be specific. We may be used to comments on papers or assignments that were given to us as students: “unpack”, “expand”, “this doesn’t seem quite right”, and so on. But these turn out to be less helpful to students. Far more helpful is to give them feedback that is specific, with direction about how to improve. For instance, instead of highlighting an underdeveloped thought and saying “expand”, try to explain what more you were looking for. You might write something like this instead: “I was hoping that you would write more about aspect X here. Your audience will be familiar with that aspect of this practice and will wonder if you know what you’re talking about if you leave it out. If you need more information, check out section X in the text or this reference from our course resources: [resource].”
  2. Feedback should be timely. It is a lot of work to get through 20 papers. But we know from research on teaching and learning that the longer we wait after a student has submitted something, the less our feedback makes a difference in future performance. In the worst case scenario, a student might not be prepared for a future assignment that involves feedback from the previous assignment. Instructors are not machines, but the sooner feedback happens (though immediate feedback on longer papers probably isn’t a great idea), the more students connect your feedback with the loose synapses that were firing when they wrote or presented their work.
  3. Feedback should be personal. One of the rougher lessons of teaching can be when two students discover you gave the same comments on both of their work. That’s unavoidable sometimes, but addressing students by name and connecting to individual details you might know about them has a big effect. Even bigger: expressing confidence that you know they can make the improvements you suggest. A little of that can go a long way in motivating them — particularly when they need to bridge a large gap between their work and your expectations.

And I know you’re wondering: doesn’t this all make giving feedback even more difficult as an instructor? It sounds like an awful lot of work, right? Oddly, though, the research has your back. The more feedback you give on a student’s work, the less they actually will be inclined to incorporate it and use it. Best feedback practices suggest that doing between 3-5 pieces of specific, timely, personal feedback generate greater student learning than 10 or more such pieces of feedback that isn’t specific, timely, or personal. But even better, it also suggests that there is such a thing as too much feedback even when it is specific, timely, and personal. So aim for between 3 and 5 of the biggest improvements or compliments you can give. It will be easier on you and your students.

For more on this topic:

(And as a bonus tip, it turns out that correcting all of a student’s grammar, spelling, or usage mistakes also fits this pattern. The more you correct, the less they are likely to remedy those mistakes. But if you stick to 3-5 main patterns of mistakes, they do more to correct those mistakes in the future.)