The Power of Specific, Non-Graded Feedback

We’ve all written comments on exams, but found that students don’t read and respond to them. By the time we are offering constructive advice on a summative assessment, its too late. Students are focused only on the grade, probably because their school experiences have trained them this way.  But as Alfie Kohn has written, grades are not motivating, they are demotivating.

Providing specific, non-graded feedback as formative assessment, on the other hand, is very effective.  We now understand that ongoing formative assessment is essential to student achievement, and using feedback is one of the most effective methods of informing students about their learning.  When students are able to make an attempt, receive specific advice from the teacher, and then be allowed to redo the work, the visible improvement is extremely motivating.

Feedback is essential if we are asking students to self-monitor and set goals. Stiggins wrote that students can hit any target they can see and that doesn’t move.  Providing timely feedback shows students the way to the target.

Some tips for providing effective feedback:
It must be specific, not just “good job” or “well done”, but instead it must state specifically what needs to improve to demonstrate improvement.  The feedback must be in student friendly language: make sure the learner knows what you mean!  Do they know exactly what they did, and what they need to do to improve?  When giving verbal feedback, some people advocate for “sandwiching” their comments: say something positive about the work, then some constru ctive advice, then finish with something positive again.  This is also a great model for training students to peer tutor.

Rubrics are often used to make criteria visible, and as discussion tools when giving feedback. Be sure the rubric is clear and understandable, and appropriate to the age of the learner. Using concrete examples of work like anchors and exemplars is also very effective ways of making criteria clear to students. While we may understand what we want went we ask students to “show appropriate steps” or “explain your reasoning clearly”, but students might not know what we mean. By showing examples of good student work, or samples of student work along a spectrum of achievement, we can show students exactly what “fair” “good” and “excellent” mean.  (Tomlinson and McTighe)


Specific non-graded feedback


After feedback









Not only can we advance learning, we can demonstrate to students that they can improve, a key factor in establishing a growth mindset.  Being shown how to work to improve and seeing their own progress is empowering to students, and contributes to a sense of self efficacy, which is a major predictor of success in mathematics.  This is truly assessment “as” learning!  Helping students understand that they can improve with effort will help them become lifelong learners.