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Feedback: Defined and Explored

Feedback: Defined and Explored

Eliciting and evaluating responses from others to what we say or do.

Closing the loop

In communication studies, there is a proverb that one cannot not communicate -- but our intentions do not always come across clearly. Therefore, the responses to what we say or do can tell us whether our meanings have come across as intended, or if they need repetition, clarification, or alteration. Nowhere is this more true than in teacher-student communication.

Feedback received by the student (from the teacher and other students)

Communication in person or on paper builds relationships, and being thoughtful about how we manage our end of the teacher-student relationship is important. In fact, Borich (1999) defines the teacher-student relationship as a "significant other" relationship in the sense that both teachers and students can strongly influence one another's self-concepts. Against this backdrop, certain 'teaching tips' become more salient, like Sprague and Stuart's (2005) suggestion when a student asks a question in class, other students in the moment empathize with the question-asker, so helping to make that student comfortable can make the class as a whole more comfortable and set a tone for engaged discussion.

The teacher-student relationship is also present in the feedback we give students on their writing, regardless of whether we write a great deal or use a faster, more efficient system like minimal marking. Lee and Schallert (2008) found that students with whom the teacher had developed a trusting relationship were more likely to implement written suggestions on paper drafts than was a student with whom the teacher had not developed a trusting relationship. As a result, the latter student did not improve as much as a writer. Similarly, Sipple (2007) found that students far preferred receiving feedback on their papers as recorded audio commentary rather than the traditional form of paper mark-up. The reasons identified for this preference were: increased self-confidence in writing ability, increased motivation, the method provided more detailed feedback and helped students better internalize it, and the method also reduced students' misinterpretation of feedback.

Finally, many teachers capitalize on the extra channel of feedback available from student to student. For example, Elbow and Sorcinelli (2006) argue that "students get excellent feedback" from the experience of giving and receiving peer feedback on writing (p. 205). Student peer feedback can be organized to replicate the scientific publishing process or as a less formal, reader-to-writer brainstorming session, and many forms of small group learning also capitalize on the power of student-to-student instruction. It is worth noting, however, that students do not always know how to respond to feedback on their work, especially if it is critical, so it can be very helpful to model the professional receiving of critical feedback for them.

Feedback received by the teacher (from the students)

Many teachers only worry about student feedback when the envelope containing Course Instructor Survey results arrives. In so doing, we rob ourselves of ways to check in with our students and their understanding of the course concepts and their experience of the course.

In-class student-to-teacher feedback can be as simple as a Think-Pair-Share exercise, as fast as a One-Minute Paper, and as systematic as the use of "clickers" to gauge students' understanding of the material or opinions on the issues at hand. All of these methods can serve to interrupt lecture and stimulate students to reflect, digest and respond. With these responses, the teacher can then make informed decisions about how to proceed with the class. Importantly, these methods can also be used to get feedback on one's teaching practices, as well as course content. Some teachers ask students to spend one minute anonymously writing down things they 1) appreciate about the course as a whole, and 2) things they would request. This gives the teacher a clearer understanding of how the students feel about the course, and what they might need to get more out of it in time for the teacher to actually make the changes necessary to provide whatever that might be.

The bottom line: Feedback eliminates surprises

Building regular opportunities for feedback to go in both directions over the course of the semester continually closes the loop between teacher and students, enriches everyone's experience, and increases the chance that no one is surprised by what appears on a student's final exam or your Course Instructor Survey results.


Borich, G.D. (1999). Dimensions of self that influence effective teaching. In Lipka, R.P & Brinthaupt, T.M. (Eds). The role of self in teacher development. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Elbow, P. & Sorcinelli, M.D. (2006). How to enhance learning by using high-stakes and low-stakes writing. In McKeachiw, W.K. & Svinicki, M. (Eds.). McKeachie's teaching tips: Strategies, research and theory for college and university teachers. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Lee, G., Schallert, D.L. (2008). Meeting in the margins: Effects of the teacher-student relationship on revision processes of EFL college students taking a composition course. Journal of Second Language Writing, 17. 165-182.

Sipple, S. (2007). Ideas in practice: Developmental writers’ attitudes toward audio and written feedback. Journal of Developmental Education, 30(3), 22-31.

Sprague, J. and Stuart, D. (2005). The Speaker's Handbook (7th Edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. Citied in Davis, B.G. (2009). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.