14 ways to give students meaningful feedback


Rosie Byrnes


How do students know when they’re on the right track, and when it’s time to redirect?

If you’ve ever spent time around toddlers learning to walk, you’ve probably noticed an odd phenomenon: when they lose their balance and fall to the ground, they usually look to the grown-ups before deciding how to react.

Often, if their grown-up shows signs of distress or worry, the toddler will become upset themselves and start to cry. But if the grown-ups are cheerful, encouraging, and confident, those toddlers will usually get right back up and start walking again.

Why? Because they’ve learned from the reactions of those around them—they’ve responded to direct feedback.

Feedback is an integral part of the learning process, even from a very young age. How others respond to our actions gives us clues as to how we should feel about ourselves, and acts as a guide for what we’ll do next.

Of course, as educators we know the importance of giving our students meaningful feedback. But how can we understand the types of feedback that are most valuable, and how can we be sure we’re offering suggestions that really make a difference in our students’ learning?

Feedback and the brain

Understanding how feedback works during the learning process can help you make informed decisions about how to provide the right kind of feedback for your students.

As we know from studying neuroscience and growth mindset practices, our brains have the potential to be constantly changing. When we perceive new stimuli, they enter the brain through our sensory perceptions and make connections and pathways between our neurons. When we learn from feedback responding to the stimuli—or to the actions that resulted from it—these pathways form circuits that help determine our future behavior and decision-making.

Because feedback from another person is also a form of external stimuli, the way we choose to give feedback to young learners can have an impact on how these circuits are formed to determine their future choices.

Although many of us may not consider the feedback we give our students to be a reward or a punishment, research shows that the brain sees things differently—those neural pathways still respond to feedback as though it’s an external motivator.

This means that the way you choose to give feedback is essential to how your students respond to it. Because we typically use verbal or written language to give feedback, the context, tone, and vocabulary we choose can determine how it’s received, and therefore how it affects students’ neural pathways and future decisions.

When giving students feedback, keep these tips in mind:

1. Praise their efforts, not their talents.

It’s tempting to tell our kids just how smart and talented we think they are, but this type of praise may actually have a negative effect in the long run.

To help kids develop a growth mindset, we should praise growth-oriented behaviors—like hard work—instead of seemingly “fixed” qualities like talent or intelligence. Try using praise like “I am so proud of all the effort you put into this,” or “All your hard work really paid off.”

2. Mistakes and errors don’t need to feel negative.

People with a growth mindset know that mistakes are part of the learning process, and that real learning can’t happen without them. In fact, people learn far more from their mistakes than from their achievements—so mistakes should be something to celebrate!

Encourage your kids to shift their mindset and wear their temporary failures with pride. After all, “the only true failure can come if you quit!”

3. Be specific.

General feedback like “great job” or “almost there” is easy to give, but not always easy for the recipient to understand.

Offering feedback detailing exactly what students are doing well, or what they need to improve upon, can be infinitely more effective.

4. Explain feedback wherever possible.

Take specific feedback even further by offering detailed explanations of why you chose to make those suggestions.

For example, “Use more descriptive words” may be helpful feedback for students’ writing, but it can be made even more useful with a reason why: “Adding more descriptions here will help paint a picture in your readers’ mind.”

5. Start with a clear goal.

If students know where they’re headed from the start, they’ll more easily be able to check back in during the process to make sure they’re on track.

A clear, concise learning objective also serves as a reference point for you as you offer students feedback. If you’re not sure where students’ destination is, how can you be sure that they’re going the right way?

6. Keep it timely.

Feedback is most valuable when it is given immediately following the task, or even during the process of completing it. The longer you wait between students’ activities and giving your feedback on it, the less relevant your comments become.

Whenever possible, try to engage in feedback as students are working, or as soon as possible.

7. Feedback isn’t just for finished work.

Many teachers only provide feedback at the end of a completed task—after a test, an essay, a project, and so on. But the most effective feedback is actually given during the creation process, because it gives students the chance to shift and pivot their work in the moment.

Try to be present to offer feedback to students throughout every step of the process, so they can put your suggestions into practice right away.

8. Give feedback one-on-one.

The best feedback is given on a personalized, individual level, rather than as addressed to an entire group. Studies show that when feedback is given to a whole group, most of the group members’ natural assumption is that the feedback applies to everyone else—so they aren’t likely to take it into consideration for themselves.

By offering personal, one-on-one feedback, you’re showing your students that you’re aware of what they’re doing on an individual level, and that you’re there to support them.

9. Allow time for questions and discussion.

Sometimes, the feedback we offer our students may not resonate completely with them the first time around. By offering students a chance to ask questions about feedback, we can give them an opportunity to understand it with greater depth.

Discussing their feedback—either with the teacher or a group of peers—can also be a great way to help students consider their feedback beyond the surface level.

10. Student autonomy facilitates self-reflection.

Having students reflect on their own work is a common practice in many classrooms, but this loses a lot of its value when the teacher is still the one setting all of the expectations. Having students conduct a self-reflection on a teacher-directed task isn’t much more than having them guess what you will think—hardly a good use of their time!

But when students are part of the goal-setting process, self-reflection becomes much more powerful. Giving students the autonomy to guide their own learning process will better enable them to stop and reflect meaningfully as they go.

11. Feedback should come from many different sources.

While it’s easy to assume that the teacher always knows best, many subjects (such as writing) can be very subjective.

The feedback that resonates most with students doesn’t always come from the teacher, so encourage your students to seek our feedback from their peers, families, heroes, and any other useful source they can find.

12. Teach students how to give (and recognize) useful feedback.

Not all feedback is created equal, and knowing how to disregard useless feedback is just as important as learning to implement what’s useful.

By teaching students to give quality feedback to their peers, you’re also showing them what quality feedback looks like when it’s coming back to them.

13. Give feedback based on concept understanding, not task completion.

It’s easy to measure student success based on whether or not students did the thing you asked them to do—but is this really an accurate measure of learning? Often, the task we set for students is closely related to the concepts we want them to learn—but the two are not synonymous.

It may be that students understand the concept perfectly, but weren’t able to execute the task exactly as outlined. So next time you’re making a project rubric, it might be worth asking yourself whether “eye contact with the audience” during a book report is a true measure of students’ understanding of the book!

14. Reach beyond “good enough.”

I had a high school English teacher who always said, “Writing is never done, it’s just due.” There are always things to improve upon when it comes to learning, and the right feedback can encourage students to take that next step forward.

Challenge students to think of other ways they could solve a problem, further research they could conduct in a subject, or practical ways of using their new understanding.

How do you give meaningful feedback in your classroom? Let us know by connecting with us on our social channels!