The Broken Feedback Loop in Education (Plus 4 Ways to Fix It)

Education's Broken Feedback Loop

“A+, Michael! Job well done.” I looked down at the English paper that was just handed back to me. It couldn’t have been that good. I wrote it in a couple hours. Heck, I probably didn’t even cite correctly.

Was it truly an A+ paper?

I flipped through the pages (spotting several spelling errors) and there’s a tiny red pen mark at the end of that paper. That’s it. There was nothing wrong?

Where’s the feedback?

This doesn’t just happen to me. It happens to thousands of students every day. They receive poor feedback from teachers who, quite frankly, have gotten lazy. Not a mark on the paper. Just a grade.

I bring this up because I saw a picture on Facebook this week that depicts a student’s “blabbing on” as an “answer” to the question. He received an A- on the short essay and clearly states the teacher won’t read his answer anyway. And he’s right.

I realize teachers have a lot on their plate, but shouldn’t they provide feedback to their students? Shouldn’t they be working with students to improve their skills?

Without feedback, students believe there’s nothing wrong with what was handed in. It’s perfect, less a few grammatical errors and maybe a typo.

This made me think I had stellar writing skills.

Until they were ripped apart by a demanding former boss with high standards. According to him, I simply could not write well. So, he taught me.

He taught me how to make logical arguments using the pyramid principle. He taught me how to keep sentences shorter. And to keep readers heading down a slippery slope until they need to take action.

It’s a different style of writing.

That’s not to say my history and English papers should be thrown out the door. It’s simply persuasive writing – something I never got exposed to in grade school. At least, not in the way I am now.

Feedback needs to improve student work.

Constructive criticism only works if students are given a chance to improve on what they turned in. Sure, there are first and second drafts, but if an assignment is poorly executed, and there’s no chance for feedback, how does the student become a better student?

Feedback is broken in education. It’s perceived as a chore for many teachers. While I haven’t been in school for a couple years, I’d like to propose a few ways of fixing the broken feedback loop:

1. Go beyond the red pen

Sometimes feedback that comes in the form of red pen is intimidating — not to mention useless. Think about other ways to provide your students with feedback. Maybe one-on-one meetings about papers or picking a student’s sample (with anonymity of course) and going over it in class. Close the cap on your red pen and start giving personalized feedback to help your students grow.

2. Work on more than a couple drafts

One and done is the worst vehicle for effective feedback. Do at least two drafts before students hand in the final assignment. This gives them plenty of time to work on what they believe is the best they can do. And it also means you have to provide actionable feedback on each draft. Do this a couple times over the semester and watch your student projects improve dramatically.

3. Incorporate peer feedback

Teachers aren’t the only ones who can provide feedback. Often times, students are the best to give advice, criticism and feedback. Why? Because students listen to other students and take their opinions to heart. Just like comforting friends after a high school break-up, they have a connection to each other you and your students will likely never have.

4. Incorporate real-world scenarios and education

Who wants to work on something that doesn’t impact their lives? Students want to make a difference. That means working on real-world projects and providing feedback on how to generate better results, write a better fundraising letter, or explain history to 3rd graders. Get your student’s hands dirty with experience and they’ll learn lots.

Feedback is only as good as the person giving it. That means poor feedback results in poor results. Work with your students to create great works of prose, models, and other projects. They’re only going to improve if you constructively tell them where and what they could improve on. Don’t make them think what they turned in is perfect.

Feedback helps students learn. And isn’t that all what we’re after?