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When responding to student work, it’s easy to get sidetracked by the surface features (formatting issues, small errors, a misused word…the list goes on). Use your limited time more strategically and cultivate more learning by first reflecting on why you asked students to complete the assignment before you begin providing feedback.

  • What are the goals and objectives this assignment is measuring?
  • What did you want students to get out of doing it?
  • What kind of conceptual knowledge did you want to see?
  • What reasoning skills were you asking students to practice?

Once you’ve reflected on the purpose of the assignment, let the goals should guide your feedback. Did your students accomplish the most important goals of the assignment? Good feedback lets students know what they are doing well and what they need to keep practicing to accomplish the goals.

Significant learning experiences include clear goals, opportunities to practice, and targeted feedback. The figure below, from chapter five of Ambrose et al.’s How Learning Works: Seven Research-based Principles for Smart Teaching (How Learning Works is available at the FIU Library as an e-book and discussed at “Foundations of Good Teaching: A brief guide to How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching”), "depicts this interaction as a cycle: where practice produces an observed performance that allows for targeted feedback, and that feedback guides further practice:" (Ambrose et. al, 126).

Ambrose's Cycle of Practice and Feedback: Practice produces an observed performance that allows for targeted feedback, which then guides further practice. Course goals and objectives should direct the practice, help evaluate the performance, and shape the feedback.

In order to maximize the value of feedback for students, keep in mind that feedback should be:

  1. Targeted: linked directly to the learning objectives (Goodwin & Miller, 2012).
  2. Specific: clearly guiding students on how to improve (Goodwin & Miller, 2012).
  3. Timely: given with enough time for students to use it (Goodwin & Miller, 2012).
  4. Wise: written in student-friendly language and attributing criticism to “high and consistent standards and a belief in the student’s capacity to reach them” (Cohen,Steele, & Ross, 1999).

Learners (especially novice learners) can process only a limited amount of feedback at once, so we must stick to the essentials. What’s most important? What needs most work? What’s working best? Novice learners are not yet able to distinguish the most important feedback from minor details, so we have to help them prioritize. We can do that most effectively by resisting the temptation to focus on minutia.

For more resources on giving wise, targeted, and specific feedback read John Bean's Engaging Ideas: The Professor's Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (Engaging Ideas is available as an e-book via the FIU Library). We also recommend reviewing the references, below.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Cohen, G. L., Steele, C. M., and Ross, L. D. (1999). The mentor’s dilemma: Providing critical feedback across the racial divide. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 25(10), 1302-1318. DOI: 10.1177/0146167299258011

Goodwin, B. and Miller, K. (2012). Research says: Good feedback is targeted, specific, timely. Educational Leadership, 70(1), 82-83. Available at