What is more valuable to students: A Grade or Feedback?

In transparency, I have been out of the secondary classroom for over five years.  In 2012 I was given an opportunity to join the faculty at The University of Alabama as a Clinical Assistant Professor, and much of my work is now closely tied to teacher preparation. However, I still maintain many connections to the classroom and stay abreast of the issues.

One issue that I have taken special notice of is grading (and I’m very excited to see what ACGAL is accomplishing). When I was teaching advanced placement social sciences, I found it highly disconcerting when students were more concerned about the grade they would or did receive rather than what knowledge they would gain from the assignment. The philosophy my high school students demonstrated about their grades continues to manifest itself in the college student I teach now. I have witnessed a student grieve a grade because they received an A rather than an A+. This student went through the trouble of filing a grievance and dragged many into the formal process over two points! I wish I could say this was a rare occurrence, but, unfortunately, it is not. To me, it is disheartening – not the inconvenience of addressing a grievance but the evidence that many of my students’ struggle is for a better symbol of learning, not for more learning itself.

What is a grade? What does that grade tell the student? Most educators would agree that the grade tells the student the degree to which they have mastered the learning targets, objectives or standards set before them. But, in reality, what does that grade REALLY tell the student?  What, other than a number, tells them that they have learned and gained knowledge? In my opinion, not very much.

What will provide the student with more valuable information regarding their academic progress is feedback.  Feedback allows a student to know exactly what they did correctly, what they did incorrectly, and what they need to do to improve and master the learning targets, objectives, or standards.  In the professional world, do individuals receive a numeric grade for meeting their goals? Of course not; we actually receive verbal or written feedback that provides us insight into our performance.  Should not our students receive the same opportunity to know where they stand in the continuum of meeting their academic goals?

Feedback is widely acknowledged as the crux of a learning process (Tee & Ahmed, 2014). Furthermore, feedback is critical in the development of effective learning (Black and William 1998; Carless et al. 2011; Feys, Anseel, and Wille 2011; Price, Handley, and Millar 2011). Feedback serves as a one-to-one conversation with students and can be a powerful tool to help students meet their goals.  When students are provided quality feedback, they will gain so much more than what a numerical grade can provide them.

There is much that can be discussed about the quality of the feedback provided to the students, but for this blog, I offer what, in my opinion, are three of the more important components of feedback.

  • When providing feedback use the OREO method. This analogy asserts that the two cookies are positive thoughts, while the filling indicates where the student needs improvement.  In other words, begin with positive comments, followed by the constructive comment (negatives), and end with other positive comments that encourage the student. All forms of feedback should lead the student to understand exactly what was correct about their work, what was incorrect or lacking about their work, and to what degree they met the expectations of the assignment. It is important to note that when offering feedback, it is critical for the students to have access to the rubric beforehand and that the feedback given to them is tied to the rubric components.  This allows them to correlate the feedback specifically to the rubric criteria and to be able to understand exactly what was correct or incorrect about their work, including to what degree they met the expectations.

Teachers have the responsibility to nurture a student’s learning and to provide feedback in such a manner that the student does not leave the classroom feeling defeated.  However, a constructive critique of the student’s work requires instructors to be deliberative in the comments provided.  This can be and should be done in such a manner that allows the student to gain or keep their confidence but at the same time realize shortcomings of their learning and how they may be improved.

  • Be specific and genuine in the feedback rather than generalizing.  Feedback is not “Job well done” or “You need more detail here.”  Feedback must be specific and concise to not only explain any shortcomings, but to also explain why that particular element is essential. The feedback should communicate to the student what they did well and what needs to happen differently for the student to improve. “You need more fact-based detail regarding how Roosevelt thought his first 100 days in office were successful for the county” provides more useful information to the student than “You need more detail.” Feedback should not be meaningless.  Students are quick to figure out when the feedback is insincere and over time they will disregard all feedback because they consider it to be meaningless.

Providing specific feedback reinforces the criterion that is being assessed and requires the student to return to their work and edit said work to meet the expected criteria. In doing so, they expand their knowledge and skills. Students are also encouraged by the specificity of the comments because they learn how to improve their work rather than merely feeling they missed the mark.

  • Provide feedback in a timely manner. Feedback should be provided to the student in a timely manner.  It does take some time to assess student work, so it might be a few days, but the quicker the feedback is provided the better for the student.  When feedback is given as quickly as possible after the submission of the assignment, the student tends to respond more positively because the experience is fresh in their mind.  If teachers wait too long to provide feedback, the moment is lost and the student will possibly not be able to connect the feedback with the action.

What is considered a timely manner?  That is a question that depends largely upon the personality and abilities of the class and the difficulty of the assignment. In my opinion, smaller (3-5 page assignments) should be returned to the student within 1-3 days, and larger assignments (5-10 pages) should be returned in 5-7 days. However, as I previously stated, this would be based on the personality and abilities of the students in the class.

Providing feedback may be daunting for teachers, and many may feel that it is too time-consuming.  It may feel like this at first, but teachers soon realize that providing feedback frees up time later when assignments do not drag on because the students have not mastered the standards, objectives, or targets. Also, teachers consistently providing feedback will notice a shift in the mindset (growth) of students because the students are implementing the knowledge and skills they have gained as a response to the feedback provided to them.

There are many more great ideas for providing feedback to students. One only has to Google educational feedback, academic feedback, or feedback for students to find dozens. Your approach to feedback might be different from mine; what is important, though, is committing to using feedback as a key part of turning our students’ obsession from more points to more learning.

Dr. Lisa H. Matherson, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the College of Education at The University of Alabama. She works with teacher preparation on several levels. She received her B.S. and M.A. degrees in Secondary Education, Social Sciences, and her Ed.D. in Secondary Education, Curriculum and Instruction, from The University of Alabama.

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