Make Student Feedback Meaningful

November 29, 2022
Rachel Fuhrman

As teachers, we are constantly assessing student understanding, identifying areas for growth, and creating action plans for improvement. A key step in the process of student improvement is student feedback. 

Feedback not only gives students a sense of how they are currently performing, but, when given in the right way, can provide students with the motivation to keep going and action steps toward improving their work. To ensure student feedback is meaningful, the Fishtank team recommends employing three strategies: Be Purposeful, Vary the Type, and Vary the Delivery.


1. Be Purposeful with Feedback

When it comes time to review student work, it can be easy to fall into the trap of giving feedback that doesn’t genuinely serve a purpose. Consider this, you think the student did a great job on their latest paragraph writing assignment so you put a big “Great Job!” on the top. While this is an encouraging message, it doesn’t give the student any sort of replicable action they can employ in the future. Instead, by giving the student purposeful feedback, with specific examples of what they did well, you can celebrate their success and support their future writing as well. 

Below are two examples of how you can shift feedback to be more purposeful when assessing student writing. Find additional examples and guidance in our Giving Writing Feedback Teacher Tool.


"You did a great job on this Target Task." "The central idea is clear and fully developed which helps the reader understand your point and what you were trying to explain. I could tell you used your brainstorm to look at all of the evidence and come up with your central idea. Keep it up!"
"Make sure to explain your evidence." "I know you've been working on including more evidence from the text, and you have some great examples here. Nice Work. Now, you need to make sure that it's clear to the reader why you've picked that evidence and how it helps support your answer to the question. On your brainstorm, try jotting down why the evidence is important before you write."


In the math classroom, this same need to give purposeful feedback applies. When I was a student, my middle school math teacher would hand back assignments covered in seemingly random check marks, plus signs, and minus signs; When I tried to understand what I was doing wrong, the feedback was useless. 

Think about what your own feedback to students looks like: Can students easily recognize why points were awarded or deducted? Can students readily understand the changes they need to make to improve and the problem-solving habits they should continue using? 

As a middle school math teacher myself, I often had to provide feedback around students showing their work. Rather than just deducting points for messiness or a lack of work shown, I would directly explain what I needed students to improve upon. For example, when my students were learning to simplify expressions, I would tell them to complete one step per line of work, write each line of work underneath the previous one, and circle their final answers. 

Further, I would give students a rubric with a worked example to which they could compare their work and explicitly tell students why showing their work mattered: It would help them avoid careless errors, allow them to more easily check their work before submitting, and help me identify where they went wrong and provide support when needed.

In addition to what you say in your feedback, when you say it matters too. Purposeful feedback is given in a timely manner so students can remember what they were thinking and doing while completing the assignment. Feedback given weeks or months after students submit their work will be much harder to apply as students may hardly remember completing the assignment in the first place and will likely have handed in many more assignments, with the same issues, since. We know that you have a lot on your teacher to-do list already and it probably isn’t possible to give feedback on everything. Instead, you can ensure students make the most of the feedback you do provide by prioritizing the type and method of delivering feedback that is most important in a particular moment.

Regardless of the subject, grade level, or specific assignment, purposeful feedback helps students see the bar to which they are being held and understand the necessary steps to reach that bar.


2. Vary the Type of Feedback

When giving feedback to students, varying the type ensures students don’t feel overwhelmed or discouraged. There are three types of feedback teachers can employ: Affirming, Adjusting, and Encouraging. Regardless of the type of feedback, it is important to be purposeful as explained previously so that students can differentiate the feedback type and effectively put it into practice.

Affirming feedback is given to praise what students are doing well, helping students feel valued and seen for their hard work. Additionally, this type of feedback ensures that students can continue to do the same things well in the future. 

Adjusting feedback is given to target a specific actionable change you want students to make in their work. When reviewing student writing, for example, determine what success looks like based on the lesson goals, select the rubric you plan to use, and determine a focus area of the rubric on which to provide adjusting feedback. These steps allow you to provide targeted feedback on the highest leverage area based on that particular lesson’s goals. If you attempt to provide adjusting feedback on too many things at once, students can become overwhelmed and discouraged. Instead, focus on the one selected area of the rubric to help students focus on improving one aspect of their writing at time. 

Encouraging feedback is given to push students beyond what they might think they are capable of and acknowledge when students have demonstrated growth in a specific area. As students improve over time in response to adjusting feedback, acknowledge their growth! This sort of encouraging feedback, in which you recognize the growth a student is making, can help motivate them to keep working on something that may be very challenging for them.


3. Vary the Delivery of Feedback

Similar to the type of feedback, the delivery of feedback should also be varied to be as effective as possible. Teachers can employ individual, group, and peer feedback structures in the classroom to meet the needs of all students in a timely manner and encourage students to take ownership of their learning. 

Individual written or oral feedback is an ideal way to provide specific guidance to a student as they work to improve an aspect of their writing. This could be informal: As you are circulating the room during independent work, you can provide some in-the-moment feedback based on what the student has done so far. You can also use that in-the-moment feedback to guide a future feedback conference with this student. 

An individual feedback conference is a more formal opportunity to really dig into a student’s work with them. To effectively execute a feedback conference, the Fishtank team recommends the following protocol: Research, Compliment, Teach, Practice, Close. 

  • Research: This stage of the feedback conference is actually done prior to meeting with the individual student. This is the time when you review samples of the students’ work to identify their areas for growth. You may look over their most recent writing samples from ELA or their most recent assessment from Math to gather information. 
  • Compliment: In this stage, you offer the student an authentic and specific complement about their work. This is your opportunity to offer some purposeful affirming feedback. 
  • Teach: In this stage, you teach the student something new based on the work samples you reviewed. What you work on with the student will depend on the focus area of the particular lesson as well as the individual student’s needs.
  • Practice: Once you have taught the student something new, they need an opportunity to practice this new strategy. Depending on what it is, the student may be able to practice during the conference or you may circle back with the student later once they have tried it out on their own. 
  • Close: To end the feedback conference, explicitly summarize the new strategy you have taught the student. This will help the student internalize the information and provide them an opportunity to ask any clarifying questions. 

Individual feedback may be difficult to provide to every student during every class period so group and peer feedback can be helpful approaches. Group feedback should be utilized when you notice a particular trend across the class. For example, if you notice that students are not using correct punctuation in their sentences or are forgetting to answer word problems in complete sentences, you might bring the class back from independent practice to provide group feedback. 

One approach would be to call out the trend and offer strategies for improvement in the moment. A second approach would be to analyze an exemplar and non-exemplar as a class to help students build their own understanding of what their work should look and sound like. In Fishtank Math lessons, Plus users have access to Sample Student Responses to Anchor Problems that can be used as exemplars. Fishtank ELA Enhanced Lesson Plans, available with Plus, also contain sample responses to lesson questions and writing prompts that can be used as exemplars. 

If you want students to have more individual feedback, you can employ peer feedback. As students learn to respectfully and effectively provide feedback to one another, they build communication skills, a sense of community with their peers, and a feeling of ownership over their own success. 

To facilitate peer feedback, it is helpful to teach students a particular protocol early in the year so that they can easily engage in peer feedback cycles in future units. The two protocols that we recommend are the TAG protocol and the Notice and Wonder protocol.

The TAG protocol functions like this: Student A shares their work with student B. Student B reviews the work and then provides feedback using the TAG structure: Tell something you liked, Ask a question, Give a positive suggestion. Then, students A and B switch roles. Our Writing Feedback Teacher Tool offers the following potential sentence stems for students to use when engaged in this protocol.

TAG Protocol for giving feedback

The Notice and Wonder protocol functions like this: Decide and share with students a focus area for the feedback session. Student A shares their work with student B. Student B reviews the work and shares their feedback in the notice and wonder structure. Students then switch roles and repeat the process. 

Notice and Wonder Structure: 

 “I notice _______________.” “I wonder _________________.”

Meaningful feedback can have a huge, positive impact on student understanding and growth. With these three strategies, you can make feedback meaningful for all students. Ready to get started with meaningful feedback in your classroom? Upgrade to Fishtank Plus for access to additional unit and lesson resources, and Plus-only Teacher Tools to help you!


Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.

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