Imagine you are sitting at a piano, practicing a piece of music.  In order to get better—to play with greater success and accuracy—you need to be able to hear your own mistakes so you can practice those parts specifically.  It also is helpful to have a piano teacher, an expert, who can guide you with more subtle feedback about intonation or phrasing. An expert can also point out places where you can improve that you didn’t even know were problem areas.

What you definitely do not need to know is that you got 87% of the notes right, or that your score for the piece was 26 out of 39, or that you played a C+.  Such feedback, while it might give you a primitive, quick sense of how successful you were, is not all that helpful in the learning process. In fact, finding out that your playing is only a C+ might actually discourage you from practicing and improving.

What you need is ungraded feedback.

Giving feedback vs. giving grades.

The optimal role you can have in facilitating student learning is that of guide and knowledgeable mentor.  When grades are the dominant form of feedback, that role gets conflated with the institutional power you have over the student.  We need to find ways to provide feedback without the emotional baggage and power struggles that come with grades.

All of us, teachers and students alike, are members of institutions that require chronic reporting of progress in the form of grades.  This obligation is becoming more dominant over time with the current emphasis on high stakes testing and measuring student and teacher performance.  Since we must do it, we might as well do it right. In part, that means separating the essential function of giving feedback from the required function of giving grades.   Ungraded feedback is desired as frequently as possible, while the role and frequency of grades should be minimized.

Feedback feels different from grades. 

For a student, a grade lends itself to a sense of judgmental reaction, rather than direct and useful feedback.  A big red letter at the top of a paper handed back to a student colors their reading of a teacher’s commentary (assuming there is one) that might otherwise be more useful to them.

Feedback is a striving for clarity about what is.  Grades, especially poor grades, often instill a sense of what should be.  For a student to identify her strengths and weaknesses realistically, she needs to have a nonjudgmental attitude about making mistakes.  Poor grades often stir feelings of shame or anger, which are counterproductive to learning.

Feedback should always be formative. 

The principle purpose of feedback is to help the student to become more discriminating and self-aware, and to identify any difficulties she is having.  This understanding is only useful when it leads to an action that addresses the problem that has been revealed.  Teacher feedback should help a student discern where she needs to take action and how to address the problems revealed by the feedback.  

Feedback should accommodate students’ needs, both academic and personal.  

For students who are shy or lacking in self-confidence, feedback that is visible to other students can be embarrassing.  As the culture of the classroom evolves and students come to recognize the importance learning from mistakes, the judgmental posture many of them have will be replaced with a more useful attitude towards exposing mistakes without shame.  This is particularly true for feedback on “high stakes” activities, like tests. There needs to be a sufficient level of trust between students before they will be comfortable sharing failure openly. This is discussed in more detail in the chapter “Study Groups”.

The effectiveness of grades depend in part on the frequency of their use.  

A balance must be found between giving enough grades for a meaningful overview of student progress and giving so many that they reinforce the bad habits of academic materialism.  When there is enough ungraded feedback, students will not be blindsided by, say, low test grades. Providing frequent updates on things like homework completion can help reinforce better habits until students can become more responsible and independent.  It’s important to remember that these updates can be ungraded, or, as described below, self-evaluated.

Many schools insist on a required frequency of grade reporting, both to students and to parents.  Working within those constraints can be challenging; it requires tenaciously holding true to the priorities you have for your students.

Feedback should be provided in as many forms and venues as practicable. 

Feedback can come in a wide variety of shapes.  It can be written or oral, formal or informal, quick or thorough.  It can be used by a whole class, a small group, or an individual. It can be private or public.  It can flow from student to teacher, from teacher to student, or between students. It can be structural, such as feedback that is built into the design of homework.  It can come from peers, parents, or friends.

Matching the form of feedback to the needs of the moment requires practice, but as your repertoire grows, so does your responsiveness to the needs of your students.  To that end, here are some of the many forms feedback can take, arranged from simplest and quickest to most sophisticated.