Decades of academic research confirms what we educators know to be true: The more feedback students receive about their work, the more they learn. In fact, Bellon, Bellon and Blank (1991) state that “academic feedback is more strongly consistently related to achievement than any other teaching behavior” (p. 2).
So if feedback is core to student learning, what then is the most effective kind of feedback? How can feedback be most valuable for students? University of Auckland professors Helen Timperly and John Hattie (2007) describe how student feedback should be insightful, giving students actionable information about what they’re doing right or wrong and next steps towards improvement. A comment like “Great job!” or “This paragraph needs work” lacks enough specificity to help students do better the next time.
In addition to being insightful, research also shows student feedback should be timely, consistent, and linked to particular goals or outcomes if it’s to be effective. A 2011 study found that participants who received immediate feedback experienced “significantly larger” performance gains than those who were given delayed feedback. Providing feedback to accommodate student learning curves and subsequent assessment is critical to learning–and feedback provided a month after the fact has less efficacy.
But as we educators all know—ideal scenarios are difficult to achieve in real life.
It can be challenging to provide pedagogically-perfect feedback to students. With dozens of papers to grade, instructors often lack the time to turn papers around quickly or give students the level of detail necessary to take corrective action. Grading can also be a tedious chore; after staring at papers for hours on end, professors might struggle to give students feedback that is consistent from one paper to the next.
This is where technology can close the gap between classroom reality and ivory tower pedagogy. Features such as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will never replace the instructor’s role in giving students useful feedback to improve learning outcomes, but these features can certainly extend the instructor’s reach and save valuable time. If instructors are able to be more efficient, we can give students more frequent and substantive feedback that makes a real difference in achievement.
Here’s how technology can support instructors as they review students’ work, making it easier for educators to provide insightful, timely, and consistent student feedback.
Instructors often find ourselves writing the same (or very similar) comments from one student paper to another. Assessing student writing presents an opportunity to address error patterns across an entire cohort, but the reality is harsh for educators. This is a very repetitive process that can wear down even the strongest-willed professionals. After 20 or 30 papers, those comments can become shorter and shorter, until the last few students whose papers are reviewed might face a disadvantage, possibly receiving significantly less feedback due to grading exhaustion.
An automated platform can save instructors from having to experience such weary repetition. With an automated platform such as Turnitin Feedback Studio, for instance, instructors can highlight parts of students’ work and choose from a list of frequently used comments to leave for students. This list can be customized by the instructor, who can choose to supplement an automated comment with more personalized feedback as well. Not having to write out similar comments over and over again gives instructors the time they need to provide each student with more detailed, insightful feedback on how to improve their work.
Some platforms also use analytics and AI technology to offer deeper insight to instructors in the form of item analysis. Such data might tell professors which items students tended to struggle with the most, allowing an instructor to cover that topic more thoroughly the next time the class meets.
Making the grading process less repetitive through automation can help professors get through a stack of papers more rapidly, allowing students to receive feedback in a timely manner–and in time for subsequent assessment. However, with the help of AI and machine learning technology, the review process itself can be automated as well, allowing students to receive immediate feedback—even for written work.
Grading can now join the 21st century.
AI technology is becoming increasingly adept at assessing students’ writing skills and offering real-time, highly personalized feedback. The technology can assess students’ writing according to rubrics that are genre-specific, examining not only grammar or sentence structure but also whether a claim has been supported with strong evidence and how well organized an essay is.
This is how Turnitin Revision Assistant operates. Students receive automated feedback called “Signal Checks” that are generated by the program. The feedback is immediate and low-stakes. It’s used to inform the writing process, not to give students a final grade.
Some professors might balk at the idea of turning the feedback process over to a machine. Yet, when implemented properly, technology can be a useful tool that supplements (rather than supplants) a teacher’s instruction. Students can receive instant feedback that helps them revise multiple drafts, while professors focus on grading the final product. This enables instructors to assign more frequent writing projects, which gives students more opportunities to practice and hone their writing skills. This is pedagogy in action, without depleting educators.
Consistency is critical when assessing students’ work and giving them feedback to improve. If students think their work is being judged according to a different standard, this can erode their trust and their motivation for learning. Automation and AI can bring consistency to the feedback process, helping instructors avoid biases.
With an automated feedback platform, instructors can create customized rubrics for assessing students’ work—and then the software would apply these rules equally and dispassionately to student submissions. Students can get detailed feedback without any chance of bias.
For example, Gradescope by Turnitin is a platform that uses AI technology to group similar student responses together, so the instructor can apply a consistent score or feedback to each group of responses. This not only saves time; it also improves scoring consistency. As educators, we strive for such outcomes in assessment–and we want help in mitigating bias, such that the last papers we grade receive the same amount of attention and support as the first papers we grade.
Timeliness, consistency, and insight are three key benefits of using technology to support the student feedback process. By providing quick, detailed, and uniform feedback on students’ work, instructors can give students the intelligence they need to improve.
As educators, we strive to help others and to help students learn and in our spare time we embrace pedagogical ideals. Isn’t it about time we embrace technology so that ideals become reality?