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A student and professor sit at opposite sides of a classroom desk, with laptop open.

Student feedback should praise efforts, provide details and offer actionable steps, as well as encourage discussion.

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As educators, guidance counselors and mentors, one of our most important responsibilities is to guide and empower students with frequent feedback that enhances their learning experience and sets them up for success. Regardless of age, background or lifestyle, students learn best when they have frequent opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned through quick check-ins that also help identify areas where more attention is warranted.

I believe online education is the most powerful tool available today to open up access to learners who have been historically underserved from educational opportunities because of its highly flexible, accessible and personalizable nature, which perfectly facilitates this type of feedback—especially when paired with effective pedagogy. Yet regardless of the educational environment, providing uplifting, authentic feedback that is individually tailored can put students on the fast track to success.

The Importance of Feedback as Guidance

In my time as an educator, I’ve found that feedback as guidance is the foundation on which good assessment occurs. Feedback should never come off as judgment. Instead, it should uplift learners, challenge them to think differently, deepen their understanding and build their confidence.

Some principles to consider when providing feedback as guidance:

  • Praise effort, not talent
  • Be specific and site examples
  • Provide details and actionable steps
  • Encourage questions and discussion
  • Be timely

Equally as important as constructive feedback is calling out student success and providing insights on what they’re doing well. When students understand where their efforts are being fruitful, it motivates and encourages them to apply their known strengths to areas of work that require more attention. I cannot stress enough the power of positive reinforcement in education, for growth in and outside the classroom.

Working Alongside Students: It’s a Two-Way Street

Giving and receiving feedback is a shared responsibility between students and educators. On the students’ side of the equation, part of effective learning is knowing how to seek, receive and incorporate feedback. The onus is not only on the educator to provide frequent evaluations, but also on the student to solicit feedback. Yet, in order for students to do so, it’s important that educators encourage this behavior and stress its importance. Educators should invite students to reach out as well as frequently remind them that asking for feedback is a critical aspect of their learning journey.

Students should be intentional in the way that they review and implement feedback. It’s critical that they carefully read all the comments provided, ask clarifying questions, make strategic changes accordingly and double-check their updates to ensure that they address the feedback effectively. This part of the learning phase cannot be rushed. It’s important for students to take ample time to digest feedback and review any content that they may have missed before redoing work or retaking an exam. I recommend working closely with students and making yourself available throughout the entire assessment process to encourage this type of engagement.

How to Ensure Fairness and Equity

One of our primary responsibilities as educators is to provide each of our students with equitable opportunities for success. An integral piece of this process is ensuring that grading and reviews are consistent, to foster equity among students.

One way to ensure consistency is to implement a standardized process of reviews, with clear rubrics, modeled examples and inter-rater reliability exercises. There are many different tactics educators can use to foster an engaging and fair learning environment, including:

  • Pre-assessments, challenges and formative assessments
  • Self-reflection check-ins
  • Periodic knowledge checks throughout reading and video content

At Penn Foster Group, we employ concepts of validity, reliability, equity and accessibility to ensure consistency and fairness. These concepts guide us in:

  • Determining what any given test is trying to measure
  • Uncovering whether different tests deliver the same difficulty or evaluation
  • Learning if any questions are difficult for specific student groups
  • Ensuring we can accommodate learners with special needs

The proliferation of artificial intelligence is transforming the ed-tech industry, opening the doors for the democratization of learning. AI is poised to dramatically change how students learn while also supplementing an educator’s tool kit. AI can and should be leveraged where possible in the organization’s larger ecosystem to assist in providing fair and accurate feedback. It can help by providing autoscored questions that are scenario-based, along with branching scenarios within video files that are also autograded and populated in the grade book. This access to real-time input can help keep students motivated.

With AI-powered reviews, learning can expand beyond traditional multiple-choice questions. They can be programmed to dynamically change the difficulty level and type of questions asked based on the student’s performance, allowing for real-time assessment that can accurately measure understanding and help educators identify learning gaps.

To give students the best chance possible to excel, I encourage faculty to implement stronger curriculum models and online learning designs. Flexible, self-paced online learning models can give students the adaptability, cost accessibility and personalization that will best position them for success.

Online learning enables students from all walks of life to work toward economic mobility, but it’s integral that students take advantage of the flexibility that online learning provides by allocating time to identify their strengths and weaknesses, and discover how they best learn. Effective feedback gives more strength to this flexibility and allows learners to make the most of their education. But still, educators are responsible for ensuring that students have the resources and support they need to excel, and providing fair and accurate assessments frequently is an integral piece of this equation.

In this digital age, the path to academic success starts with open dialogue and constructive assessments. The power of feedback lies in its ability to guide, uplift and challenge learners. Through that, we can build the most effective, efficient and equitable educational systems. Together, educators, guidance counselors, institutions and new technology can pave the way for a brighter, more accessible future of learning.

Andrew Shean is the chief learning officer at Penn Foster Group, where he leads academic programming, curriculum, courseware, operations and student support. Among other roles, Shean has previously co-led the Institute for Engaged Leadership in Online Education through Penn State World Campus, in partnership with the Online Learning Consortium.

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