Balancing Grades and Feedback in Distance Education

As educators, do your conversations with students revolve primarily around what they are learning? Or do they focus on points and grades? When students become hyper-fixated on the latter, this can inhibit the exploration, curiosity, and critical thinking that enables true learning. How can educators help students to focus less on fear of failure and more on the learning process? One key step in this direction is to emphasize receiving and applying feedback, rather than just grades. 

Methods of Motivation. A widely-cited study by Ruth Butler, published in 1987, focused on “task-involving” vs. “ego-involving” feedback. Task-involving feedback corresponded to individual comments related to each student’s performance on a learning task. Ego-involving feedback corresponded to grades that were based on students’ standing relative to their classmates, rather than what students learned. A third group received both types of feedback. The study showed that students who ranked in the bottom 25% of their class showed higher interest and better performance after task-involving comments versus grades alone or grades with comments. 

The key to task-involving feedback is that it must provide specific information about students’ performance and direction for how they can improve. Educator and psychologist Benjamin Bloom wrote that feedback needs to be both “diagnostic and prescriptive.” Diagnostic feedback answers questions like, “What was the student expected to learn? What have they demonstrated mastery of thus far? What do they need to learn better?” Prescriptive feedback describes what steps students can take to improve their learning. 

Using Grades and Feedback Effectively. At their core, grades are simply a way of categorizing student performance. For grades to communicate helpful information to students, they need to be based on clear learning criteria. What were the learning objectives, which ones has the student mastered, and which do they still need to work on? When grades are attached to a clear rubric, this can help move students’ mindset away from ranking and competition alone. Feedback can now come alongside a well-articulated grading system and help students determine their next steps. 

According to Bloom, effective feedback has four key characteristics:

  1. Positive: By opening feedback with what a student did well, students’ accomplishments are rightly recognized, and they are buoyed up to continue their learning journey. 
  2. Constructive: Next, identify the specific aspects of students’ performance that need improvement. What learning objective do they still need to reach? If a model or example is available (e.g. a paper that effectively checks off each objective), this can act as a valuable resource.
  3. Actionable: Provide specific next steps the student can take to deepen and demonstrate their learning. 
  4. Encouraging: By expressing confidence that students can improve, educators can have a tremendous influence on students’ self-perception. 

Another best practice is to provide feedback in a timely manner so students will still remember the learning experience and can make immediate applications. Instructors should also be conscious of over-commenting and focusing on trivialities rather than the bigger picture of helping the student reach their learning goals. Instructors can use feedback as another opportunity to teach by asking students questions and providing insights that can guide their future learning. 

Integrating grades with feedback can help students move beyond viewing an “A” as the goal of a class and redirect focus to the actual subject matter of the course. Educational software platforms can help you administer evaluations to provide your students with frequent and timely feedback, as well as monitor student performance and progress. To learn how Leo, our award-winning software platform, can help with your educational strategy, contact us today.