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Feedback: Maximizing Its Impact

Elizabeth Grimm, Hope College


Keywords: Feedback, Formative Assessment, Student Growth


Key Statement: Instructors can enhance student achievement by transitioning from evaluative to descriptive feedback, offering clear guidance for student improvement and deeper comprehension.


Instructors possess the power to support student's growth mindset and sense of competence while also improving student achievement by adjusting how they give feedback to students (Akpinar & Özalp, 2023; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Effective feedback can facilitate and expedite the learning process and foster deeper levels of self-assessment and comprehension (Wisniewski et al., 2020; Wachter, 2022).  

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Distinguishing Feedback Types:

Evaluative Versus Descriptive

To optimize feedback for student growth, we must distinguish between two fundamental feedback types: evaluative and descriptive.

Evaluative Feedback

Evaluative feedback delivers comparative judgments and quantitative assessments of students' work, typically in the context of predefined criteria (Gamlem, 2015) and whether the student’s work is correct or not (Gan et al., 2021; Severo et al., 2020).  It may take various forms, including graded assignments, praise or constructive criticism, and evaluations based on specific standards. Examples of evaluative feedback span from straightforward assessments such as "B+" to encouragement like "You did it! Great job!" Evaluative feedback also extends to areas that need improvement, like "Your lab report is well-organized, but your analysis lacks critical details" or "Consider paying more attention to your intonation." This type of feedback gives students a sense of their performance in relation to defined criteria.


Descriptive Feedback

Descriptive feedback offers focused, concrete details and individualized suggestions, guiding learners in making informed decisions (Berger et al., 2019). Unlike evaluative feedback, descriptive feedback pinpoints areas for improvement and provides clear instructions for enhancement. It serves as a vital corrective tool in furnishing students with specific, actionable, differentiated, and formative guidance for improvement (Wisniewski et al., 2020).

Examples of descriptive feedback showcase its effectiveness:

  • "At the outset of your paragraphs, it's not immediately evident what the content will be. Include a topic sentence at the start of each paragraph to preview its contents."

  • "While your programming code is functional, you can optimize it further by utilizing data structures like arrays instead of nested loops. Additionally, incorporate more inline comments to elucidate the logic for improved clarity."

These examples illustrate how descriptive feedback empowers students by offering clear guidance on areas that require improvement and practical advice on effectuating those changes. 


The Key to Student Growth: Adjust From Evaluative to Descriptive Feedback

Students derive significant advantages from feedback when it aids in comprehending errors, offers guidance on mitigating them in future instances, and explains the reasoning(Wisniewski et al., 2020). Being explicit in HOW to address the issue and WHY promotes better access to learning for all students (Kloppers & Potgieter, 2023).

The transition from evaluative to descriptive feedback is pivotal to helping drive student growth, and the change involves only two specific steps. First, instructors must specify errors precisely, offering students a deeper comprehension of their missteps. Next, instructors must offer straightforward, constructive directions and valuable suggestions. For example, the evaluative comment, “Your argument about The Great Gatsby’s theme is promising, but it needs more evidence,” lacks specificity and does not assist the student in knowing or understanding subsequent steps, resulting in low student improvement (Wisniewski et al., 2020).  Transitioning to  descriptive feedback yields a more insightful and actionable suggestion: “Your argument about the theme of social inequality in The Great Gatsby is promising, but you could strengthen it by analyzing the characters' dialogues to illustrate how Fitzgerald conveys this theme through subtle language choices.” These additional guidelines give students explicit error identification and a tangible pathway to improvement, stressing what they should do differently to improve.

Descriptive guidance offers a solution and explains why the solution is necessary, making it easier for the student to understand what specific improvements are needed and the reasoning behind those changes (Brooks et al., 2019).   Feedback demonstrates heightened effectiveness when it encompasses more information for students to act on (Wisniewski et al., 2020).  This shift from evaluative to descriptive feedback enables educators to explicitly guide students toward improvement, nurture their individual growth, and deepen their thinking. See Table 1 for examples of the change from evaluative to descriptive in a few disciplines.

Table 1. Examples of Evaluative to Descriptive Feedback


Evaluative Feedback

Descriptive Feedback


Your analysis of this Renaissance painting is insightful, but your descriptions lack vital visual elements.

Your analysis of this Renaissance painting is insightful, but your descriptions must include some key visual elements. Be more specific in detailing the use of light and shadow, and consider incorporating the symbolism behind the color palette to deepen your interpretation.

Social Studies

You have cited your primary sources appropriately, but your analysis of the secondary material should be more in-depth.

You have cited your primary sources appropriately, but your analysis of the secondary material will be more in-depth if you try to engage more critically with the sources by discussing their implications for your argument. This change will strengthen the overall depth of your analysis.


You've solved the equation skillfully, but you're still missing the written explanation.

You need to include a written explanation. For the next assignment, guide me through your thought process by explaining each step using precise mathematical terminology and symbols to outline the problem, state the formula, plug in the values, and provide a clear, step-by-step solution.


Your performance showcases your musical talent.

Work on maintaining a consistent tempo throughout the piece. Consider incorporating more dramatic dynamics to add more expressiveness to your performance during the bridge section.


Your analysis needs to be stronger and include more detail.

Consider expanding on the market analysis section, providing more detailed insights into the target demographic. Additionally, ensure consistent formatting throughout your document.


Your design is unstable.

In your circuit design, consider incorporating feedback mechanisms for better stability. Additionally, your documentation could be more comprehensive, providing a step-by-step explanation of your methodology.


Embracing Feedback Transformation for

Student Achievement

The key to this transformative power is providing feedback that empowers and motivates students to refine their work. With descriptive feedback’s concrete identification of errors, clear and constructive directions, and valuable suggestions, students can more readily take corrective action on subsequent work (Erat et al., 2022). Additionally, when instructors explain the how and why, their intent to improve student learning becomes clearer, increasing student motivation to enact the feedback (Kloppers & Potgieter, 2023). By embracing this methodology, feedback evolves into a pivotal component of formative assessment, enabling students to leverage data to drive improvement. It amplifies their understanding, acknowledges their competence, and illuminates areas that demand further attention. In this approach, feedback achieves its highest efficacy.

Does this mean instructors should never offer feedback on items they will not subsequently assess? Should they avoid encouraging students or justifying a grade? Of course not. However, descriptive feedback serves as a potent instrument to engage students in the improvement process and advance teaching and learning.

Discussion Questions


  1. This piece highlights the importance of providing clear and specific feedback to students. Discuss the challenges educators may face in delivering descriptive feedback consistently and how they can overcome these challenges to enhance the learning experience.

  2. Consider the steps outlined in this piece for transitioning from evaluative to descriptive feedback. How might these steps be adapted or modified to suit the unique needs and demands of various academic disciplines or subject areas?

  3. This piece considers how teachers offer feedback, but another primary consideration is how learners receive and interpret feedback. How can educators reconceptualize feedback in terms of how learners receive it rather than how teachers give it?


Akpinar, M., & Özalp, M. T. (2023). Teacher! please light my way: Effect of providing individual feedback on achievement in social studies education. International Journal of Education and Literacy Studies, 11(4), 272–280.

Berger, R., Vilen, A., & Woodfin, L. (2019). The leaders of their own learning companion: New tools and tips for tackling the common challenges of student-engaged assessment. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Brooks, C., Carroll, A., Gillies, R. M., & Hattie, J. (2019). A matrix of feedback for learning. The Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 44(4), 14–32. F

Erat, S., Demirkol, K., & Sallabas, M. E. (2022). Overconfidence and its link with feedback. Active Learning in Higher Education, 23(3), 173–187.

Gamlem, S. (2015). Feedback to support learning: changes in teachers’ practice and beliefs. Teacher Development, 19, 461-482.

Gan, Z., Hu, G., Wang, W., Nang, H., & An, Z. (2021). Feedback behaviour and preference in university academic English courses: associations with English language self-efficacy. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(5), 740–755.

Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.

Kloppers, M., & Potgieter, E. (2023). Your feedback procedure, my inspiration: Enhancing student achievement through assessment. South African Journal of Education, 43(1), 1–11.

Severo, M. C., Paul, K., Walentowska, W., Moors, A., & Pourtois, G. (2020). Neurophysiological evidence for evaluative feedback processing depending on goal relevance. NeuroImage (Orlando, Fla.), 215, 116857–116857.

Wachter, M. (2022). MAKING THE MOST OF OUR WORDS: Strategies for providing effective feedback in our teaching. The American Music Teacher, 71(6), 1819.

Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The Power of Feedback Revisited: A Meta-Analysis of Educational Feedback Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10.

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