Effective Feedback: Descriptive Feedback

In a previous post called Effective Feedback: Evaluative Feedback we introduced and discussed evaluative feedback, including what it is and some ways to use it effectively. We also discussed one of the ways that we can do our students a disservice through the inappropriate use of evaluative feedback. Indeed, some teachers use feedback (i.e. grades) as a weapon to hurt students rather than using feedback to help the students in their improvement process. Used correctly, evaluative feedback can be a useful tool to help students build skills. The second method of giving feedback is called descriptive feedback. Like evaluative feedback, it also has appropriate times for use. It is another important tool in the effective teacher’s repertoire.

Descriptive feedback is feedback that may or may not show up in the gradebook. Descriptive feedback is feedback that describes for the student what he or she did without an evaluation. An example of descriptive feedback is, “You have written a clear thesis statement here. As a result, I am able to easily follow your logical progression in this essay.” Another example is, “You did not carry the 1 in this addition problem. As a result, your final answer is off by 10.” As you can see from the two examples, evaluative feedback includes two key components: an observation of what the student has done, and a statement of the result of this action. It is important that descriptive feedback lacks the components that typically accompany grades, such as statements like “good job” and even a letter grade. Including these items will most often distract students from doing what needs to be done in order to make improvements and will instead draw their attention to their grade. With descriptive feedback, the points are not the point; rather, the goal is improvement.

While evaluative feedback is most often a result of summative assessment and is characterized by comparison to a standard or by judgement on the part of the teacher, descriptive feedback is a critical component of formative assessment and is characterized by specific information about the student’s performance and guidelines on what the student needs to do in order to improve. To accomplish the goals of descriptive feedback, teachers have the option of either writing comments or having a conversation with the student. With this in mind, teachers should differentiate their feedback so the student will respond appropriately to it. In other words, if you see a student never looks at her returned papers and just sticks them in her bag, a conversation is a better way to provide descriptive feedback. If the student studies her papers when you give them to her, written feedback can work fine because you know she’ll read your comments. 

As a critical component of formative assessment, descriptive feedback provides information for students about where they currently stand in relation to a particular goal, and gives steps for improvement going forward. Descriptive feedback is best used in any kind of drafting situation, when a student is making multiple attempts to reach a particular goal or standard. It can also be useful with project-based learning: when students are working to complete a larger assignment over a period of time. Along the way toward completion, repeated instances of descriptive feedback provide a great way to make sure the process itself is edifying to students, and the final product is something that represents the students hard work and development.

Both evaluative feedback and descriptive feedback are useful tools for teachers and students when they are used correctly. As a general rule, remember that evaluative feedback is typically better for summative assessments and descriptive feedback is usually more appropriate in formative situations. In either case, make sure your students get quality, timely feedback on a regular basis. It is one of the most important parts of an effective classroom environment.