Asset-Based Formative Feedback

Daniel Emery

Formative feedback is one of the most powerful ways for instructors to help students develop as learners and writers. By receiving early feedback on works in progress, students learn to revise based on advice from their readers and to actively consider how their intended audience might understand their work. Graham, Harris, and Hebert (2011) have demonstrated empirically in their meta-analysis of writing feedback research that formative feedback significantly improves writing outcomes by providing advice, helping students assess their writing more effectively, and offering a chance to monitor effort and writing processes.

Assortment of rocks on red wood planks

This blog will focus less on when to provide formative feedback and look more closely at how feedback messages are constructed and the choices in language and style that convey information for revision. The language instructors use when offering advice and guidance strongly influences student performance.

Overwhelming, unprioritized, or excessively critical feedback can inadvertently demotivate students who need help with writing.  Reorienting our feedback to asset-based language can reverse these effects and produce more effective revisions.

What’s the problem with telling writers what’s wrong?

The feedback sandwich is a die-hard piece of instructional lore: open with something positive, explain everything wrong, and close with encouragement. Numerous critics from education and industry have identified problems with this conventional orientation for its lack of transparency and limited effectiveness. Furthermore, thin layers of praise will do very little to counteract the effects of deficit-based feedback strategies, which undermine students’ self-efficacy and decrease motivation.

Highlighting elements of writing that are “good” and others that are “bad” (or “awkward,” “confusing,” “unclear”) does little to tell students what choices in language are producing these reader reactions. Error-focused feedback can encourage students to focus on sentence-level corrections and may inadvertently prompt students to eliminate passages rather than revise them.

Feedback that emphasizes what students lack, whether framed as under-preparation or lack of understanding, may inadvertently reinforce a fixed mindset for learning. Deficit thinking can persuade novice learners that they lack the skills or talent to improve rather than acknowledging challenges and difficulties as a part of learning.

Three elements of asset-based feedback

Asset-based feedback strategies emphasize the constructive elements of constructive criticism, identifying students' capacity to improve and offering coaching on how to do it. Three elements are necessary for effective formative feedback.

Clear and observable standards

Beginning with clear and observable standards is the first critical component of asset-based feedback strategies. Recasting negative feedback does not mean lowering standards or an ‘anything goes’ approach but instead emphasizes the importance of rigorous and effective performance. Providing students with examples of effective performance of a standard (and contrasting with less effective examples) can help students meet instructors' expectations. More advice on developing assessment standards can be found on our Teaching Resources page.

Attention to process and effort

Rather than beginning with criticism, asking students to explain their choices as writers and describe their writing processes can keep the focus on development and improvement. Formative feedback allows instructors to ask students questions about the choices they have made and can open a dialogue about writing strategies. For example, rather than simply marking a sentence as unclear or awkwardly constructed, instructor comments could ask the student about the intended message in that sentence. The student's explanation of their purpose and choices can help them recognize a challenging sentence and formulate a new, clearer one.

While summative feedback focuses on the final evaluation and justifies a score, formative feedback can focus exclusively on strategies to enhance strengths and identify opportunities for revision. Promoting revision as a process of student’s choices and strategies rather than merely “correcting what’s wrong” can help students engage with revision more deeply. Video and audio feedback tools in Canvas are great ways to open dialogue with students.

Coaching language and direction

Finally, written or recorded formative feedback should emphasize strategies for improvement. For example, rather than suggesting that students eliminate irrelevant information and focus only on significant results, instructors can model which information is necessary and which can be omitted. Explaining why changes are beneficial can help students think strategically about their writing. The best coaching feedback emphasizes making students do the work, but providing examples can help students see how improvements can be made.

Won’t all this positivity give my students a false sense of their performance?

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about asset-based feedback is that it doesn’t imply that all feedback needs to be affirming. Coaching students to reach high standards, modify their writing processes, and make changes in their writing are all included in asset-based feedback. The emphasis, however, is on growth and improvement rather than judgment and assessment. Ideally, students at all performance levels should understand that there is more work to do to improve their performance and that they can improve their work with guidance.

Additional Resources

Zaretta Hammond. Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. USA: Corwin, 2015. “Teaching Practices: How Praise and Feedback Impact Student Outcomes.”

Further Support

For more information about teaching with writing, check out our Teaching Resources on the TWW website. Our WAC program hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Contact us to schedule a phone, email, or face-to-face teaching consultation.