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Feedback, Diversity, and Student Motivation

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Many students fail to use instructor feedback to improve their performance.  Instructors can easily attribute this to laziness or lack of ability, but we will serve our students better if we first consider other possible causes. The reasons can be both multiple and varied, and some reasons are grounded in experiences that are more likely for students from historically underserved groups or specific to those groups.

More importantly, we can fix this.

Summary of Research

Much of the research has focused on how students understand feedback from instructors. On objective tests, many instructors provide no feedback at all save the exam score, or only the correct responses, because they expect students to ask for help if they do not understand. The barriers to help-seeking can be considerable, though, especially for men, for students who represent the first generation in their family to seek a four-year degree, and for students of color.  See the section on help-seeking in this Guide for more information on this issue and some strategies for normalizing help-seeking in your course. 

Instructors may also try to warn students to work hard in advance of an historically difficult exam. If this were an effective strategy, though, the exam would become less historically difficult. Since the warning does not work as intended, researchers sought to find out how students responded to the warning. Studies indicate that students are likely to work very hard, but they used study skills that were not appropriate for the course (e.g., more suited to high school than to college). Other studies demonstrated that particular groups of students underperformed when ambushed by stereotype threat.

Most of the research on use of feedback has focused on written assignments. Here are some key findings from these studies:

  1. Students may never see our feedback. This is highly likely for assignments not returned face-to-face in class (e.g., term papers and other major projects) but on which instructors are likely to have spent hours and hours of their own time.
  2. Students frequently do not understand our comments. Most instructors use a shorthand to save time when grading, but do not provide a glossary (e.g. "passive voice") or explain how a phrase that seems "obtuse" matters to the paper or the argument, expecting students to seek our help if they do not understand.
  3. Students frequently are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of feedback we offer. This is a particular problem on big and/or high-stakes assignments. Many instructors deem it their responsibility to comment on every problem in a paper. The result often is that, given the chance to produce a new draft, students are likely to correct only the easiest, clearest errors (typically the grammatical ones), while we find ourselves grading a skill we are not actually teaching (writing for our discipline) despite having spent enormous hours providing feedback.
  4. Students are likely to be confused by what they view as contradictory advice from multiple instructors. The most likely issues here are disciplinary differences. That makes freshmen, who are the most likely to be taking all general education courses in 4 or 5 different disciplines in the same semester, the most at-risk from this problem.
  5. Students need our help to recognize similarities and differences across assignments. Instructors often design a series of assignments that are similar in form or format or purpose as a means to gauge student learning of complex material. We intend for students to use our feedback on each assignment to improve the next one, typically without actually telling students that or explaining how the feedback relates to the next assignment. This is a "transfer of knowledge" problem that experts (like instructors) do without thinking, but novices (like students) need instruction and practice to learn. That one can use a particular form of argumentation in similar genres of writing is not obvious to students either, and because genres of writing differ across disciplines, it may not be obvious to instructors either.  How we teach the writing norms of our own discipline will thus need to differ from general education courses to advanced courses in a major.

We'll address these issues in the Strategies section below.

Finally, research indicates that students' prior educational experiences can undermine their performance and their motivation.

  • Teachers' own "fixed" or "growth" mindsets send messages that can accumulate over several years before a student reaches college. Students told "you just aren't good at [math] [writing] [drawing] [languages] [ . . . ]" are likely to view these learnable skills as innate abilities or talents or genes that they simply lack and that no amount of effort will improve. Research in psychology is clear that humans are likely to avoid investing time and effort into anything they view as hopeless or that seems likely to make them feel stupid.
  • Students from historically underserved groups are more likely than other students to have received such messages many, many times and from multiple people before they reach us. That is because most social stereotypes in the U.S. intentionally impugn a group's intelligence in order to justify that group's marginalization.
  • On the other hand, students from underserved groups who have been educated by well-intentioned teachers who wished to be viewed as allies (e.g. African American students taught by white teachers) may have been overpraised for work that the student knew to be sub-par. Intending to do good, these teachers in reality undermined their students' trust in both the educational and the learning processes. Restoring honesty and integrity alone will not repair this kind of damage to a student, but some simple design and implementation strategies can help considerably.


Objective tests

  • Write excellent questions and response options. Most instructors learn how much easier this is to say than to do when they write their first test. See CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide on "Objective Tests" for analysis and strategies for writing objective exams. 
  • Give students multiple "practice questions" in class so that students learn what kinds of questions to expect.
  • Use practice test questions as a small-group activity to discuss which response is correct and why, particularly with concepts that are hard for many students to understand
  • Match statistics on student success (e.g., % of As, ABs, and Bs) with the actual study strategies previous students used to achieve that success. See the Students' Study Skills page in CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide, and especially the "exam wrappers" listed in the Resources section there, for ideas.

Written assignments:

  1. Ensure that students see your feedback
    1. break large assignments into smaller components spread across the time allotted for the project, and offer formative feedback at each stage. Allow redrafts of small chunks to help students learn to use your feedback. Using a developmental process like this allows feedback on the final result to be summative and minimal. 
    2. At least some assignments might make the variety of skills students need for success on larger projects or in the field obvious (e.g., note-taking for research, outlining, evaluating evidence)
    3. return written assignments in class
    4. schedule students for individual conversations with you about their work at least once in the semester
    5. contact students who have not accessed feedback given online prior to the next assignment
  2. Help students understand your comments
    1. Provide a glossary of terms and abbreviations you typically use
    2. Review some common comments in class:  explain why you made the comment (what did you see? how did you understand the segment on which you commented?), and demonstrate effective responses to several comments in class
    3. Space out in-class exercises in responding to your feedback so that students get several opportunities to practice these skills
    4. Focus your comments on one or two major problems in first drafts
    5. Allow multiple drafts
    6. Help students distinguish between your "this is a problem" comments and your "I am engaging your mind here" comments (e.g. use an abbreviation or color coding). One-on-one intellectual dialogues with students is the great joy of teaching, but students cannot always recognize when we are doing that versus when we are flagging a problem in their argument.
  3. Prioritize your feedback (particularly important for students studying in a language that is not their first)
    1. Breaking larger projects into smaller components may permit multiple drafts for the most important skills or components
    2. Focus on structural issues first. Save grammatical errors for later.
    3. Use a paper wrapper to help you avoid giving feedback on issues about which a student is already aware
  4. Help students understand disciplinary differences in writing (especially important in introductory courses)
    1. Talk with instructors in other disciplines about disciplinary norms in their field
    2. Ask students about their experiences, particularly if they have been told to do something differently than you are asking them to do.
    3. Understand how research practices can influence disciplinary writing norms (e.g., humanities research typically integrates the collection and analysis of "data" or evidence, whereas the sciences and social sciences typically separate them).
    4. Help students investigate the reasons for disciplinary differences (intentionally, rather than hoping students learn it by osmosis).
  5. Develop students' ability to transfer writing knowledge from one setting to another
    1. Develop assignments or test questions that help students identify differences and similarities between and across various types of writing
    2. Use small group discussions to let students identify which writing skills, forms, or approaches will best suit your assignment
    3. Design written assignments carefully.  See the Teaching Improvement Guide on designing writing assignments for a summary of the issues and strategies for good design.  See in particular "Time-Saving Strategies for Improving Instructor Feedback on Writing for ideas to help you streamline feedback and make it more effective.  In general, the message to remember is that less is more.

Students' prior learning experiences

  • Short writes about students' prior experience with your field can help you understand where a student got the idea that they "are not good at  . . ." as well as understanding how privileged some students' experiences have been.  Using anonymous short writes from a previous year to underpin a well-designed class discussion can help build a community of learners that understand why and how they can help each other learn better
  • Adopt an "equity mindset" -- monitor what you say to students that might inadvertantly suggest that some students just cannot succeed or are not worth your own investment of time. Every student in your class will hear that message.
  • Recognize microaggressions and the conditions that might produce stereotype threat. For example, the high percentage of Ds and Fs on a particular assignment warning can be received as both. At best, it implies that you intend your course as a "weedout" and/or that you do not care about students.
  • Connect successful performance with particular study strategies and habits that you know work for your course. Use the exam and/or paper wrapper approach described in the Resources section of the Students' Study Skills page in CATL's Teaching Improvement Guide, or let students write a short bit of advice to next year's students.
  • Use "wise feedback."  Go here for more information.
  • Reduce the conditions that could provoke stereotype threat.  Go here for more information.


Cole, Darnell. “Constructive Criticism: The Role of Student-Faculty Interactions on African American and Hispanic Students’ Educational Gains.” Journal of College Student Development 49, no. 6 (2008): 587–605. 

Ginsberg, Margery., & Wlodkowski, Raymond J. Diversity and Motivation : Culturally Responsive Teaching in College. Second ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009.

Nicol, David J., and Debra Macfarlane-Dick. “Formative Assessment and Self‐regulated Learning: A Model and Seven Principles of Good Feedback Practice.” Studies in Higher Education 31, no. 2 (April 2006): 199–218.

Nilson, Linda. Teaching At Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors. Fourth ed. San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Walvoord, Barbara E.., & Anderson, Virginia Johnson. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment in College. Second ed.  San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 2010.

Hoskins, D. (2018). "Designing Inclusive Courses: Feedback, Diversity, and Student Motivation." In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from