Descriptive Feedback: The Engine that Powers Learning


Feedback should help the student understand more about the learning goal, more about their own achievement status in relation to that goal, and more about ways to bridge the gap. (Sadler, 2010)

In the learning process, descriptive feedback is information received by the learner about progress toward achieving the learning goal.

To be effective, feedback should be:

  • descriptive. It should tell the learners what knowledge and skills they have already achieved, what they still need to work on, and what steps they could take to improve. Notice the emphasis on descriptive feedback. A mark or grade, or even a happy face, is a form of feedback. However, this kind of evaluative feedback provides little information to learners about where they are in their progress toward achieving the learning goal.
  • focused on the learning goals and the success criteria. This means that the information in the feedback will be about learners’ progress toward the learning goal, using the criteria as the ‘signposts’ of what successful learning will look like.
  • prioritized to focus on a few of the success criteria. While it can seem helpful to give feedback on all of the areas where improvement is needed, learners are more likely to be able to apply the feedback when it is targeted to a few priorities.
  • “just-in-time”. Learners need feedback while they are learning, not just at the end of a cycle of learning. Both oral and written feedback can be useful to learners while they are in the process of doing a task. Getting the timing right can be a challenge. If given too soon, while students are productively struggling to learn, their learning could be shut down. Not given soon enough, learners may get off on the wrong track, or they may determine that they lack the ability to learn.
  • a teaching/learning opportunity to help students learn how to assess their own learning progress and determine next steps, using the success criteria. While giving feedback, educators can model their thinking out loud so that learners understand how educators use criteria to determine what to do next in the learning.

Here’s an example of effective feedback.

Educator to Student: “Let’s go through some of the criteria we have been working on for our learning goal. Are there any that you think you have shown in this text?

Student: I think my paragraph is focussed on one main idea, and I introduce it clearly with my topic sentence.

Educator: I think so too! I noticed that you have used some of the criteria we learned about to organize your paragraph. A suggestion for you: I think your reader might be more persuaded if you provided some examples. I’m going to check in with you later to see what examples you have chosen.”

Why is the feedback from the sample effective?

  • It describes (rather than evaluates) what the learner is doing well, and what they need to do next in their learning on the learning goal. (“We are learning to communicate effectively in writing so that we can share our ideas with others.”)
  • It uses criteria which have been co-developed with the learner. (focussed on one main idea, and clear topic sentence, etc.)
  • It prioritizes a few criteria. The person giving feedback could have pointed out many things (e.g. spelling, grammar, voice, choice of topic, etc.), but opted to focus on organization.
  • It is timely. The learner is in the process of doing a writing task, and has had an opportunity to try to work out for themselves what it means to focus a paragraph on a main idea, develop a clear topic sentence and provide examples to support.
  • It communicates to the learner how to apply the success criteria to determine strengths and next steps in learning.

One last thought…and a call to action!

Think about the occasions when learners in your classroom receive feedback.

  • What kind of feedback are they primarily receiving – descriptive or evaluation?
  • Do learners know the criteria?
  • Does the feedback focus on the criteria? Do they receive feedback during the learning, or is the feedback primarily at the end of the learning when their learning is being evaluated?
  • Are there opportunities for learners to follow up on and use the feedback before their learning is evaluated?

Based on your reflection, what is one change you might make in your practice…tomorrow? Let us know what you tried and how it turned out in the comments section.

We’re adding new posts on a regular basis! Use the category search tool in our blog to find future posts about the power of descriptive feedback and how to use this practice with your students.

Sadler, D. (2010). Beyond feedback: Developing student capability in complex appraisal. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education. 35(5), pp. 535-550.

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