The Issue:  When Elaine submits a homework assignment, she is frustrated if one of the following happens:

  • she never gets the assignment back;
  • she gets the assignment back weeks after the unit of study is over;
  • she gets it back with a grade on it, but has no idea why she received this grade;
  • she receives comments explaining her grade, but she has no opportunity to address these comments and improve her work for a better grade.


It’s a basic human need to want to know how you are doing when you are performing a task, whether it be work, a class, or even a game.  Sometimes the feedback on your performance can be obvious and blunt: you score a goal; you lose a game; you get a contract.

But often enough, the feedback is more subtle; it is a seemingly subjective evaluation by a boss, coach, or teacher. Perhaps worse, though, is the absence of this feedback; everyone wants to know how they’re doing, especially when they’re being directed by someone else:  “Am I doing what was asked? Is this what they meant? How is what I’m doing measuring up against others?”

This is perhaps even more the case with students than other members of society.  Students are asked to perform the same tasks as many other students and are then compared to each other. They are constantly competing with each other for college acceptances, recognition on the honor roll/dean’s list, and on athletic teams.  They have a constant need to measure themselves against others, and hopefully are willing to accept feedback to help them to improve.

This is why feedback is so important to students, whether it be in the form of grades, or better still in specific comments and written feedback.

What are the objectives in providing feedback to students?

  • Let the students know if they are on target; if they are doing what is asked and are meeting learning objectives and standards;
  • help them to see where they need to improve and work;
  • guide them to make specific improvements to their work.

Some students may only be motivated extrinsically: by grades, by class standing, from the pressure of others to perform.  However, it is more often the case that students are intrinsically motivated some of the time/in some subject areas/for some teachers, and in other areas are only extrinsically motivated: it depends on the classroom environment, the engagement with the teacher, and the design of the assignments.

The end goal of any class hopefully is for students to develop a set of predetermined learning objectives, and perhaps nothing works as well as multiple attempts at mastering a skill or task particularly when there is a feedback and improvement cycle in place.  Perhaps then, the ideal framework is the following feedback cycle:

  1. the teacher assigns a task to develop a particular skill and communicates how the students will be evaluated on the task (detailing all aspects of the skill development);
  2. the students attempt the task;
  3. the teacher assigns a grade/ objective evaluation (using a rubric or other structure) as well as a general comment identifying 2-3 main areas for development AND specific comments that detail particular places where the development areas are apparent;
  4. the students are given the assignment of reviewing and addressing all comments by reworking the first attempt;
  5. the students submit the second attempt for a separate grade which is based upon the extent to which they have addressed the areas for development;
  6. repeat steps 3-5 as necessary.

A teacher can act upon this framework in a traditional pen and paper environment, but there are some potential issues here:

  • the student loses the rubric/paper with the teacher’s feedback;
  • the student loses his/her work;
  • the student leaves the work or feedback at home;
  • in order to modify the work, the student needs to write everything out from the beginning.

Clearly, going ‘paperless’ is a boon here, and where the paperless resource is cloud-based (such as Google Apps), all of these issues are addressed.  Therefore, the cloud-based feedback tools become essential in making the feedback cycle work efficiently.

Google Docs provide a basic but excellent tool for providing feedback to students.  They are easy to use: I haven’t yet met a student who doesn’t know how to use Gmail, and the Google Doc (Drive) button is accessed at the top of the Gmail page. Click the Docs button, ‘Create’ a document, press the share button, type in the teacher’s email address, and the feedback cycle can begin:

  • Using the comment feature, the teacher can highlight text and add specific comments;
  • If the notification setting is on (and it is automatically), students will receive an email telling them that the teacher has commented on their work;
  • Students can then address the individual comments. They can even “resolve” the comments once they have addressed them;
  • Even if a student resolves a comment or deletes the text that was highlighted for the comment, the teacher can still view the history of the comments;
  • The student or teacher also can look at the revision history of the document and track what has been changed. It is even possible to revert to a previous version of the document.


Feedback in the form of individual formative comments, however should not be the only form of feedback students receive: rubrics provide students with objective feedback on their performance against benchmarked criteria.  However, for encouraging students to continually improve their work by entering into a dialogue with students, this feedback cycle which is possible through cloud-based documents is a valuable resource for motivating and guiding students.

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Beyond the Paperless Classroom by David Doherty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.