Tips: Keep A Feedback Word Bank

On September 24, 2015, in Teaching Tips, UWindsor, by gregorynpaziuk

At this year’s GATAcademy 2015, Alex Gayowsky and Marissa Reaume spoke to participants about the importance of keeping a feedback word bank: a collection of words you use when formulating comments for students’ assignments.

Over time, as your experiences in teaching grow and multiply, you’ll begin to notice that there are certain words and phrases that you keep coming back to in your comments to students. These are the words you rely on to tell students what they are doing well and how they can improve. Your feedback word bank collects these points – whether on a post-it note or in a formal document – to make it easy for you to find an appropriate comment for a student’s work quickly.

Teaching and Learning Word Banks, University of Tasmania

Teaching and Learning Word Banks, University of Tasmania

What Makes Good Feedback Good

Research tells us a few things about what constitutes effective feedback. Marianne Stenger of Edutopia collected scholarly research from a variety of sources within higher education that suggests effective feedback is specific, timely, goal-oriented, is clearly for the purpose of personal growth, and involves learners in the process.

The University of Waterloo’s Centre for Teaching Excellence also suggests that, as much as possible, good feedback offers continued support. In other words: good feedback is something you can follow up on with the student.

Columbia University’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center offer their own tips. Aside from referring back to the grading criteria, the Center also suggests making suggestions for how to rephrase main ideas.

Building Your Feedback Word Bank

Start by reviewing your feedback to students on past assignments. To that end, keeping track of your feedback is a good idea not just for building your word bank, but also for keeping track of what you want to follow up on with students. For the purpose of your word bank, however, look for comments you tend to make a lot. Keep in mind that this practice will tend to be assignment-specific, especially as it relates to different concepts that might be covered at different points of a course.

Of course, while you’re building your list of commonly used evaluative words and phrases, you might find yourself craving more range in your critical voice. Expanding your feedback vocabulary takes time, but it’s worth exploring other people’s vocabularies and finding synonyms for the words you already use, like this list from the University of Michigan Business School. Just be careful to stay away from subjective words like “good” and “bad” – aim more for “effective” and “unsupported.”

Keeping a few stock examples of effective responses to an assignment to include in comments can also make your feedback more specific, so remember to ask students who perform particularly well on an assignment this time around if you can use their work as an example for future classes. The same goes for core and/or threshold concepts: common phrases that explain (and re-explain) the key concepts students were meant to address are another important component of an effective feedback word bank.

Some teachers even go so far as to build phrase and sentence response banks. Robin Neal discusses the merits of using Microsoft Word macros to insert general feedback phrases into student work. Neal keeps a database of the feedback comments he makes most often on student essays. Then he uses shortcuts to insert those comments into student papers.

You can also start building your feedback repository by thinking in terms of levels of achievement. In short, what types of words do you tend to use to describe high achievement? Which words do you use to describe low achievement? Try breaking these phrases down into a table, like so:

Level of Achievement Phrases
Highest Achievement
(A Range; 80 – 100%)
beyond; advanced; original use of; highly detailed; “thesis engages with key concepts of the argument in innovative way”; “report provides detailed critical analysis and clearly explains the results, as well as their implications”
High Achievement
(B Range; 70 – 80%)
considerable; detailed; clear connections; effective; “thesis presents argument using balanced evidence”; “report includes all necessary elements and provides some critical analysis”
Adequate Achievement
(C Range; 60-70%)
required elements; necessary; “thesis presents realistic argument”; “report addresses objectives, but more analysis is necessary to understand the results”
Low Achievement
(D Range; 50 – 60%)
minimal; underdeveloped elements; “thesis does not fit with the argument”; “lacking one or more elements required of the report”
Lowest Achievement
(F Range; 0 – 50%)
missing; incomplete; “no thesis present”; “data not presented”


If this table looks a little like a rubric, there’s a good reason for that, too.

Where Does Good Feedback Come From?

If we’re taking proper course alignment and inter-rater reliability into account, than feedback words will naturally tend to borrow from your rubric. When your feedback word bank is structured effectively, you should see a lot of overlap between the words you use in your rubric or assignment description and the comments you are leaving for students.

As this guide from Curtin University of Technology suggests, rubrics are themselves a form a feedback. Depending on how it’s structured, a rubric can provide examples of feedback according to different levels of achievement. When a rubric is used properly, instructors then add to those exemplars with specific insights about a student’s work.

What Do You Keep In Your Word Bank?

Tell us what phrases you find yourself coming back to again and again in the comment section below.


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