Providing Opportunities to Practice

Students benefit from being able to practice new skills and demonstrate their learning, receive feedback, and then practice some more before submitting a major assignment. This page describes a cycle of practice and feedback and then proposes scaffolding as a way to help students perform well on a major assignment

As you design each major assessment, here are three questions that can help you determine how the cycle of practice and feedback should look in your course:

  • What do students need to practice?
  • When is it most helpful for them to receive feedback?
  • What form will that feedback take?

The Cycle of Practice and Feedback

Just as each major assessment is helping students work towards the course-level learning goals, each low-stakes assessment should build towards the major assessments. In other words, part of designing an effective assignment involves deciding how and when you will provide opportunities for students to practice and receive feedback. Research on how students learn has shown that “Goal-directed practice coupled with targeted feedback enhances the quality of students’ learning” (How Learning Works, p.125). The image below illustrates this cycle of student practice leading to observed performance, which allows instructors to provide targeted feedback, which helps students continue practicing and improving. Both what is practiced and the kind of feedback students receive is guided by the assignment-level and course-level goals.

Cycle of goal-directed practice and feedback. Reference description above.

[Image from How Learning Works, p.126]


One way of building the cycle of practice and feedback into your course is through scaffolding:

“Similar to the scaffolding used in construction to support workers as they work on a specific task, instructional scaffolds are temporary support structures faculty put in place to assist students in accomplishing new tasks and concepts they could not typically achieve on their own. Once students are able to complete or master the task, the scaffolding is gradually removed or fades away.” [From Northern Illinois University’s teaching center’s page on instructional scaffolds.]

Scaffolding larger assignments by having smaller-scale, lower-stakes assignments first gives students the opportunity to try (and perhaps fail), receive feedback, and improve before needing to demonstrate their learning in a high-stakes way that may have a large impact on their final grade. Scaffolding can look different depending on the types of assignments that align with your defined learning goals:

  • For classes with a final exam, or a midterm and a final, you can assign intermediate quizzes that ask students to practice the same skills they will be asked to demonstrate in the large exams. These quizzes can be given on paper or using the Canvas Quiz tool, and perhaps some of the questions can be automatically graded, while others will benefit from your feedback. These could even be ungraded quizzes, with students taking the quiz and you providing the answer key later. In fact, research on testing effect and retrieval practice indicates that the very act of being tested on a topic helps learning more than just reading a text or reviewing notes.
  • For classes with a final essay, you can assign intermediate, briefer written assignments that allow students to engage in targeted practice of specific skills, before being asked to integrate the many skills needed to write an effective essay. Depending on the kind of essay being assigned, students could submit an abstract, an outline, a section of the essay, and/or a complete draft for feedback. You can use class time for students to provide feedback to one another in pairs or small groups. Or, these can be submitted as a Canvas Assignment or Canvas Discussion.
  • For classes with an oral exam or presentation, you can provide early opportunities for students to speak or present briefly and receive feedback on their performance. This can be done during class time, during office hours, or by having students record brief Canvas discussion posts or submit a recording to Canvas.

Integrating Feedback Into Your Assignment Design

As you consider how to scaffold your major assessments, also look for ways to build in meaningful opportunities for students to receive targeted and timely feedback. You can provide individual feedback, which students will certainly find helpful. However, you can also consider ways to minimize the time you are spending providing feedback, while still supporting student learning. Some options:

  • Provide general feedback to the whole class via Canvas Announcement
  • Use class time to provide feedback 
  • Use one class period as an office hours session, giving students time to work together or ask questions of you 
  • Record audio or video of your feedback rather than writing it down
  • Grade low-stakes assignments pass/fail so you can spend more time on providing targeted comments than grading

In addition, you do not need to be the only source of feedback for your students. In fact, students’ own performance can improve through learning to give effective feedback to their peers, and providing opportunities for students to self-assess their work can help them develop their metacognitive skills. Incorporating peer and self-assessment into your course also allows students to receive more feedback than you might have time to provide.

Two examples of what student-generated feedback could look like:

  • Self-assessment: In a class with a midterm exam and a final, students complete an exam wrapper after receiving the midterm exam grade, which asks them to self-assess their performance, draw connections between how they studied for the exam and the grade they received, and identify any recurring errors made on the exam. While studying for the final exam, they review their exam wrapper and use it to help guide their studying. (Cognitive wrappers can be created for other kinds of assignments.)
  • Peer assessment: In a class with a final essay, ask students to submit a draft essay. Students are placed in peer review groups and provide feedback to one another, following guidelines provided by the instructor. The instructor does not read the draft essays. Each student revises their essay using this feedback, and is encouraged to reach out to the instructor for guidance during the revision process. Note: It does take additional time to help students understand how to effectively provide feedback to their peers. However, especially when used frequently, the act of giving effective feedback helps students become better able to revise their own essays.

As you design an assignment, you can consider when it is beneficial for students to receive individual feedback from you, when you can provide some general feedback to all students, when peers can give valuable feedback to one another, and when students can provide a self-assessment. Incorporating a variety of feedback methods can both increase student learning and help you be strategic about where to focus your time and attention.