Progress, not Praise: How to Design Feedback for Competency-based Learning

Early on I started thinking of my typography teacher, Juliet Shen, as “the doctor.” Each week during my typography class, taken several years ago at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle, my classmates and I would arrive and hang our projects on a clothes line, strung along one of the classroom walls; then “the doctor” would make her way down the line, focusing for several minutes on each project and what in the work had fulfilled the objectives, laid out on each assignment sheet, and what hadn’t.

She was understated, her voice dry and quiet, and we stood silently, gathered around her, leaning in to hear every word. She gave modest praise, never plumped up her prose with euphemism, and precisely identified what was wrong or right: unvarnished, actionable feedback, some of the best I’ve received. It was never extensive, but quick and targeted, even delivered at times on sticky notes (underlining mine):

post it

How she gave feedback reminded me of an astute doctor, making a diagnosis. Sometimes she’d move from diagnosis to prescription, but first she was all Grant Wiggins’ style feedback: what you did and didn’t do. I left each class with information to apply as I continued wrestling with the projects and striving to improve. Further, from what she modeled and taught me, I began to think and to observe like a designer.

In a recent blog post on the key elements for supporting students with competency-based learning (CBL), I focused on transparency, intentionality, and clarity. As the school year begins and student work accrues, I want to explore feedback, which is intimately tied to transparency, intentionality, and clarity. Wiggins believed that more feedback and less teaching enables more learning. I’ll begin with his definition of feedback, then present an approach to designing it and examples of how to implement it in a competency-based environment.

What is Feedback?

According to Wiggins, feedback is “goal-related information about how we are doing or what we just did.” Goals are the bread and butter of CBL, which identifies not only the skills to develop, but also the outcomes, the measurable ways we’ll track growth.

While the what (plans and logistics) is often prominent in classrooms, we don’t always get an equally elevated focus on the why and the how of learning, not to mention the critical formative feedback. In Wiggins’ “ideal feedback system,” students receive ongoing and timely information about how well they’re performing in relationship to transparent goals. I’ve named my version of such a system the Learning-Driven Ecosystem:


Wiggins also underscored what feedback isn’t. Here’s where we falter. Feedback isn’t advice, praise, or evaluation. While each of these concepts may have a role, too often we provide them instead of actionable information that leads to learning. He said about feedback’s starring role in learning:

It’s not teaching that causes learning, after all—as painful as it might be for us educators to realize. Learning is caused by learners attempting to do something and getting feedback on the attempt. So learners need endless feedback more than they need endless teaching.

Let’s be honest: the challenge of providing excellent, actionable, and specific formative feedback is a daunting one. We could work constantly, which we likely already do, and not keep up with the demands of this crucial work. That’s where well-designed feedback practices can ease some of our challenges. They will never eliminate the efforts required, but they will enable us to work more wisely and to ensure that whatever investment we make, our feedback drives learning.

Design Your Feedback

Just as we design lessons and assignments, so too can we design feedback. CBL starts with competencies and outcomes. In some approaches, they come from state standards, Common Core standards, Next Generation Science Standards, or another source. Whatever their origins, teachers need intimate relationships with them, built by unpacking them and deriving learning objectives from them. Those objectives then form the basis for formative feedback.

At Global Online Academy, we use core competencies and outcomes for all courses and course-specific competencies and outcomes, built by our teachers. Simply communicating objectives to students at the start of an assignment initiates a feedback process. Whether you later provide formative feedback or not, students know what they’re after and can measure their work against articulated outcomes (especially if you work with them on how to do so).

A critical step for designing feedback: determining where to invest in assessing student work.

To help teachers build the skills needed, I’ve crafted a teacher competency for providing feedback along with outcomes for measuring this skill:

feedback rubric

To read more about these outcomes, check out Seven Keys to Effective Feedback.

The beauty of feedback within CBL is that we can track growth over time. The target isn’t continually moving (or unknown). With an outcomes-based foundation in place, you’re positioned to design varied forms of outcomes-based feedback.

Building a Culture of Feedback

Given the constraints on our time, investing in building a culture of feedback in your class will save you time in the future and engage your students in active improvement of their own feedback skills. No matter the form feedback takes at GOA, the student is intimately involved. Take a look at our Catalyst Cards on feedback:

catalyst cards

A culture of feedback begins with a culture of transparency. We encourage teachers to give feedback to all students collectively when that approach makes sense. For example, when trends emerge across students’ work on an assignment, one video addressed to the group can highlight the outcomes everyone should pay attention to. (I’d also build in interaction with the video, so that each student actively digests the feedback.)

In Poetry Writing individualized student feedback (not grades) comes in one document for all. Each person gets feedback “priorities,” which serve as “considerations” for everyone else. All writers see how everyone has areas to improve (and can take general note of their details) while benefiting from specific information about their own work. Additionally, time spent on feedback has greater value and potential application. The same process happens with peer feedback, done in an online forum.

Our Medical Problem Solving team of teachers has prioritized peer feedback. Early in the semester they give time and attention to teaching students what effective feedback is and how to give and receive it. This approach makes clear the competencies and outcomes needed for actionable peer feedback and intentionally helps students develop these life skills.


There are also small and vital ways to provide actionable feedback, and we now know well that online discussions are most successful when teachers do so. Take a look at how one of our Introduction to Psychology teachers provides targeted feedback in a response to a student’s discussion post. Because this is a class forum, the resources and comments are available to everyone.



Perhaps the most widely-used mode of CBL feedback is rubrics built with outcomes. These rubrics are tools for communication and assessment, introduced early in an experience so students begin with clear expectations. What I’ve discovered about rubrics, though, is that they can muddy up the works. Large blocks of text and points given with no narrative explanation leave students with no path forward and/or overwhelmed, maybe even deflated. However, the single point rubric with narrative explanations invites engagement and application.

Here’s an example from Bioethics:


My experience in Juliet’s typography class was the Platonic ideal for learning: the lens through which I look at the world changed in small and large ways (not without pain and discomfort, which persist). As the designer Massimo Vignelli describes in the documentary Helvetica, “The life of a designer is a life of fight….the visual disease is what we have around, and…we try to…cure it somehow with design.” Like Juliet, I now aim for the understated: a lean sans-serif, no nonsense font, for example. Get the job done. Crisp and unfussy. A life approach, too, and akin to the best feedback.

Additional Resources

Adopting Competency-based Learning: 4 First Steps for Teachers and Schools by Jason Cummings

On Feedback: 13 Practical Examples per Your Requests by Grant Wiggins

Thanks for the Feedback: The Art and Science of Receiving Feedback Well by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen

Thinking of Embracing Competency-based Learning? Six Organizations to Know Now by Bonnie Lathram

What do Chopped and cello lessons have in common? Feedback that leads to learning by Susan Fine

Why Competency-based Learning Matters, now More Than Ever by Eric Hudson

Global Online Academy (GOA) reimagines learning to enable students and teachers to thrive in a globally networked society. Professional learning opportunities are open to any educator. To sign up or to learn more, see our Professional Learning Opportunities for Educators or email with the subject title “Professional Learning.” Follow us on Twitter@GOALearning. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter here.

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