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Authentic Feedback: What It Is and Isn't

Today's guest blog is written by Luke Mandouit; a public school teacher and graduate student of John Hattie's at the University of Melbourne in Melbourne, Australia.

The effectiveness of feedback in stimulating student growth is well established within educational literature. In John Hattie's seminal work: 'Visible Learning', feedback ranks 3rd on positive influence on student achievement; capable of stimulating 0.75 growth when delivered effectively. Despite this, it is also acknowledged that there is a significant variance in the effectiveness of various forms of feedback; with praise, punishment and information delivered through symbols at the bottom of the scale, and the use of cues pertaining to process and learner self-regulation towards the top.

Adding further complexity to the feedback discussion is that much previous work in the area of feedback has been done from a teacher and researcher's perspective, and with a focus on measuring achievement. This may be considered a contrast to schools, who have goals wider than just achievement, and have classrooms full of students who each bring a range of learning experiences, achievement levels, motivators, and emotions, all influencing the way they respond to feedback.

So how do teachers and school leaders integrate the incredibly insightful and ongoing research informing the use of feedback, and balance this with the reality of the classroom context?

It's Often Praise...Not Feedback
Praise within the feedback literature is a contentious issue; and, in terms of influencing achievement - is not overly effective. Non-specific praise directed to the student with comments such as: 'good job'; or, 'well done', gives no information in which to respond to in future task performance. 

On the one hand praise is not necessarily bad; the issue is that when it is combined with constructive information about the task as then the students focus on the praise and often ignore the feedback about the task.  The advantage of praise is that it can help cultivate positive relationships with students, and can stimulate positive reactions such as motivation and learning confidence. Students look up to teachers and seek approval, with a great deal of personal investment in the judgements and information delivered to them on task.

Given these reasons, praise still has some place in classrooms - so rather than throwing it out completely, we should simply use it more effectively and at the right time.  The important message is to keep praise and meaningful feedback information on task separate; allowing for clear communication and reception of each message. 

Different feedback questions
Hattie and Timperley identify three major questions to which feedback can be addressed: Where am I going?; How am I going?; and, Where to next?  Teachers often give feedback relative to the first two. However, when students are asked for the feedback they most prefer and can use, it is feedback about "Where to next?". 

Yes, the feedback to this question can be enhanced by also providing feedback about the first two questions, but as much as possible try to include feedback that helps the student understand the next steps in learning.  We all want to know how to move forward.

Be specific
Corrective information delivered through crosses, underlines, circles and other symbols, or through vague comments, can be ambiguous to students and will often only flag correct or incorrect responses. Based on this flagging, especially in the case of incorrect answers, with no other information presented students will need to use their own judgement as to what has been done incorrectly and what they need to do differently next time around.

In some cases they may realise they rushed and made a spelling error, or that they got concepts mixed up, but essentially the response of the student is constructed based on their prior learning experiences, or with fellow peers.  Delivery of this type of feedback is assuming that the students have the skills to decipher the flagged errors for themselves; and considering that the answer was incorrect, one could assume they don't.

Based on this, feedback should be specific and clearly articulated.  In the information provided, students should have an understanding of how they have performed, and what they need to do next to improve. When grading a paper or piece of work, this can become arduous; but places even more importance on the use of formative evaluation strategies to deliver ongoing feedback, and in developing the capacity of the group to respond to feedback.

Cultivate group capacity to respond to feedback
For every learner there are at least three voices in the classroom, these coming from: their peers, their teacher, and from within. But too often planned feedback is limited to coming from the teacher to the student, and presented at the end of a unit. In addition to this, a key challenge to the teacher is finding the time to deliver effective feedback that tells the student how they are going and what they need to do to progress further. 

Based on this, teachers should harness the voice of the students within the class, and plan for opportunities for students to provide feedback to peers. Developing the capacity of the group to deliver, and respond to feedback will not only enhance ongoing feedback to the learner from both peers and teacher; but will develop the reflective voice in the student leading to improved self-regulation processes that can be applied to future learning experiences.

This can be facilitated in a variety of ways with peer assessment of formative tasks a great starting point, or development of classroom protocols in which students seek assistance from each other when stuck on a problem. What is crucial however, that students understand what makes for a quality piece of work; this way they can apply this to peer assessment, which in turn they can apply to their own work going forward.

This can be facilitated through the setting of clear learning intentions and success criteria, the use of an exemplar alongside the assessment criteria with a discussion led by the teacher in why this work meets particular standards; or, through structured peer assessment activities in which students are guided through the grading and feedback process.  

Giving good feedback now, will help the student beyond this specific learning experience
As discussed earlier, students' learning experiences have a significant impact on how they respond to any future feedback, and the self-regulation strategies they develop. When students are faced with challenges, are reviewing their work, or are reading teacher's feedback, they are constantly drawing on their knowledge and prior learning experiences to make sense of the situation. Giving good feedback now, will enhance their capacity to deal with these challenges.

Quality feedback takes time, but often teachers are occupied with delivering the bulk of their feedback on the final assessment piece. Instead, teachers should focus on developing well-planned learning sequences that allow for ongoing assessment from teacher and peers alike, with structures in place for students to use feedback to develop their ability to self-regulate. By coaching effective self talk and reflection, students will then be able to apply feedback to future learning experiences and perform at a higher level. 

Change the class mindset
Students acknowledge that process and self-regulation based feedback is the most useful to them. When they receive this type of feedback, they concur that they will use the information next time around. Despite this, when the focus of the task is an assessment, students simply want to know what they need to do to get a high mark.

Based on this, it is crucial that teachers develop a culture of growth in the classroom through use of language, and effective design of learning tasks. Rather than students receiving feedback on: 'Where to next?' at the conclusion of a unit of work along with their final mark, consideration should be given in planning to how this information will be delivered to the student during the formative and growth phases of the learning sequence.

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