The open loop

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in November 2017.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

To help pupils learn, we need to provide them with plentiful opportunities to practise, receive feedback, reflect, and then act upon that feedback. This is called the open loop because it spins endlessly: practice, feedback, reflection; practice, feedback, reflection; ad infinitum.

Every skill can be improved and perfected by performing it repeatedly but not all forms of practice are equal. We learn most effectively when we engage in what Anders Ericsson calls “purposeful practice”.

Purposeful practice is about struggling in certain targeted ways – placing artificial barriers in the way of pupils’ success in order to make it harder for them to learn something initially. In other words, we slow our pupils’ learning down and force them to make mistakes because this will ensure they operate at the very edge of their abilities.


We should set pupils a target just beyond their current ability but within their reach – in what Lev Vygotsky calls the “zone of proximal development” and what Robert Bjork calls “the sweet spot”. This spot is – Bjork says – the “optimal gap between what (pupils) know and what (they’re) trying to do … When (they) find that sweet spot, learning takes off”.

Only by repeating learning and by doing so in a range of contexts, will pupils increase the storage strength of the information in their long-term memories. The better the storage strength, the more pupils’ knowledge and skills will be readily available.

Repeating learning – the very act of recalling prior knowledge and skills from long-term memory – also improves pupils’ retrieval strength. The better the retrieval strength, the more easily, quickly and efficiently are knowledge and skills recalled from long-term memory and brought into the working memory where they can be used.

Practice tasks should have well-defined, specific goals, be focused, involve feedback, and require pupils to get out of their comfort zones because, if they don’t push themselves beyond their comfort zones, they’ll never improve. Getting out of their comfort zones means trying to do something that they couldn’t do before. In this respect, the secret of effective practice is not to “try harder” but rather to “try differently”.


Once pupils have practised their learning, we need to ensure they receive – and produce – information about what they have mastered and what they still need to practice.

Feedback should redirect the pupil’s and the teacher’s actions to help the pupil achieve their target. Effective feedback addresses faulty interpretations, comments on rather than grades work, provides cues or prompts for further work, is timely, specific and clear, and is focused on task and process rather than on praising.

Feedback works best when it is explicit about the marking criteria, offers suggestions for improvement, and is focused on how pupils can close the gap between their current and their desired performance. Feedback does not work well when it focuses on presentation or quantity of work.

Feedback can promote the growth mindset if it: is as specific as possible, focuses on factors within pupils’ control, focuses on factors which are dependent on effort not ability, and motivates rather than frustrates pupils.

Self and peer-assessment can prove effective strategies – particularly so if we want our pupils to become increasingly metacognitive in their approach to learning – because these strategies: give pupils greater responsibility for their learning, allow pupils to help and be helped by each other, encourage collaboration and reflection, enable pupils to see their progress, and help pupils to see for themselves how to improve.

But self and peer-assessment need to be used wisely and pupils need to be helped to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to be able to assess and give feedback (because research suggests 80 per cent of the feedback pupils give each other is wrong).

It is, therefore, well worth investing lesson time to help pupils improve their self-assessment skills because research suggests that, when done, it can increase pupils’ achievement.

Ultimately, though, the only useful feedback is that which is acted upon – it is crucial, therefore, that the teacher knows the pupil and knows when and what kind of feedback to give, then plans time for pupils to act on the feedback they receive. For example, DIRT – “directed improvement and reflection time” – is a great use of lesson time and helps to condition pupils in the drafting and re-drafting process, as well as getting them used to responding positively to feedback, to learning from their mistakes, and to improving through a process of trial and error.

If the act of reflecting and acting upon feedback is a task usually left for homework then it sends a message to pupils that feedback and the act of redrafting are not important. What’s more, the process of improvement is hidden away rather than placed centre-stage in lessons where the teacher can identify progress and celebrate it.

Delayed feedback

According to Professor Dylan Wiliam, feedback after a test that includes the correct answer increases pupils’ capacity to learn because it enables them to correct any errors in their work. The critical mechanism in learning from tests, Prof Wiliam argues, is successful retrieval. However, if pupils do not retrieve the correct response after taking the test and have no recourse to learn it, then the benefits of testing can be limited or indeed absent altogether.

As such, providing feedback after a retrieval attempt, regardless of whether the attempt was successful or unsuccessful, will help to ensure that retrieval is successful in the future.

Feedback is important after any type of test, but it is particularly important after pupils have taken a recognition test, such as a multiple-choice quiz or a true/false question, because in these situations pupils are exposed to incorrect information in the form of the false options.

Another important consideration, according to Prof Wiliam, is when to give feedback. Conventional wisdom – supported by studies in behavioural psychology – suggests that providing immediate feedback is best. However, recent experimental results have shown that delaying feedback might be more powerful.

In one study, for example, pupils read a text and then either took or did not take a multiple-choice quiz. One group of pupils who took the quiz received correct answer feedback immediately after making each response (immediate feedback); another group who took the quiz received the correct answers for all the questions after completing the entire test (delayed feedback).

One week after the initial session, pupils took a final test in which they had to produce a response to the question that had formed the stem of the multiple-choice question (in other words, they had to produce an answer of their own rather than selecting one from a list of options). The final test consisted of the same questions from the initial multiple-choice quiz and comparable questions that had not been tested.

The study found that taking an initial quiz (even without feedback) tripled final recall relative to only studying the material. When correct answer feedback was given immediately after each question in the initial quiz, performance increased by another 10 per cent. However, when the feedback was given after the entire test had been completed, it boosted final performance even more. In short, the study concluded that delayed feedback led to better retention than immediate feedback.


As well as providing pupils with time to respond to feedback, they also need time to reflect on their learning. Reflection might involve pupils rethinking their understanding of important ideas, perhaps with the teacher’s guidance. It might involve pupils improving their work through revision based on self-assessment and feedback. It might involve pupils reflecting on their learning and performance.

With big ideas and questions being central to well-planned lessons, it stands to reason that taking a linear path through curriculum content (teaching it once then moving on) is a mistake. After all, how can pupils master complex ideas and tasks if they encounter them only once?

Therefore, the flow of a sequence of lessons must be iterative, pupils must be made fully aware of the need to rethink and revise in light of current learning, and the work must follow the trail back to the original big idea and learning outcome.

Once pupils have received feedback on their work and rethought their ideas, we need them to engage in metacognition – in other words, we need them to take ownership of their own learning, making improvements but also reflecting on how successfully they have learnt and what skills they need to practise further.

This means developing the capacity to self-monitor and self-adjust as needed; to proactively consider what is working, what isn’t, and what might be done better. In order to achieve this, we need pupils to engage in some form of self-evaluation, which means teaching them how to take stock of what they have learned and what needs further inquiry or refinement.

In practice, this means that pupils need opportunities in lessons to self-monitor, self-assess, and self-adjust their work, individually and collectively, as the work progresses. We can do this by:

  • Allocating five minutes in the middle and at the end of a lesson in order to consider: “What have we found out? What remains unresolved or unanswered?”
  • Asking pupils to attach a self-assessment form to every formal piece of work they hand in.
  • Including a one-minute essay at the end of an instruction-based lesson in which pupils summarise the two or three main points and the questions that still remain for them (and, thus, next time, for the teacher).
  • Asking pupils to attach a note to any formal piece of work in which they are honest about what they do and do not understand.
  • Teaching pupils to evaluate work in the same way that teachers do so that pupils become more accurate as peer reviewers and self-assessors, and more inclined to “think like teachers” in their work.
  • Starting lessons with a survey of the most burning questions pupils may have. Then, as part of the final plenary, judge how well the questions were addressed, which ones remain, and what new ones emerged.
  • Leaving the second half of a unit deliberately “open” to allow pupils to frame and pursue the inquiry (rather than be directed by the teacher) based on the key questions that remain and clues that emerge at the end of the first half.
  • Getting pupils to develop a self-profile of their strengths and weaknesses as learners at the start of the year whereby they consider how they learn best, what strategies work well for them, what type of learning is most difficult, and what they wish to improve upon. Then, structure periodic opportunities for pupils to monitor their efforts and reflect on their struggles, and successes, and possible edits to their own profiles.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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