This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in May 2018. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
According to research, feedback is one of the most impactful strategies at a teacher’s disposal. It can add eight months of pupil progress every year and result in at least half a GCSE grade’s improvement.
But, as with all teaching strategies, feedback is only impactful if it is done well. And yet our obsession with feedback as the cure for all of education’s ills, as a panacea for pupil progress, has led to some questionable practices.
Take, for example, some schools’ insistence that every teacher engages in dialogic marking whereby she holds detailed written conversations in pupils’ exercise books. Or some schools’ dogmatic determination that every teacher should assess every pupil at set times of the term and in ways dictated by a whole-school policy, irrespective of whether it is appropriate or helpful for that task, phase, subject, pupil, and teacher.
Strict assessment policies can have a damaging effect on teacher workload and morale without leading to any academic benefit for pupils.
As such, so far in this seven-part series I have explored ways of making marking and feedback more meaningful, manageable and motivating. This week, I will continue to wade though the research and focus on the three questions and four levels of effective feedback…
Feedback thrives on error
As I explained last week, the term “feedback” originates from the field of engineering and was first used, to the best of my knowledge, by Norbert Wiener in 1946. To Weiner and his fellow engineers, feedback formed part of a loop – it was about the discrepancy between the current state and the desired state. But this alone was deemed useless unless there was also a mechanism within the feedback loop to bring the current state closer to the desired state. In other words, feedback was about correction and progress.
As such, we may say that feedback thrives on error. Error is the difference between what a pupil knows and can do, and what they aim to know and do – and this applies to all pupils, irrespective of their starting points. Knowing this error is fundamental to moving towards success.
So how can we ensure that our feedback helps pinpoint pupils’ errors and moves them towards success? To do this – according to Professor John Hattie (The Power of Feedback, 2007) – feedback must answer three questions and operate on four levels…
The three feedback questions
Effective feedback involves three key questions:
- Where am I going?
- How am I going to get there?
- Where to next?
The first question – Where am I going? – relates to goals. In other words, teachers need to know and communicate the goals of the lesson to their pupils. This is why it is good practice to share learning outcomes and success criteria.
Learning outcomes and success criteria relate to feedback in three ways. First, they inform pupils about the level of performance that is desired, meaning that pupils can track their own performance towards their targets.
Second, feedback allows pupils (and/or their teachers) to set further, more challenging targets once they have attained their previous ones, thus ensuring on-going learning. This requires a reasonable understanding of what progress looks like and is perhaps the most important element of a teacher’s pedagogical content knowledge.
Third, if there is no challenge, feedback is probably of little or no value: in other words, if pupils already know the curriculum content and thus find it too easy, seeking or providing feedback will have no effect. Indeed, as we discovered last week, providing feedback of success (i.e. praise) not only has little or no effect, but may also be costly as pupils waste time awaiting the feedback and thus do not go on to new more challenging tasks.
The second question – How am I going to get there? – highlights the notions of progress feedback, or feedback relative to pupils’ starting or finishing points, and is often expressed as an expected standard, or attainment as compared to their prior performance. Progress feedback can also indicate success or failure on a specific part of a task.
There are five broad strategies that teachers can use in this phase to make learning more efficient and effective:
- They can clarify and share learning intentions and criteria for success.
- They can engineer effective classroom discussions, questions and learning tasks.
- They can provide feedback that moves pupils forward.
- They can encourage pupils to see themselves as the owners of their own learning.
- They can activate pupils as instructional resources for one another through peer assessment and feedback, and peer teaching.
The third question – Where to next? – is more consequential because such feedback can assist in choosing pupils’ next most appropriate challenges, and can lead to pupils developing more self-regulation, and greater fluency and automaticity. Such feedback can also help pupils to learn different strategies and processes for a task in hand, and can deepen their understanding of that task, helping them to acquire more information about what has and what has not yet been understood.
The four feedback levels
In addition to the three feedback questions, effective feedback – according to Professor John Hattie – operates on four levels:
- Task and product.
Task and product
Feedback at the task and product level is powerful if it is more information-focused (for example, correct or incorrect), leads to the acquisition of more or different information, and builds more surface knowledge. It is often termed “corrective feedback”. In practice, task and product feedback may look like this:
- Does the answer meet the success criteria?
- Is the answer correct?
- How can the pupil elaborate on the answer?
Feedback at the process level can lead to providing alternative ways of doing things, thus reducing cognitive load. It can also help develop learning strategies and ways of detecting error, or finding information. It may help pupils to recognise relationships between ideas, too. Examples of process feedback may include identifying errors, learning how to explicitly learn from mistakes, and providing cues about different strategies or errors.
In practice, process feedback may look like this:
- What is wrong and why?
- What strategies did the pupil use?
- What other questions can the pupil ask about the task?
- What is the pupil’s understanding of the concepts/knowledge related to the task?
Self-regulation feedback can enhance pupils’ skills in self-evaluation, provide greater confidence for them to willingly engage more with the task, assist the pupil in seeking and accepting feedback, and improve their willingness to try hard and seek out and respond to further feedback.
Examples of self-regulation feedback may include helping pupils to identify feedback for themselves and understanding how to self-evaluate, providing opportunities and awareness of the importance of deliberate practice and effort, and developing confidence to pursue the learning. In practice, self-regulation feedback may look like this:
- How can the pupil monitor her own work?
- How can the pupil carry out self-checking?
- How can the pupil reflect on her own learning?
- What learning goals have been achieved?
- Can the pupil now teach another pupil how to…?
Feedback at the self level is, as the name suggests, about how the pupil regards themselves as a learner. It is natural to assume that positive feedback – in other words, praise – will cause the pupil to think more positively about themselves and their work and that this will, in turn, help improve their motivation and feelings of success.
However, although praise is often used to comfort and support, it can also direct attention away from a task, process, or from the act of self-regulation.
By incorporating praise with other forms of feedback, the learning information can be diluted because praise includes little information about a pupil’s performance on a task and provides little help in answering the three feedback questions we explored earlier.
To avoid this, we should keep praise and feedback about pupils’ learning separate from each other. Praise may be given verbally and feedback about performance may be given in writing. Alternatively, praise and feedback may be given at different times.
Nine guidelines for using feedback
In addition to our three feedback questions and four levels of effective feedback, Shiite (2008) provides nine guidelines for using feedback in order to enhance learning.
These nine guidelines – which I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing and which act as a useful checklist when we wish to quality-assure our assessment feedback – are as follows:
- Feedback should be focused on the task not the pupil.
- We should provide elaborated feedback (in other words, feedback that answers the questions: what, how and why?).
- We should present elaborated feedback in manageable units or chunks in order to avoid cognitive overload.
- We should be specific and clear with our feedback messages.
- We should keep feedback as simple as possible, but no simpler.
- We should reduce the uncertainty about how to get from between current performance and future goals.
- We should give unbiased, objective feedback, focused on performance not personality.
- We should use feedback to promote a learning goal orientation in our pupils.
- We should provide feedback after pupils have attempted a solution.
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