Feedback – the mark of success (Part Three)

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

Several seminal works of educational research have espoused the virtues of feedback. First came Black and Wiliam’s Inside the Black Box, then Hattie’s Visible Learning, followed by the Educational Endowment Foundation’s Teaching and Learning Toolkit.

Each posited that feedback was one of the most impactful teaching strategies at our disposal, adding eight months of extra progress every year and leading to at least half a GCSE grade’s improvement. But is feedback in danger of being the next big fad?

To be clear, there is no doubt that feedback is important. It is not the next Brain Gym. If pupils didn’t know what to improve and how to improve it, they would be unlikely to make any progress.

But our obsession with feedback has led to an unhealthy teacher workload which, in turn, has adversely affected recruitment and retention in the profession.

For proof of this, look no further than the government’s Workload Challenge (2015) survey, which found that 53 per cent of respondents thought that, while marking pupils’ work was necessary and productive, the excessive nature, depth and frequency of marking was burdensome.

Last week I explored ways of ensuring that marking and feedback are made more meaningful, manageable and motivating. This week, I will turn my attention to what the evidence tells us works best.

A 2016 Education Policy Institute report called Teacher workload and professional development in England’s secondary schools: Insights from TALIS said that: “Although the time that teachers in England spend teaching lessons is around the average, it is time spent planning lessons, writing assessments, marking and other functions that is driving long working hours in England.”

Time spent on marking and feedback can be time well spent. However, when teachers spend so much time marking that they burn out, or when time is spent engaged in ineffective marking, then something has to change.

What’s more, the quality of the marking and feedback that steals so much of teachers’ time is often questionable. Indeed, as the Carter Review of Initial Teaching Training (January 2015) found, there are gaps in some teachers’ capacity “in the theoretical and technical aspects of assessment”.

In fact, of all the areas of ITT that Sir Andrew Carter reviewed, “the most significant improvements are needed for training in assessment”.

Assessment skills are not sufficiently prioritised in either initial teacher education or CPD. There is an assumption that assessment is a natural intuitive skill possessed by all new teachers but that is, it seems, a false assumption.

Those who cannot assess cannot teach

A report by the National Association of Head Teachers’ (NAHT) Commission of Assessment in February 2014 rather boldly proclaimed that: “Those who cannot assess cannot teach.”

Assessment, the report argued, is part of every teaching activity and is the means used by good teachers to evaluate progress and diagnose the needs of their pupils. As such, the best marking and feedback are neither wholly formative, nor wholly summative; they are embedded in the classroom, not activities of reflection outside the classroom.

The best marking and feedback also help pupils to engage more fully in their own development and learning. After all, a pupil responds better to new challenges if they understand what they need to do in order to progress and why doing it matters.

What’s more, the best marking and feedback are at the heart of every classroom because they provide evidence that guides teaching and learning. The best marking and feedback also provide an opportunity for pupils to demonstrate and review their progress.

Fair, honest, ambitious, appropriate, wide-ranging and consistent

The NAHT report stated that assessment should be fair – in other words, it should be inclusive of all abilities and free from bias towards factors that are not relevant to what the assessment intends to address.

They say that assessment should be honest – in other words, assessment outcomes are used in ways that minimise undesirable effects, are conveyed in an open, honest and transparent way to assist pupils with their learning, and judgements are moderated by experienced professionals to ensure their accuracy.

They say that assessment should be ambitious – in other words, it should place achievement in context against nationally standardised criteria and expected standards, and embody, through objective criteria, a pathway of progress and development for every child. Assessment objectives should set high expectations for pupils, too.

They say that assessment should be appropriate – in other words, the purpose of any assessment process should be clearly stated and conclusions regarding pupil achievement should be valid and the assessment method appropriate to the pupil’s age, to the task and to the desired feedback information.

They say that assessment should draw on a wide range of evidence to provide a complete picture of pupil achievement – in other words, it should demand no more procedures or records than are practically required to allow pupils, their parents and teachers to plan future learning.

And they say that assessment should be consistent – in other words, judgements should be formed according to common principles, the results should be readily understandable by third parties and a school’s results should be capable of comparison with other schools, both locally and nationally.

Furthermore, the NAHT says that the outcomes of assessment should provide meaningful and understandable information for: pupils in developing their learning; parents in supporting children with their learning; and teachers in planning teaching and learning.

They say that the result of assessment should be to provide information that justifies the time spent on it, and that feedback should inspire greater effort and a belief that, through hard work and practice, more can be achieved.

The feedback loop from engineering

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.

Translating this notion for use in education, we can conclude that simply telling pupils that their current performance falls short of where they need to be isn’t feedback in the original engineering sense of the term. Rather, to be effective, feedback must also embody a mode of progression for pupils.

In Assessment for Learning (2003), Wiliam et al echo this sentiment when they say that: “An essential part of formative assessment is feedback to the learner, both to assess their current achievement and to indicate what the next steps in their learning trajectory should be.”

Feedback should cause thinking

According to Shirley Clarke: “To be effective, feedback should cause thinking to take place.”

In practice, this means that the teacher should be clear and constructive about pupils’ weaknesses, offering suggestions on how they might be addressed, identify pupils’ strengths and offer advice on how to develop them, and then – crucially – provide planned opportunities in class for pupils to improve upon their work.

In order to do this well, the teacher needs to articulate clear assessment criteria before pupils engage in a piece of work and ensure these criteria guide the marking and feedback. In other words, if the learning objectives for the work being marked do not specify expectations around, say, presentation, then the teacher should carefully consider whether comments about pupils’ presentation should in fact be made.

The most effective feedback requires small incremental improvements of pupils’ work. Feedback is most impactful when it is given infrequently – what we might call “quality marking”, given for targeted pieces of work and not for every piece.

And feedback also works best when time is given for pupils to act upon it. In fact, the latter prerequisite is the most important. As Dylan Wiliam once said, the only useful feedback is that which is acted upon.

When marking pupils’ work, therefore, the teacher should consider the following factors:

  • How well has the pupil understood the task?
  • What does the pupil know and not yet know?
  • What does the pupil need to do next to improve?
  • How will the pupil be informed of the required next steps?
  • How can feedback help encourage pupils to review their work critically and constructively?

The gap

Dialogic marking is misguided – it is time-consuming and yet often ineffective. But that isn’t to say that comment-based marking isn’t worthwhile. Indeed, we know from Ruth Butler’s research that providing feedback in the form of comments only (rather than giving a grade or a grade and a comment) is the most impactful strategy because it focuses pupils on what they need to do next to improve, rather than on comparing their summative performance with their peers.

However, when giving written comment-based feedback, we need to be mindful of the fact that pupils rarely read comments. A culture shift is therefore needed and that starts with providing time in class for pupils to read and reflect on the comments.

It also involves giving pointed comments – that is to say, brief and focused on the next steps, not long-winded and focused on correcting every mistake. Comments, if they are to be helpful, also need to be specific – pinpointing particular changes that are needed and providing examples. Vague suggestions such as “Details?” are unhelpful.

Comments need to offer something new, too, rather than simply repeating what has been said before. If the same written comments keep reappearing in a pupil’s book, it suggests they aren’t paying attention to them or don’t know what to do with them.

John Hattie says that the best way in which to understand feedback is to consider Sadler’s (1989) notion of the “gap”. The purpose of feedback, Sadler argues, is to reduce the gap between where a pupil is and where she is meant to be – that is, between prior or current achievement and the success criteria.

To make feedback effective, therefore, teachers must have a good understanding of where pupils are, and where they are meant to be. Hattie argues that “the more transparent (teachers) make this status for pupils, the more pupils can help to get themselves from the points at which they are to the success points, and thus enjoy the fruits of feedback”.

Feedback can help to reduce this gap in several ways. First, it can provide cues that capture a pupil’s attention and help her focus on succeeding with a task. Second, it can provide information about ideas that have been misunderstood. Third, it can be motivational, encouraging pupils to invest more effort or apply greater skill to a task.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



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