This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2018. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
In this seven-part series I’m exploring the role marking and feedback play in effective teaching and learning.
I have argued against one-size-fits-all assessment policies that mandate teachers to assess pupils at set times and in set ways. I have also argued against burdensome assessment practices such as dialogic marking and the use of verbal feedback stamps which take a lot of teacher time with little impact on pupil progress.
I have explored ways of making marking meaningful, manageable and motivating. I’ve explained how to make feedback fair, honest, ambitious, appropriate, synoptic and consistent. And I’ve examined how to make feedback cause thinking, as well as sharing three questions, four levels and nine guidelines that can make feedback particularly effective.
This week I will focus on how, once we’ve marked pupils’ work and given them feedback, we can engage pupils with that feedback.
More is not necessarily better
If pupils are not improving, it is unlikely to be because they haven’t had enough feedback, but because they haven’t acted on that feedback. If they haven’t acted on the feedback, it is unlikely to be because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know what it means and how to respond to it.
If we mark too often and provide pupils with too much feedback, there’s a real danger that it will be ignored by dint of its ubiquity. Pupils will be confused by too many instructions and will act on none of them.
Therefore, the answer to improving pupils’ engagement with feedback is to provide less of it but do it better. That’s easy to say, but what does “better” actually mean? Well, to begin with, it means giving pupils time to act on the feedback in class.
A recent review of academic literature on the topic, published in Educational Psychologist, drew together evidence from 195 research papers that were published between 1985 and 2014 and its findings are worth considering.
The paper, entitled Supporting Learners’ Agentic Engagement With Feedback (Winstone et al, 2017), argues: “Receiving feedback on one’s skills and understanding is an invaluable part of the learning process, benefiting learners far more than does simply receiving praise or punishment.”
However, the report cautions: “The benefits of receiving feedback are not uniform across all circumstances, and so it is imperative to understand how these gains can be maximised. There is increasing consensus that a critical determinant of feedback effectiveness is the quality of learners’ engagement with, and use of, the feedback they receive.”
As I have already argued, in order to be effective, pupils must actively engage with the feedback they receive and make improvements to their work in response to it. As Carless et al (2011) point out: “Unless learners are motivated and equipped to use feedback productively, they may have limited potential to occupy a central role in the feedback process.”
If feedback is to be acted upon, it is important that pupils understand its purpose. Often, pupils know that feedback will help them to improve but know little more and do not recognise the role they must play in improvement. So what can we do?
Keep it focused
Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) argue that high-quality feedback – by clarifying what good performance entails and providing opportunities to close the gap between current and desired levels of performance – influences pupils’ ability to self-regulate, which is a crucial determinant of a pupil’s use of feedback.
According to Beaumont et al (2011), Burke (2009), and Jonsson (2013), feedback is unlikely to be used effectively if it is unclear or insufficiently detailed.
What’s more, what the teacher decides to comment on affects pupils’ engagement with their feedback. For example, as Dowden et al (2013) found, pupils don’t make good use of feedback that focuses too heavily on surface features such as spelling and grammar.
The paper in Educational Psychologist supports this view. It argued that feedback is more likely to be used if it provides corrective advice, rather than just a judgement of whether the work is “right” or “wrong”.
A study by Nelson and Schunn (2009) supported this hypothesis by directly comparing the first drafts of essays written by history undergraduates to the second drafts they wrote in response to critical feedback.
They found that pupils were more likely to put their feedback into practice when the problems had been clearly located in the essay, solutions were proposed, and a summary was presented. This kind of task-specific feedback – that which focuses on what has been done rather than on what could or should be done in the future – works best, they argued, when it is combined with process feedback which comments on the development of skills.
Keep it positive
As well as the content and focus of feedback, differences in the wording of feedback have also been found to impact on its effectiveness.
Blair, Curtis, Goodwin and Shields (2013), and Anna Koen et al (2012) found that feedback was unlikely to be acted upon if its tone was regarded as being negative or insensitive. We also already know that feedback that focuses on the pupil (praise) rather than the work being marked (performance feedback) can harm self-efficacy (see, for example, Schartel 2012).
Keep it simple
As well as being positive and motivational, feedback has to be written in a language that pupils can understand. Although it is sometimes helpful for teachers – perhaps for quality assurance purposes – to use the language of grade descriptors or exam board marking criteria, this can hamper pupils’ ability to understand it and therefore to act upon it.
Keep it timely
The timing of feedback can also influence the extent to which it is used. According to the undergraduates in Poulos and Mahony’s (2008) focus groups, as reported in the Educational Psychologist paper, when work is submitted toward the end of a module, this often means that any subsequent feedback seems irrelevant to them and cannot be acted upon constructively.
“Several other theoretical and empirical contributions,” the paper went on, “provided an apparent consensus that when learners have to wait a long time for feedback, they typically engage with it less once it does arrive.”
Keep it personal
In studies of undergraduates, pupils believed they were more likely to act on feedback that had been specifically requested and that was tailored. Personalised feedback was also found to be more effective in promoting dialogue between them and their teachers.
In conclusion, giving feedback on its own does not improve pupils’ attainment; rather, they must engage with it and act upon it. Teachers can aid this process by ensuring that the feedback they give is focused, positive, simple, timely and personal.
Self and peer-assessment
According to Wiliam (2003), it is very difficult for pupils to achieve a learning goal unless they understand that goal and can assess what they need to do to reach it.
It follows, therefore, that self-assessment is essential to learning. However, it is also difficult to get pupils to think of their work in terms of a set of goals.
Peer-assessment, therefore, is uniquely valuable for several reasons – it has been found, for example, to improve the motivation of pupils to work more carefully. Peer-assessment is also valuable because feedback is given in a language that pupils themselves naturally use and understand.
“Their communication with one another,” Wiliam explains, “can use shared language forms and can provide tenable models, so that the achievements of some can convey the meaning and value of the exercise to others still struggling.”
Peer-assessment is also helpful because pupils often accept from one another criticisms of their work that they would not take seriously if made by their teacher. What’s more, peer-assessment helps strengthen the pupil voice and improves communication between pupils and their teacher about their learning.
However, peer-assessment will only thrive if teachers help their pupils to develop the requisite skills. Many pupils will need guidance not only about what to assess but also about how to give constructive feedback.
Among the academic research that the authors of the 2017 Educational Psychologist paper reviewed, they found myriad other ways in which teachers have tried to improve their pupils’ use of feedback.
Some tried delivering feedback in audio or video format rather than in written form. Some developed electronic portfolios for their pupils to track their feedback over time. Some used one-to-one workshop sessions. Some gave their pupils access to written guidance and resources. And some used innovative peer-assessment activities.
However, the authors found the empirical evidence of effectiveness of each to be “underwhelming”. The authors therefore took a step back and asked a more fundamental question: Why should any feedback strategy work and, in turn, affect pupils’ engagement with feedback? The authors then decided to look for common themes and found four such themes emerge, which they called the SAGE processes…
Self-appraisal is defined by the paper’s authors as “the process of making judgements about oneself, one’s traits, or one’s behaviour”. They say this is distinct from pupils making academic judgements about their work. Self-appraisal should enable pupils to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, thus reducing their reliance on the teacher. Furthermore, self-appraisal can also help pupils to develop a questioning approach to their learning and support the transfer of their learning.
A: Assessment literacy
Being literate, the paper argues, requires an individual to possess relevant knowledge, skills, and competencies. Assessment literacy is defined by the paper’s authors as the processes of understanding the grading process and of applying this understanding to make academic judgements of their work and performance.
Assessment literacy enables pupils to understand the relationship between assessment and learning, and what is expected from them. It also helps pupils to appraise their own and other’s work against implicit or explicit grading criteria. What’s more, it enables pupils to understand the terminology and concepts used in feedback and know suitable techniques for assessing and giving feedback, and when to apply these techniques.
G: Goal-setting and self-regulation
Goal-setting is defined by the paper’s authors as a process of explicitly articulating desired outcomes, such as achieving a grade 8 on the next piece of work, or demonstrating better evidence of critical thinking.
Fulfilling these desired outcomes typically requires a pupil to adopt goal-directed behaviour, such as increasing the time they spend studying, or discussing their work with a teacher. Therefore, goal-setting contributes to the more general skill of self-regulation – pupils’ on-going monitoring and evaluating of their own progress.
E: Engagement and motivation
Engagement and motivation is defined by the paper’s authors as being enthusiastic about and open to receiving performance information. This requires a commitment to change and to on-going development, and actually paying attention to the feedback and being prepared to consider it and take it on board.
Each of these SAGE processes represented a broad set of metacognitive skills underlying pupils’ engagement with feedback. The report’s authors argued that, in their research, they found that no single feedback strategy was likely to cover all four processes: instead, a “package” of strategies was needed.
For example, a teacher might use peer-assessment as a means to promote pupils’ assessment literacy skills, but might also need to use another strategy if part of the problem related to pupils’ goal-setting and self-regulation skills. An effective solution to the problem of pupils’ lack of engagement with feedback may be one that, by combining several interventions, maps strongly onto all of the prerequisite skills, they said.
If we are to encourage our pupils to engage with assessment feedback and respond to it in order to improve their performance, we must ensure that our feedback is focused, positive, simple, timely and personal. We must make effective use of self and peer-assessment activities. And we must provide opportunities for our pupils to engage in self-appraisal, we must support their development of assessment literacy, encourage them to adopt goal-oriented behaviours, and to be engaged and motivated by performance feedback. Next week, in the final part of this series, I will consider the future of feedback.
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