Why teachers should stop spoon-feeding feedback

Teachers should not dole out feedback like sweets but should instead encourage learners to recognise for themselves where their strengths and weaknesses lie so they become more self-reliant in identifying the areas they need to work on, says Steven MacKenzie
13th September 2019, 12:04am
Teachers Need To Stop Spoon-feeding Students
Steven MacKenzie


Why teachers should stop spoon-feeding feedback


Students know what they are supposed to say when faced with the question: "How do you know how you are getting on in your classes?" Even the most disengaged 16-year-old will, if pressed, be able to rattle off the traditional sources of feedback they receive.

A year ago, I had a conversation with one of my students, Ben, and asked him the above question. Our chat went as follows:

Ben: "What the teacher tells me when we do tracking."

Me: "Anything else?"

Ben: (long pause) "Maybe scores on tests?"

Me: (in desperation) "Is that all?"

Ben: (padding his pockets to check his phone is still there) "Sometimes teachers write stuff on my work."

Providing feedback is often seen as one of the most important roles a teacher has. But Ben's comments led me to wonder if, in our drive to improve learners' knowledge of their learning and next steps, we could actually be making things worse.

Most schools will have some version of student tracking and the "learning conversation". Our school has a system of monthly tracking and monitoring in the senior phase whereby teachers discuss strengths and next steps with learners then agree a red, amber or green marker as a snapshot of their current progress.

Teachers sitting down with students to discuss their learning on a regular basis and agreeing next steps can have a profound effect on learners. But it can also lead to spoon-feeding, creating passive learners who are unprepared for a world of work where self-regulation is held in high regard.

We wanted to make learners aware of the other sources of feedback available to them, in order to build self-regulation and, more importantly, prepare them for a world where employers do not sit you down once a month to tell you if you are doing well or not.

Over a few months, my department began to think about feedback which, as Dylan Wiliam (2018) says, should "move learning forward". We realised that there is a lot of feedback out there and most of it doesn't come from teachers.

As a result, we now ask our learners to consider the following questions when trying to work out how they are doing.

'Could you answer the questions asked by the teacher in class?'

Not just "could you answer the question a teacher asked you?", but also "did you know the answer to the question they asked the person sitting next to you?"

Getting learners to reflect on the answers they knew and the answers they didn't is important, but the most important thing is that the questions they don't know the answer to are viewed by the learner as feedback, which they then go on to do something about.

'Could you explain the content to someone else?'

A student once asked me: "How do you remember all this stuff?" The answer is that teachers remember the content they deliver because they constantly have to explain it to others, which requires a deep engagement with it. We ask our students to explain what they have learned to their friends, their family, whoever will listen. If you can make your gran understand the limits on the powers of the prime minister, you are going to remember it. If you try to and fail, you have just received more feedback about how you are doing.

'How long does it take you to write answers?'

Like it or loathe it, preparing for exams involves being able to respond to questions by producing written answers under timed conditions. Regular practice of this is vital for success and we encourage learners to know exactly how long they have to answer questions. If they are not able to answer questions in the allocated time, we encourage them to think about why, and consider, for example, whether they're accessing the information regularly enough or whether a lack of practice at physical writing could be an issue.

'Can you retain what you have learned over time?'

Inspired by Barak Rosenshine's Principles of Instruction (2012), we encourage learners to reflect on their ability to access information they learned last week, last month and last term. If they struggle with a certain topic, they are encouraged to consider how long ago they learned it and to retrieve information from across the course regularly.

'What are your thoughts and feelings about a particular topic?'

Pupil: "Aw, Sir, I hate electoral systems!"

Me: "What a great bit of feedback you have just given yourself! You are obviously not feeling confident in that area, so you need to work on electoral systems."

I'm not quite as annoying as that (most of the time) but we have found that people tend to like what they are good at, so encouraging students to identify their thoughts or feelings about areas of the course can be useful.

We have also made changes to the three sources of feedback Ben had identified.

Written feedback

The stuff teachers sometimes write, as Ben put it, is usually thought by teachers to be important and very helpful. We spend a significant amount of time on it, often more than the task took learners to complete. But we may be wasting our time.

One of the most effective changes we have made to the way we give written feedback is the removal of grades for the first term. Wiliam points out that when students are given comments and scores, the first thing they do is look at the score. The next thing they do is look at somebody else's score and the written feedback is often ignored. We found that initially removing the score led to learners focusing on the success criteria and the improvements they had to make.


Rosenshine argues that effective teachers begin lessons with a short review of previous learning. In response to this, we have built regular retrieval practice into senior students' lessons, formalising short quizzes on examples and statistics that learners need to remember for essays.

Some teachers have been quite creative in their approach to retrieval practice: the game Dots and Boxes was transformed into a gladiatorial contest between opposing teams, for example.

No matter how short the retrieval quiz, what is important is that learners are encouraged to see their scores as feedback that they need to act on. For example, say to students: "So, you scored 6/10? What were the topic areas you got wrong?"

Making it clear

Since making both intrinsic and extrinsic sources of feedback clearer to our learners, we have found that our regular learning conversations are much richer and far more student led because of the increased metacognition, particularly among lower-attaining learners, who are not as able to take control of their learning.

More importantly, we have seen an increase in self-regulation: students are not waiting around for the teacher to tell them how they are getting on once a month. Feedback is a constant - the most important thing is that learners act on it.

After our inquiry into feedback, we've agreed that red/amber/green is no different to a mark or score; students will look at it, and then look at what somebody else has and not really think about their next steps. Therefore, we have moved towards student-led conversations, where learners tell teachers how they are getting on, having considered all the sources of feedback available to them.

We've put together an infographic showing the eight sources of feedback and highlighting that only three come directly from the teacher. When carrying out quizzes or getting learners to identify the topics they don't like, we clearly state that they are generating feedback so should be prepared to act on it. We must ensure that these sources are not seen as exhaustive or something we pay lip service to in observations. Feedback is everywhere and we are making that clear to our learners.

Steven MacKenzie is head of social subjects and RMPS at Inveralmond Community High School in Livingston, Scotland

This article originally appeared in the 13 SEPTEMBER 2019 issue under the headline "Don't ask me how your doing - find out for yourself"

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