Don’t make a meal of student feedback

25th September 2015 at 01:00
Admit it: most of us don’t know what effective feedback means, but a stripped-back approach can help to avoid common pitfalls

Feedback works. All the available evidence says so. So we should all be doing as much of it as possible, right? Except the unfortunate truth is that we don’t really know what we mean by effective feedback, nor are we very clear about how it works best. So let’s get some clarity.

The best definition and summary of feedback is from John Hattie and Helen Timperley (2007), entitled The Power of Feedback. Here, all the available evidence is piled together (196 studies) and distilled into three practical questions that feedback must answer for the student: “where am I going?”; “how am I going?” and “where to next?”.

Feedback is much more than “solely about correctness”, the study says. Instead, it is about closing the gap between what the pupil understands and what you want them to understand.

This isn’t just about the task – it should also consider the student’s effort and motivation, and how well they are thinking or working together in collaboration.

The evidence also provides further simple messages: temper your praise, rip up your rewards and focus on helping students to build an intrinsic motivation to improve their learning. It is a sensible template for all teachers.

In his paper Keeping learning on track: formative assessment and the regulation of learning, Dylan Wiliam adds another element to which we should pay attention: peer and self-feedback. Peer feedback can often be derided as a poor proxy for teacher feedback. Of course, if students are given minimal training then they will give bad feedback, but if we invest time in training them up then the learning gains could be immense – after all, a teacher can never give each individual student the requisite feedback all the time.

Don’t make things worse

We also need to know what makes for bad practice. Wiliam says that in “two out of every five carefully controlled scientific studies, giving people feedback on their performance made their performance worse than if they were given no feedback on their performance at all”.

The danger appears to be when we encourage comparison with others. Grading or scoring students’ work can actually distract from useful diagnostic feedback. In short, feedback can easily stop students thinking for themselves; worse, it can threaten their fragile ego and cloud their judgement, effectively blocking learning.

We should loudly eschew the accountability-driven clamour for the teacher to mark everything that moves and instead focus on what our students are thinking and doing with feedback. We should get the message out there that feedback in general is not effective but specific forms of it are.

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York. He tweets at @HuntingEnglish and blogs at His next book for Routledge, The Confident Teacher, is due out in early 2016

What else?

Pick and choose your targets from this compendium of 200 examples – feedback made easy.

Add to your collection of useful sentence starters with these tips on effective feedback.

Guide your students towards great feedback with these peer sentence starters.

Back to basics: three foolproof strategies

Here are three strategies to encourage students to think properly about and actively engage with feedback.

ABC feedback Oral feedback and discussion between students makes up much of the core business of the classroom. We can do it better by providing a little more structure. The strategy is simple: A stands for “agree with”, B for “build upon” and C for “challenge”. Here’s an example: “James, Helen has stated her view of Hamlet’s character – do you want to A, B or C?” Once this is part of the fabric of group talk, then students can readily give clear feedback to their peers.

Stripped-back feedback Simply strip away all the language from your written feedback. You may choose to colour-code it or use a few symbols instead – with an appropriate key to define the meaning. If your students’ writing, or an item in their design project, is colour-coded red, they are forced to work out how to improve.

Model what you want them to do Model constructive feedback, get students to feed back on the work, and highlight when they do it well and clarify when they don’t.

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