Making Feedback Vital for Learning
We know that student achievement is powerfully impacted by feedback that is skillfully given. We know that student achievement declines when feedback in the form of summative evaluation is carried out. “There are clear messages for how the negative impact of summative assessment on motivation for learning can be minimised. In some cases these refer to practices that should be ended as far as possible and, in particular, to the following:
• To avoid drill and practice for tests
• To de-emphasise tests by using a range of forms of classroom assessment and recognising the limitations of tests
• To prevent the content and methods of teaching from being limited by the form and content of tests
• To avoid children being faced with tests in which they are unlikely to succeed
If feedback is so important, and all feedback is not created equally, what should I as a teacher do? Here are some thoughts from the literature about feedback. They all fit in well with Hattie’s research findings including in his top 10 effective strategies: student self-reported grades (#1); providing formative evaluation (#5); classroom discussion (#7); teacher clarity (#9); feedback (#10). Note how they fit into the four thoughts below.
- Powerful feedback means providing information to the child / student without adding either praise or criticism. This does not mean no judgment. It means that the teacher speaks to the child in a way that always provides context. For example:
- Good job, you got a 95%. That’s terrific.
Comment: this certainly provides positive feedback. But the student is now focusing on an external stimulus – the mark you gave her. The satisfaction is dependent on the teacher, not on the work the student did.
- Look at how well you set out each of the steps in the problem you tried. I gave a mark for each of those steps and so you were able to achieve full marks on these questions. Because you did that, you avoided the kind of errors you had on your last exercise. Even where you got the answer wrong, the steps help you understand where the error is. Can you find it?
Comment: this kind of feedback provides the student with affirmation by pointing out the ways in which she is in control of the outcome. Having control is a key to less stress and being able to repeat what the student did. The solution is in the hands of the student, not in the hands of the teacher.
- Powerful feedback is as much the child / student providing feedback to themselves as it is an external agent doing it for them. When the teacher is doing all the talking, it is actually more likely that the student will not engage. When the student is carrying out the analysis, they are most likely to be fully engaged and present in the conversation. The reference point for this kind of feedback is the student’s own expectations. For example:
- (Teacher to child) I think you should do very well on this assignment. You have to look at your last two assignments, read my comments, and then review based on that.
Comment: this kind of feedback places all the emphasis on the teacher having competence. If you do what I say you will do well. This is an external motivator and creates significant stress for the student in that the solution is by doing what someone else is dictating. Chances of high achievement are not high in this circumstance.
- (Teacher to child). Here is this new assignment. You thought you would get a B on the last assignment and you did. Since then, you have learnt more. How well do you think you would do if you did this assignment right now? What else are you doing to make a difference?
Comment: the assumption in this feedback is that the student has agency in the assignment. The research says that students are quite accurate when asked to predict their outcomes. They also tend to know their own strengths and weaknesses. This type of ongoing dialogue promotes self-efficacy that the teacher can plug into.
- Powerful feedback identifies the progress the child / student has made towards a goal. A mark in isolation has little motivational force and does not support resilience and grit in the long-term educational outcomes that students must attain. Most children can’t conceptualize so far into the future while older teens begin to be motivated by the idea of college and a job. Goals, thus, must be formulated according to the age of the student. This does not imply “low” goals; goal setting should be challenging for the student: in the meta studies of Hattie and Timperley, difficult goal setting had an effect size of .51 meaning that around 70% of students who did not goal set would be below the average of those who did.
Hattie and Timperley formulated three questions: Where am I going? How am I going or how well am I doing? Where to next? For example:
- You achieved a B+ on this assignment. That’s pretty good. Most of the class got around the same mark so you are doing as well as most of the class.
Comment: The referent in this feedback is to an external i.e. to other students – this kind of comparison has been shown to be harmful to motivation and depresses achievement. The feedback is also in isolation. The mark given and the assignment attempted is not carried out in relation to either a past or a future.
- You set a goal of completing every assignment on time and passing at a good level. This is now the fifth assignment you have completed and handed in on time. Congratulations! As well, you have showed that you understood the main concepts. You thought you would get a B and you actually received a B+ because you are really getting better at providing relevant evidence for your opinions. We are going to move to the next topic in class. Do you feel confident moving forward and what would like to achieve in the this next section?
Comment: The feedback points back to the student’s own desired outcomes and relates the student’s achievement level to them. The feedback is richer providing clarity around the meaning of the feedback and setting it in a past / present / context. The student has agency and will articulate where the learning journey is going to go next.
4. Powerful feedback asks the student to increase the complexity of their learning through metacognition. In a report from the OECD/PISA 2000 international assessments, they found that the achievement of literacy was positively related to students’ interest in what they were learning, to the extent to which their learning strategies helped them to create links between new and existing knowledge and to the extent to which they felt in control of their learning. All of the above feedback suggestions use metacognition, of course. But it is worthwhile to split it out and see how the OECD findings might help us in our own classrooms as we give just in time feedback to students that promotes intrinsic motivation. Control of learning is a key part of that. Encouraging metacognition by students is a key part of that control. John Flavell divides metacognitive knowledge into three categories: knowledge of person variables, task variables and strategy variables. Each is straightforward:
- Knowledge of person might include the following kinds of prompts:
- Where do you work best?
- What organizational tool do you find most helpful?
- Do you prefer writing to typing?
- Do you prefer to work in silence or with music?
- Task variables might include the following kinds of prompts:
- What kinds of task are more difficult and take more time?
- What helps you with mathematical reasoning?
- When do the number of ideas become overwhelming in a writing exercise?
- Strategy variables might include the following kind of prompts:
- In order to understand the material, what kinds of strategies have you tried? Which gain you the most success?
- What would be a good plan to achieve this objective?
- How far have you gone in this objective and what still needs to be done?
We all know how important powerful feedback is. It can be done in hundreds of ways but not all are effective. Whatever feedback loops we use, it is best to try to keep the student as the agent of the conversation and try to improve the student’s intrinsic motivation.