Feedback improves student academic achievement. But then, pretty much everything does. If you pay attention to it, it gets better. This is called the Hawthorne Effect. Feedback is a very powerful tool for students and teachers to use. However, it is clear that feedback composed of grades is actually detrimental to students.

Back in 2000 Ryan and Deci wrote a paper: When Rewards Compete with Nature – the Undermining of Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Regulation. They argued that humans can be “entrained” into habits that are contingent on external rewards and actually work against their own health. This use of external rewards is fairly new in human history and is both a result of and impulse to Skinner’s belief that you could shape social behavior through those kinds of rewards. It seems that extrinsic rewards – and for students grades are the biggest and most ubiquitous of these – result in poorer performance, intrinsic motivation, and self-regulation.

It is notable that the 2009 High School Survey of Student Engagement found that 88% of the students believed that at least one of their teachers cared a lot about them and wanted them to do well, 73% went to school because they wanted to get a degree and a good job, but 49% were bored every day, 17% were bored every class (total of 66%) and most students were not engaged. As Herzberg wrote in the Harvard Business Review (One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees, 2002) “Forget praise. Forget punishment. Forget cash. You need to make their jobs more interesting.”

The context for feedback advice is the research and work of John Hattie. He has been examining the effect of various educational ‘innovations’ for many years now and regularly updates his table of effect sizes showing the impact of various innovations. An effect size of 1.0 is the equivalent of moving a student from a C to an A. The mean effect size of all educational innovations studied is about .4. This means that there are some innovations that are below the mean (e.g. reducing class size at .21 or ability grouping at .11

Giving feedback is a key part of learning and teaching. Depending on the type of feedback, it has both effective and ineffective characteristics. Praise feedback has an effect size of .14 while informative feedback has an effect size of over 1.0. Some studies show that grading/marking can actually have a negative impact on performance. Contingent rewards promised before performance has always decreased intrinsic motivation – the desire to continue the task. One third of the feedback we give has a negative impact. Feedback given to different children has different impact depending where they are in the instructional cycle. The good news is that 0verall, feedback has an effect size of .73 What’s included in this?

Hattie suggests that feedback answers three questions:

  1. Where am I going? Co-constructing success criteria
  2. How am I going? Feedback on progress; student self-assessment of processes used and content known
  3. Where to next? How does this fit into the journey I am on?

Feedback includes:

  • high expectations
  • explicit success criteria
  • students working together as evaluators of their impact
  • self-reported grades
  • cognitive task analysis
  • response to intervention
  • micro teaching / video review of lessons
  • classroom discussion
  • teacher clarity
  • feedback
  • help seeking

Hattie notes that above average students want the teacher to talk (average of 87% of the time in the research) since they are playing the game. Below average students want the teacher to talk less so they can understand better. He says that we privilege a grammar of surface learning.

Some practical suggestions from Visible Learning Feedback by Hattie and Clarke include:

  1. feedback is critical to the formative assessment paradigm (p.8)
  2. find out what students already know before beginning new work (p. 48)
  3. students need to be in conversation with new learning at least 3-5 times irrespective of achievement level and each time this needs to be accompanied with feedback to refine understanding (p.3)
  4. move to success criteria rather than rubrics (p. 56)
  5. focus on the quality of the work, not on comparison with other children; be specific in what can be improved; compare the child’s work with the child’s earlier work to show progress (p. 4 and 8)
  6. use verbal much more than written feedback (p. 81)
  7. teach students to receive, interpret, and use the feedback (p. 5) i.e. the active involvement of students in their own learning (p. 9, 66 and others)
  8. teach students to give feedback to each other (p. 101)
  9. ensure students give feedback to the teacher, to you (p. 123)
  10. the use of deliberate and spaced practice (p. 17, 84)
  11. treat error as part of the journey, not an imminent threat to self-esteem (p. 29)
  12. teach to the same high standards for all students i.e. mixed ability grouping (p. 37)
  13. use student led parent / teacher / student meetings (p. 148)

As always, while it is excellent if you as an individual teacher take notice of what we are learning about effective feedback  that moves a student from a C to a B and close to an A, it is even more effective when the entire faculty culture is committed to what Hattie and Clarke call “visible learning”. Taking this information to the team, division, and faculty meetings moves the entire student body in a coherent and unified direction towards greater engagement and success for each child.