Feedback should cause thinking

Feedback, according to various research, is one of the methods of teaching that has a high effect size in the classroom.  If used effectively, it can improve learning among students greatly.  It has the power to get students to see misconceptions and learn from them.  It can improve subject knowledge and skills when errors are pointed out.  If acted upon by the student, it can be a key component of moving the learning forward and ‘closing the gap’.

Unfortunately though, when feedback is used poorly, it can have a very low impact on the learning.  There are even cases where the structure or type of feedback given can even have a negative effect.  So it’s important to understand what the common mistakes are for providing feedback, as well as some core principles that we should use every time.

So what things should we think about?

  • Feedback shouldn’t be an ‘end of the line’ process.  Students that receive feedback only when work is completed or finished have no opportunity to act upon it.  They also see feedback as the end result; a comment or summary which has no bearing on improving learning.  Instead, feedback should be a continual process, and as Hattie says, given “Just in time, just for me, just for where I am in the learning process and just what I need to help me move forward”.  Give feedback during the learning, not simply at the end.


  • Feedback needs to tackle faulty interpretations or misconceptions (and not a complete lack of understanding).  Feedback works best when there are errors in understanding.  This allows students to work out what is wrong, whilst having a fundamental knowledge base to improve.  If a student has a complete lack of understanding, providing feedback will not benefit them at all.  Instead, in this case, we should be providing further explanations, clarity or teaching.


  • Whole class feedback isn’t very effective!  This is purely down to the fact that students are unsure and unaware of whom the feedback is being directed to.  Try and make feedback as personal and direct to individuals as possible so it has more chance of being acted upon.


  • With our best intentions, feedback can unfortunately lose effectiveness because it can be too specific or complex.  See the feedback through the eyes of a student.  If it is not clear, too complex or too specific, students may fail to understand what it is you want them to do, so simply won’t do it.


  • Praise and grades can actually be very unhelpful.  Various work from Dweck, Hattie and Wiliam have shown that students who receive formative comments make more progress in their learning than those that receive grades only, or, a grade with a comment (which is quite surprising for some).  As Wiliam states, “Most teachers, therefore, are surprised to learn that the effect of giving both scores and comments was the same as the effect of giving scores alone.  Far from producing the best effects of both kinds of feedback, giving scores alongside the comments completely washed out the beneficial effects of the comments”.  The same is roughly similar for praise.  If we add praise comments to our feedback, students focus on that information and bypass the important constructive comments that help them improve.  When giving feedback then, it is important to think hard about how we attach praise or grades in order to make sure the important comments are read and acted upon.


  • Too much feedback = work must be poor.  Students can have perceptions that if their work has lots of feedback, it must mean that it is bad.  It obviously must have more mistakes and more errors.  Work with a few comments therefore must mean the work is good.  We need to be conscious of this and ensure that feedback is equal for all.  Excellent work can still receive comments to stretch and challenge the student.  It is important to create a culture that we all receive feedback and it’s all aimed at improving the learning.


  • Peer feedback.  Nuthall (2009) in his research found that 85% of feedback students receive is from their peers, and that most of this feedback is incorrect.  It is really important that we skill our students up to provide each other with structured feedback (critique is an excellent method for this).  Modelling the process, sharing exemplar work, constructing clear success criteria, helping to structure the language students are using……are all methods of tightening up peer feedback.


  • Feedback can sometimes seem a one way process where teachers simply cast judgement on students work.  As a result of this, students may not read or act upon comments because they are not involved in the process.  Provide opportunities for students to start the process off and tailor the feedback they need.  Make feedback an open dialogue where the process goes back and forth to improve learning.


  •  “We don’t do anything with the feedback”.  Probably the most common pitfall with feedback is actually designating time for students to act upon it.  If we don’t allow an opportunity for students to read your comments and do something with them, you might as well have not provided them in the first place.  To ensure feedback is used, plan time for it to happen.


  • Feedforward, feedforward, feedforward!  Such a simple change in language but instead of simply providing comments that look back at work (feedback), provide comments that help students take the steps to move forward and improve learning.  Are you currently providing feedforward?


  • And finally, probably the most important principle of all, one which has transformed my own use of feedback is this from Dylan Wiliam “If I had to reduce all of the research on feedback into one simple overarching idea, at least for academic subjects in school, it would be this: feedback should cause thinkingLook at the methods that you use.  Read the comments you provide.  How much of what you ask students to do involve them actually thinking hard about their work and then making improvements?  If they don’t, it may be time to tweak them so they do!


So once you have thought about the various principles, what methods of feedback have the best impact?  Well as usual there are no perfect strategies.  Everyone’s students and subjects require different things.  One size doesn’t always fit.  One thing is for sure, whatever method you choose to use should be less work for you and more work for students.  So here are a few ideas to make feedback that bit more effective:

  • Use Ron Berger’s Critique ideas – The method is incredibly simple and follows a few important protocols.  It involves getting students to draft work, critically assess it, offer constructive comments to improve it before it finally gets redrafted.  The process is a perfect method for skilling students up to provide accurate feedback comments to each other.


  • Burning questions – Before handing in a piece of work, students proof read it and highlight a particular area that they would like you to focus most of your feedback on.  You can quickly mark the other parts and scrutinise the chosen element in more detail.  This is a great way for involving students in the process and focuses on the areas probably needing the most work.


  • Make time – Lots of people are now use ‘DIRT Time’ or ‘Closing the gap lessons’.  Both are dedicated time where feedback is read by the students and acted upon under your supervision.  It makes the process of feedback gain value and helps students see the benefit or importance of acting upon it.


  • Marking keys – Simply devise a very clear and structured marking key.  This speeds up the process of ‘general marking’ and gives you more time to provide constructive comments where it’s needed.


  • Feedback questions – When spotting misconceptions, put a number in the column where the error took place.  At the end of the work, place a question which links to that number.  The question must relate to the misconception and force students to think about the error they made and improve it.


  • Triple impact marking – Feedback needs to be a dialogue.  It is therefore important to mark the work and provide feedback, let the feedback be acted upon, before marking the improved work to check if the gap has been closed.

Although this alone won’t make the learning from your students dramatically improve, it should go some way to help the way you give feedback be that little bit more effective.

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