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How to integrate effective feedback into your classroom

What is feedback?

Feedback is information provided (by the teacher, a peer, a book or computer program or an experience) about aspects of a student’s performance or the knowledge they have built up from a learning experience. Learners can use feedback to confirm, overwrite, fine tune or restructure existing knowledge, beliefs and strategies.

Why is feedback important?

Research suggests that appropriate, constructive and assessment-based feedback is one of the most critical features of effective teaching and learning. In a meta-analysis of over 800 studies, Hattie (2009) found feedback was the most important teacher practice in improving student learning. Feedback supports students to know where and how to improve, and it can support their motivation to invest effort in making improvements. It is an integral part of Assessment for Learning.

Well-timed feedback can support cognitive processes for better performance, including confirming or restructuring understanding, improving strategies, guiding students to more information, and suggesting directions and/or alternative strategies they could pursue in order to improve. Feedback can also engage students in metacognitive strategies such as goal setting, task planning, monitoring, and reflection, which are important skills for self-regulated learning. Feedback can influence students’ affective processes, improving effort, motivation and engagement.

What kind of feedback do students need?

Feedback improves learning when it focuses on the particular qualities of the student’s work, with specific guidance on what the student can do to improve.

Feedback should be user-friendly (specific and personalised), transparent, addressable, timely, ongoing, and content-rich. It also needs to be clear, purposeful, and compatible with students’ existing knowledge, while providing little threat to self-esteem.

The best kinds of feedback:
• are goal-referenced: linked to, and assisting understanding of, the goals of learning
• are matched to the needs of the students, with the level of support they need
• are accurate and trustworthy (with teachers and students in agreement about what counts as success)
• are carefully timed: provided when students need it to improve learning (which might be during the learning activity, or before revising a piece of work)
• focus on strengths and weaknesses as well as revealing what students understand and misunderstand, and accompanied with strategies to help the student improve
• emphasise correct rather than incorrect responses
• focus on changes from previous work or understanding
• guide ongoing learning
• are directed towards enhanced self-efficacy and more effective self-regulation
• are two-way conversations (either written dialogue or oral) rather than one-way
• are used in conjunction with self and/or peer assessment
• do not threaten self-esteem
• are checked for clarity, adequacy and effectiveness with the student — “Does this feedback help?”
• are actionable — with the student given time to respond to and act on feedback.

Three stages to effective feedback

1. Feed-up: Before feedback can be given, students need to know the learning intention(s). Feed-up clarifies for the student Where am I going? What are the goals? This information sets the context for feedback.

2. Feedback: Feedback itself focuses on monitoring and assessing learning progression in relation to the learning intention or task. It is about How am I doing? What progress is being made towards the goals?

3. Feed-forward: This relates to the next steps required for improvement on a specific task or learning intention. It is about Where to next? What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress? Here the answer is likely to be directed to the refinement of goals, and seeking more challenging goals, because these are most likely to lead to greater achievement.

Effective feedback is when teachers and students address all three of these questions.

Three levels of feedback

Feedback operates on, or can be geared towards, three levels. These are:

1: Task-level (or product) feedback
Feedback aimed at the task or product describes students’ performance and may offer students directions on how to acquire more, different or correct information.
Example: “That is correct. Could you include more information about the Treaty of Versailles?”
Immediate feedback is likely to be most effective for task-level feedback.
Task-level feedback is not the most powerful kind. This is because feedback at the task level is not usually generalisable to other tasks. However, this level of feedback can be effective when the information it provides about the task is later used for improving strategies or self-regulation. For example, task-level feedback might help students to reject incorrect interpretations and provide directions for better ways to process and understand the material.
Too much feedback at the task level focused on the accuracy of responses, and not on the processing required for these responses, can direct students’ attention away from a higher-level understanding of their task performance, and focus them instead on a surface understanding of learning involving acquisition, storage and reproduction of knowledge.

2: Process-level feedback
Feedback aimed at the process of understanding focuses on how the student has completed a task or created a product.
Example: “You might find it easier to punctuate this page if you read it aloud with a peer.”
Process-level feedback is particularly powerful for improving students’ deep processing and mastery of tasks and directing students towards more effective task strategies. It provides a deeper understanding of learning, enabling students to appreciate relationships between strategies and performance, which helps them to transfer skills to more difficult or unfamiliar tasks.
Process-level feedback on metacognitive processes might focus on enhancing students’ self-efficacy, self-regulatory skills or confidence to engage further on a task.
Example: “You already know the key features for introducing an argument, check to see that you have incorporated them into your first paragraph.”
Feedback focused on cognitive or metacognitive processes is most effective when there is a delay between student performance and feedback, which enables better reflection.

3: Personal-level feedback
Feedback focused on the personal level is directed to the self and contains little task-related information.
Example: “That’s an intelligent response, well done.”
This is the least effective level of feedback as it rarely leads to more engagement, enhanced self-efficacy or better understanding of the task. In fact, praise often directs attention away from the task. When feedback draws attention to the self, students have a high fear of failure, and it becomes risky for students to tackle challenging tasks or to try hard. However, sometimes praise focused on the student’s effort, self-regulation and engagement can assist in enhancing self-efficacy and increase student motivation.
Summary: Feedback that is designed to move students from the task to the underlying processes or understandings and then to self-regulation is most effective. For example, feedback based at task performance can build students’ confidence and help them to feel more able to improve and experiment with strategy use. Then questioning and feedback can focus on learning strategies and metacognitive skills, which eventually help students to become self-regulating learners. These are the students that seek and give their own feedback!
How to improve feedback practices in your classroom

Ten ways to give better feedback

1. Give more quality feedback by reducing the number of pieces of work you assess. Spend more time on selected pieces of work to give thoughtful, constructive and appropriate feedback. To make time for this, teachers do not mark some pieces, or look at only a third of their students’ books each week, or engage students in peer and self-assessment of some tasks.

2. Automate as many classroom processes as you can in order to devote more of your thinking to feedback. When teachers automate many other tasks in the classroom and enable students to take most of the responsibility for their learning and learning activity, they are able to devote more time and thought to giving sensitive, timely, content-rich feedback that is well-matched to the students’ learning needs at that moment.

3. Be descriptive and refrain from evaluation or advice. Approach giving feedback by carefully observing and commenting on what has been observed, based on the learning intentions of the work or activity. For example, “The first few paragraphs kept my full attention, because the scene painted was vivid and interesting. But then the dialogue became hard to follow, and as a reader, I was confused about who was talking, so I became less engaged.” Such feedback informs the student of their performance, without making value judgements, and offers direction for improvement, while leaving the responsibility to decide how to improve with the student.

4. Focus feedback on questions that challenge students. In topics where there are few right answers, try to use questions in your feedback that support students to tease out their assumptions or be critical about the quality of arguments.

5. Take into account students’ affective beliefs. Students tend to interpret feedback according to their beliefs about their strengths and weaknesses which can sometimes distort the message the feedback was intended to convey. Students who have high levels of confidence in the accuracy of their response pay little attention to affirmative feedback (unless the response turns out to be incorrect, which focuses their attention on feedback). Similarly, students who expect their response to be wrong, and it turns out to be wrong, also largely ignore the accompanying feedback. Teachers need to plan their feedback to reinforce or challenge students’ assumptions about themselves as learners. Teachers need to consider the ways and manner in which individuals interpret feedback so that feedback supports students in developing positive and valuable concepts of themselves and their learning.

6. Enhance the impact of feedback on student motivation. Students are more likely to increase effort when learning goals are clear, meaningful, and when their self-belief in their ability to succeed is high. Feedback that attributes success to effort rather than a student’s ability to succeed tends to be more successful. This is because attributing success to one’s ability suggests that effort is not required or is unlikely to alter students’ ability to succeed.

7. Create an environment for learning which welcomes errors and corrective feedback. Feedback is most effective in learning environments where students are comfortable in making mistakes and where errors are seen as leading to future learning. If students perceive personal risk to responding in class and receiving negative feedback, they are less likely to engage in learning, and are more likely to reject or ignore feedback. Show students the benefits of (self-generated, peer-generated and teacher-generated) feedback to their learning. Teach error-detection strategies to students so that students can provide themselves with self-generated feedback.

8. Give students ownership of their own learning. When students have some autonomy and control, and feel accountable for their learning, they are often more receptive to seeking, accepting and using feedback information.

9. Consider cultural preferences. As well as individual preferences, students’ preferences for the type and delivery of feedback may differ according to their culture. Students from individualist cultures (e.g. Europe, USA, Pākehā NZ) prefer direct feedback that is individually focused, and are more likely to seek feedback. Students from collectivist cultures (e.g. Confucian-based Asia, South Pacific nations) prefer indirect and implicit feedback, focused at the group rather than the individual level, with no feedback directed to at the personal level. However, bear in mind that when feedback is given at the group level, students may find it difficult to differentiate which feedback messages are relevant to them.

10. Involve everyone in the class (including visitors and parents) in giving and receiving feedback: Feedback does not always need to come from the teacher, or even from people! Widening the range of sources of feedback ensures students receive lots of timely feedback. However, the quality and accuracy of feedback is also important. Students can be taught the features of effective feedback, beyond immature criticisms and unhelpful praise, and simple proformas can be designed to elicit useful feedback from a range of peers and non-peers.

Ineffective feedback to avoid

Giving marks or grades
Students tend not to pay attention to feedback comments when they are given a mark or grade. Students who get low marks twice in a row come to expect to get low marks every time, with a negative impact on both motivation and achievement.

Comparisons with other students
Competitive environments also have a negative impact on motivation and achievement. Rather than comparing individuals against the performance of a class, a fairer comparison pits each student’s current performance against their own previous performance. This comparison is seen as relevant and achievable, whereas trying to compete with peers is stressful for many students.

Extrinsic rewards
These undermine students taking responsibility for themselves, increase teacher control and surveillance, and generate competition amongst students.

Non-specific or general feedback
Telling students to work harder, or recalculate, does not help students know how or where to improve their work. Unclear evaluative feedback, which details students’ successes and failures but does not specify reasons, is likely to have negative effects on self-efficacy, exacerbate poor performance and damage self-images.

Giving feedback unrelated to critical aspects of learning goals
Feedback should be clearly focused on the learning goals and agreed success criteria for meeting these goals. Students should not be given feedback on presentation, spelling and/or the quantity of writing when the learning goal is “creating mood in a story”.

Overloading students with too much or too technical information
It is better to identify one important thing that you noticed, that, if changed, will likely yield immediate and noticeable improvement

Too much written feedback
Giving too much feedback in written form can be overwhelming for students and difficult to understand. Some students have difficulty understanding and processing written feedback. However, this can be mitigated by good communication between the teacher and student in which the student is invited to say if feedback is not useful or doesn’t help them to make improvements.

Associating “what next?” with more
Often teachers suggest that students gather more information, or perform more tasks, so that students come to understand that the answer to “Where to next?” is “more”. Instead, feedback can provide information on greater possibilities for learning, including enhanced challenges, more autonomy over the learning process, greater fluency, and diversifying strategies and processes for tasks.

Giving feedback when students lack knowledge or information
Feedback can only build on existing learning or understanding. Students with very little understanding of a content area are more likely to benefit from targeted instruction than from feedback on poorly constructed concepts. Feedback is better focused on faulty interpretations and fine-tuning performance.

Feedback checklist

How often does your feedback include the features in our Feedback checklist?