The principles of effective feedback

There is now a wealth of evidence that feedback can have a huge effect on learning quality. In fact the Education Endowment Foundation states that on average feedback can add 8 months additional progress in one year. Hattie gives feedback an average effect size of 0.73 (the significant ones are those above 0.4), but this can rise to 1.13 if done at its most effective.  After four years of reviewing research into feedback, Professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of Kings College London came to similar conclusions. Geoff Petty (author of Evidence Based Teaching) even suggests that feedback can lead to a two grade jump at GCSE. Phil Beadle in his book ‘How to Teach’ puts it this way:

You can turn up hungover every morning, wearing the same creased pair of Farahs as last week, with hair that looks like a bird has slept in it, then spend most of the lesson talking at kids about how wonderful you are; but mark their books with dedication and rigour and your class will fly.

In short, this is a high impact, low cost strategy, so why aren’t more teachers seeing this level of progress – we all do feedback, right? It transpires that just ‘doing feedback’ is not enough. Hattie and Oates point out that ‘the variability of the effectiveness of feedback is huge’, which is illustrated by the Kluger and DeNisi  who found that feedback led to a decline in performance in about a third of the studies they reviewed. In these cases student feedback was often related to praise, rewards, and punishment, or pupils found it ‘confusing, non-reasoned and not understandable’. Those studies showing the highest effect sizes involved students receiving information feedback about a task and how to do it more effectively. Hattie states that effective feedback answers 3 questions:

  • Where am I going? i.e. Make clear to students what the goal is at the start and how they will know they have been successful at the end
  • How am I going? i.e. Feedback should inform students about their progress in relation to the goal
  • Where to next? i.e. Feedback should give students the information they need to ‘close the gap’

In this post I want to consider what feedback policy might look like based on these 3 questions, as well two other principles identified by Dylan William:

  • The only thing that matters is what students do with feedback –  it is absolutely essential that feedback is productive.
  • Feedback should be more work for the student than it is for the teacher.

And one from Carol Dweck:

  • Feedback should focus on effort and process, as well as promote the idea that struggling is an essential part of the learning process

In particular, I want to identify certain principles that all subjects could adopt and then encourage them to adapt them to suit their subjects.

1. ‘ Where am I going?’ Make clear to students what the goal is and how they will know they have been successful 

The more that I have read about effective feedback the more I have come to realize that this part is absolutely crucial. In fact, Hattie and Oates state that ‘the Visible Learning synthesis has shown a large effect size for those students that are shown the various ways they will be successful at the end of the lessons, or tell them how they will know when they have been successful in these lessons.’ Students need to know what success looks like at the beginning and have a clear idea, in Hattie’s words, of ‘Where am I going?’. This could be in the form of success criteria and could also be supported by excellent work completed by students from previous years.

Below is a success criteria sheet I constructed for my GCSE class who are studying the USA, 1917-1929:

There are several things I wanted to achieve with this criteria:

  • Challenge: Goals that set the bar high to stretch all students
  • Support: Clear guidance that acts as a scaffold to help students reach excellence
  • Time saving: I can write the number and/or letter of the specific criteria statement instead of writing lengthy comments in my feedback
  • Enough information to facilitate self & peer assessment:

2. Feedback should give students the information they need to ‘close the gap’

In short, feedback needs to enable students to ‘close the gap’ between their current level and a more desirable level of achievement and/or well-defined goal. The success criteria will certainly help the students know how they are going and enable some time to be saved through the use of the coding system, however it is likely to be more effective if I add on to this with very precise and specific comments suited to that individual. This is why David Didau (author of The Secret of Literacy) calls marking the ‘purest form of differentiation’. Each feedback comment will be informed by my knowledge of the previous level of a student and the ‘where to next?’ goals will be designed to engage learners at, or just above, their current level of functioning. This is sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks principle – not too easy and not too hard, but just right for that student. This is important because, as Daniel Willingham explains in his book ‘Why don’t students like school?’, we are motivated by perceivable and closable knowledge gaps but turned off by knowledge chasms.

3. Feedback should cause thinking and lead to more work for the student than it is for the teacher

Dylan Wiliam gives two very clear and simple messages about feedback: The only thing that matters is what students do with it and Feedback should be more work for the student than it is for the teacher. In other words, students should have to do something with the feedback and it should at the very least cause thinking. This relates to the previous comments about feedback being the purest form of differentiation: the feedback you give should make students ‘think’ in an appropriately challenging way. This also leads to another point Didau makes, which is ‘marking is planning’. The feedback should not only cause thinking it should also cause more reading, research and writing, possibly for the whole of the next lesson. This is the idea behind DIRT (Dedicated Improvement and Reflection Time). You mark their books and set each student their own individual tasks, such as:

  • Re-draft a section of their essay with your feedback on how to improve it
  • Practice doing certain question types again, but this time with your ‘tips’ on how to answer them more accurately
  • More challenging questions or tasks because they clearly found the ones set last lesson or for homework too easy
  • Questions designed to start a dialogue such as ‘why did you do it this way…?’, ‘Have you considered…?’
  • Further research to deepen their knowledge of the event/ topic they had been studying

However, feedback should not really be focused on presentation or simple SPAG issues. These are things that we should expect the students to check themselves by proof reading their work before they hand it in. ‘Find and fix’ time could be given at the start or end of the lesson, or you might expect it to be already done. Likewise with presentation, there should be an expectation that titles are underlined, diagrams are labelled, sheets are stuck in, etc. If these things have not been done then we should give back the book without feedback and ask the individual to remedy it. By doing this we put more onus onto the student, remove some reliance on the teacher and send a message that there are high expectations in our classrooms.

4. Feedback should promote a ‘growth mindset’

The idea of mindset is associated with the University of Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck.

“In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that’s that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don’t necessarily think everyone’s the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.”

Feedback can play a role in encouraging either a ‘fixed mindset’ or a ‘growth mindset’. For example, Dweck found young children’s persistence in problem solving can be reduced after being praised for being clever on earlier easier tasks. To encourage the development of a growth mindset, focus feedback on effort and process e.g. “You did well on this test. Tell me how you mastered the content?” Additionally, Wiliam says we should ‘give them feedback that makes it clear that ability is incremental rather than fixed,’ which aligns with Willingham’s point about students being motivated by perceivable and closable knowledge gaps.

Dweck also says that we can encourage a ‘growth mindset’ by setting suitably high expectations so that students will experience appropriate difficulties and sometimes fail, but through feedback they will come to understand that this is a perfectly normal and expected part of the learning process. Feedback should be designed to help them understand why they didn’t fully succeed and give them the information they need to give it another go and improve. Of course, they would need to experience enough success to sustain their efforts and view improvement as ‘a closable knowledge gap’.

Conversely, if the task is not pitched high enough and students complete the tasks without fault then they have not been challenged. In other words, if a book is just full of ticks then the tasks set have been too easy and limited progress has probably been made in their learning. Tasks must be designed to ensure everyone finds something challenging about it, that there is something that makes them sit back and think, and/or something that they get wrong on the first attempt. In the words of Hattie, ‘Learners need to expect difficult tasks to be difficult.’ It is possible that not pitching learning tasks high enough over a period of time may actually lead students to develop a ‘fixed mindset’ because they will not be used to struggling or finding difficulties in that subject.

The final point relates to the issue of praise and grades. The message from Dweck, William and Hattie is that we have to very careful with praise in our feedback. William says:

‘A very important way of looking at feedback is whether its ego involving or task involving. So if you say to students that they did very well that they did one of the best pieces of work in the class, that’s ego involving because it focuses on that person’s position in the class. Whereas, if you get feedback that’s says things like, well this is what you need to do to improve… then that focuses on the task. And what the research shows very clearly is that ego involving feedback is rarely effective and, in fact, can lower achievement. So when students get grades and they can compare themselves with each other, where they get praise…the effects are usually or often zero and, sometimes, negative. .’

Praise is an important part of creating a welcoming classroom environment, but it is not information students can use to achieve their goals, although if it used appropriately it can increase motivation. As mentioned above it should focus on process and effort, not for being intelligent or clever.

The issue of grades is a tricky one. Students crave to know how they have done but often this distracts them from focusing on the feedback that will enable them to improve. It is more about their ego and it is unlikely to promote a growth mindset. There are of course times when we will have to give them a grade, but does not have to be for every piece of work – a grade should be part of summative feedback after a significant period of learning and practice has taken place. It would be better to encourage what Ron Berger describes as ‘An Ethic of Excellence’ by telling the students that some major pieces of work will not be finished until they are ‘excellent’ – or, in other words, you will give them feedback and the opportunity to act on your advice until it is of an A or A* standard. Once students know they can achieve these heights through effort and your feedback their motivation will increase and feedback will be eagerly sought as a way to keep hitting these heights.

Questions for subject leaders to ask when constructing their feedback policy

1. How will we make clear to students what the goals at the beginning of a series of lessons or unit of work? How will we help them understand what success looks like?

2. In what ways, and how often, will students get information they need to ‘close the gap’?

3. How will we ensure feedback causes thinking and leads to more work for the student than it is for the teacher?

4. How will we ensure that our feedback promotes a ‘growth mindset’?

Bibliography

‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ by Hattie and Oates

‘The Power of Feedback’ by Hattie and Timperley

‘Is the feedback you’re giving helping or hindering?’ by Dylan William

‘The Secret of Literacy’ by David Didau.

‘Mindset’ by Carol Dweck

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