I love feedback. I love getting it, giving it, talking about it, reading about it. It is a teaching and learning strategy that is often misrepresented and misunderstood. It deserves more thinking time by educators. Let’s call this my contribution to the cause.
In Ontario there has been a greater buzz about feedback since Growing Success came out as our guiding document in assessment and evaluation. It is smack in the middle of the Assessment Continuum: learning goals, success criteria, descriptive feedback, peer assessment, self assessment. While all five of these elements are important, I believe that feedback is the most critical. Without feedback, students won’t use the first two items to enhance their learning and evidence of their learning and won’t have the modelling needed to learn how to do the last two effectively.
With the rise of Growing Success, I was fortunate to be part of many conversations about descriptive feedback with educators in a variety of schools and situations. One of the researchers I relied on to enhance my own understanding of feedback was Dylan Wiliam. Wiliam wrote the book on feedback, Embedded Formative Assessment (and the articles, and the youtube videos).
This one is one of my favourite short videos of Wiliam talking about feedback.
From all of Dylan Wiliam’s work, and that of many of his research colleagues, I learned these key understandings about descriptive feedback.
- Not all feedback is helpful for a recipient’s learning.
- Feedback should be more work…more thinking and doing work…for the recipient than it is for the giver.
- Feedback shouldn’t be about ego but about task. (e.g. “You’re a good thinker, Johnny” = ego; “Your explanation about how the author convinced you was well thought out” = task)
- A considerable amount of good feedback is in the form of questions.
- Feedback is directly related to the learning goals and success criteria the giver and recipient both know and commonly understand.
- Good feedback accelerates learning.
- Feedback is actionable and targets a specific recipient’s next steps. What actions does the recipient need to take to make it better?
I really don’t do the research justice by reducing it to these few thoughts. If you haven’t read Wiliam’s work, I highly recommend it.
Last week, I was fortunate to be at a conference about Visible Learning, the work of John Hattie. Hattie is a researcher who has (in his spare time…he actually called it his “hobby”) analyzed the findings of 1200+ reliable research investigations and found a way to figure out what are the strategies and conditions that affect student achievement and then to compare them in a meaningful way. 138 strategies in total were evaluated and ordered. Through his research, he uncovered which strategies have the biggest influence on student learning, which really make no difference at all, and which ones are actually detrimental to student achievement. For a full explanation of the list and the research, please see
Without spoiling too much for you, know that feedback is consistently in the top ten list of most beneficial to student achievement, with an effect size of 0.75. This essentially means that good feedback can accelerate student achievement almost 2 years worth in a single year. As an important strategy, Hattie and his colleagues dug further into it and came up with these findings:
1. Feedback can accelerate student achievement at almost twice the expected rate.
2. Students need lots of feedback, but that feedback has to be clearly understood by the student in terms of why it is given, what they need to do next and how to do what they need to do next.
3. Students often see feedback negatively because it either comes too late for them to act on it (eg written feedback on an assignment) or because it is offered in a group setting (class, small group) and individual students don’t know how the feedback directly relates to them.
4. Praise is often confused for feedback. If the comments are not related to learning goals, not providing new information about how to to further a task, or not having student self reflect on their own next steps, it’s probably not feedback but praise. Currently, a large portion of teacher to student comments fit into the praise category, not feedback.
5. Feedback needs to be timely to be supportive.
So far, Hattie and Wiliam show some distinct similarities in their views on feedback. But when I have worked with teachers around feedback previously, many of the questions they had included: what kind of feedback do I give to that student who is already achieving at a high level? I know feedback needs to allow for critical thinking and connect to my success criteria but what if what a student needs to do next is outside of these parameters – what if they aren’t ready yet for this higher level of thinking and reflecting? This is where Hattie gave me more to think about.
6. There needs to be a high degree of trust between the teacher and student when providing feedback.
7. There are different levels of feedback: Self (praise), Task (specific, knowledge based), Process (metacognitive thinking processes used to consider and present learning), and Self Regulation (transferable skill and self evaluation).
8. It is important to provide feedback at the appropriate level (see #7 for levels) at the appropriate time. Students who are novices to some new learning will need task level feedback. As they gain proficiency, feedback should shift to the level of process. When students are highly proficient, feedback to encourage self regulation (allowing students to transfer learning to new applications and to self reflect to a high degree) is most successful.
I’m still thinking about the implications for what advice I would give teachers to provide students with good feedback. Some of my suggestions won’t change: know your students, encourage self reflection, have a common understanding of goals, and ask more questions and give fewer statements. But perhaps some of my suggestions will change. I see the task/process/self regulation levels of feedback as being somewhat related to the Achievement chart in our Ontario curriculum documents (see an example here: here ). I have usually encouraged teachers to focus on the “meaty” part of the achievement chart: thinking and application. But now I wonder if a teacher needs to determine if a student is a novice and need more task / knowledge and understanding feedback, or gaining proficiency and need more process / communication and thinking feedback, or highly proficient and need self regulation / thinking and application feedback.
The other thing I wonder about is praise. I have debated all of the “good job!” comments and stickers and considered whether they were limiting student learning, as Wiliam surmises. (I wrote a blog post on my angst over the sticker debate here ). But now I wonder if it is a critical piece to help gain develop trust: trust between a teacher and student, or between students, and in all cases, towards feedback. I’m still thinking about this one.
I don’t know if this makes any sense to anyone. I’m still trying to process it all myself. Synthesizing the work of these two researchers is going to take me a while when it comes to practical applications. I do know that feedback is good for students, though, and worth the brain strain. I’d love some thoughts from all of your on-the-ground feedback researchers.