Published 6.3.20. Available here.
Most of the schools I work with identify ‘feedback’ as something they want to improve. However, there are two common mistakes that they make when thinking about this:
- They think about feedback as being ‘a thing’ in itself, rather than being a continuous, integral feature of the teaching-learning process.
- They think about feedback as something which teachers give to students (or students give to other students) – which it is – but forget to think about the importance of the teacher getting feedback from students, in response to evidence of learning.
This ‘Five Minute Guide’ has been written to support teachers and school leaders to improve the use of feedback.
Why give feedback?
Feedback is fundamental to learning. It has three purposes:
- To help people understand how they are doing
- To highlight ways they could improve
- To motivate and encourage
It achieves these three by identifying clear strengths, areas for improvement and next steps.
Feedback can be given to students in a variety of ways. These include:
- Giving a piece of work a score or a grade
- Using a coding system on a piece of work, such as green/amber/red
- Writing comments on a piece of work
- Having a conversation with individuals or groups
- Pointing things out as part of the teaching-learning process
While there is a place for all of them, I would argue that the last two are generally the best. They involve the teacher talking to students. Not only can this give students the clearest feedback, it is usually the smartest use of time. Feedback doesn’t need to be lengthy – it needs to valuable.
A misconception that teachers often have about feedback is that it is only given in response to assessed tasks, rather than being an integral feature of lessons. While feedback in response to assessed tasks is important, more important is immediate and continuous feedback as part of direct-interactive teaching and formative assessment during lessons.
Students are asked a question; based on their answer, they are given feedback. Students are asked to write something on their Show-me board; based on what they write, they are given feedback. Students are asked to discuss something; based on what they are saying, they are given feedback. Students are practising questions; after a quick check from the teacher, they are given feedback.
The value that feedback has to students depends on its quality. But what makes high-quality feedback?
If students are to understand how they are doing and how to improve, they need to be clear about what they are learning and what success looks like. Accordingly, learning intentions and success criteria are integral to feedback. Of these, it is success criteria which are most important.
Ensuring feedback is linked to success criteria helps to ensure that it is more than just a set of qualitative statements. While it is important for students to be clear about quality, feedback should always be about more than that. In high-quality feedback, the word ‘because’ keeps coming up:
- ‘This is good because…’
- ‘This isn’t quite right because…’
- ‘I really like this because…’
The ‘because’ should link to success criteria.
Regardless of whether feedback is coming from the teacher or from a peer, it should always link to success criteria. The clearer that teachers and students are about success criteria, the clearer their feedback will be.
High-quality feedback is specific feedback:
- ‘This is what was good; this is what wasn’t.’
- ‘To improve, you need to do this.’
- ‘This could make that better.’
- ‘You’ve nearly got that. There’s just one mistake, and it’s with this.’
- ‘That is good. What you should focus on next is this.’
There is no ambiguity and there are no grey areas. Everything is specific: success criteria, strengths, areas for improvement and next steps.
The ability of teachers to be specific and clear in their feedback is dependent on their pedagogical subject knowledge. The better a teacher knows and understands their subject, including areas in which students typically struggle, where common mistakes tend to be made, what common misconceptions are and how students generally think about particular concepts, the better equipped they are to give high-quality feedback.
Sometimes there can be value in using coaching approaches to give feedback. Rather than jumping to tell students, ‘This was good’; ‘This wasn’t so good’; ‘Improve this’, the teacher points things out and asks questions in a way designed to help them generate their own feedback.
For example, if a teacher looks at a Show-me board on which a student was asked to write three examples of metaphors, the teacher might say, ‘Two of those are right but one is wrong. Which one do you think is wrong? Why?’ So long as a student isn’t left in the dark for too long (which will frustrate them and switch them off), coaching approaches can be a useful means to get students to think and come up with their own feedback.
Check for understanding
Once feedback has been given, teachers need to check it has been understood. One way to do this is by giving students an opportunity to act on it. This might be immediate (‘Right, go and take 10 minutes to have a go at that’) or require more time (‘I’d like you to have another go at that by Wednesday and bring it back for me to have a look at with you.’)
Another way would be for the teacher to ask a student to explain back what has just been explained to them (‘Okay, so you’re telling me that you understand this. That’s good. I’d like you to explain back to me what I have just said.’) Doing so is putting the student in the position of teacher and works on the principle that to be able to explain something to someone, you have to understand it.
Motivating and encouraging students
A key purpose of feedback is to motivate and encourage. All feedback is motivating and encouraging, isn’t it? No. In fact, feedback has the potential to be the opposite. When that happens, it is usually because it:
- Is unclear
- Is overly negative
- Is always negative
- Is given in a way which comes across as unsupportive
Clearly, no teacher aims to demotivate and discourage students. To avoid doing so, teachers need to make feedback as specific and positive as they can. Where they need to highlight areas for improvement, they should do so in a supportive way. Typically, this will mean starting with positives and then highlighting negatives.
Students need to believe that their teachers are doing their very best to support them. The more they believe this, the more willing they will be to receive and act upon negative feedback. Feedback and support go hand in hand.
Think about the last lesson you taught. Was it a successful lesson? Why do think that?
Ask a random room of teachers if these are important questions to think about – most will say ‘yes’. Ask the same room of teachers what their answer to the second question is and you are unlikely to get the same consensus. Some will say, ‘Because I got through everything that I’d planned to get through’, others that, ‘All of the students seemed to enjoy the lesson,’ and some that, ‘All of the students were well behaved and did what I asked them to do.’ Such things being the case, do they equate to a successful lesson?
Your answer will depend on what your criteria for success is. For me, the key measure of success for any lesson is the extent to which all students are learning. In a perfect lesson, all students would learn everything that was planned. However, I am yet to teach that lesson. And I am yet to watch any other teacher teach it either. It is the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ that we are all chasing. While we are unlikely to ever reach it, it is the pursuit which is important.
If you accept that ‘all students learning everything that was planned’ is the key measure of success for a lesson, does the teacher ‘getting through everything’ mean that the lesson was successful? What about if all the students enjoyed the lesson, or if all the students were well behaved and did what they were asked? The answer to all of these is: ‘not necessarily’.
Teaching is full of harsh realities which get in the way of our rainbow chasing. These include that:
- ‘Being busy’ and ‘learning’ are not the same thing – just because students are paying attention or doing what you have asked them to do doesn’t mean that they are learning
- A ‘teaching-learning gap’ is inevitable – just because content has been ‘covered’ doesn’t mean that it has been learned, regardless of how good the explanations, presentations or demonstrations were
- The learning of one or two students tells us nothing about the learning of everyone else – just because one or two students have given correct answers to questions we directed at them doesn’t mean that others in the class could do this too
However, while it is true that such realities make the pursuit of the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ challenging, they can all be overcome. To help do so, keep three principles at the forefront of your mind whilst planning and teaching lessons:
1. Engage students in activities which get them to think hard*, rather than activities which keep them busy. Answering questions, discussing, critiquing and evaluating are examples of activities which can get students to think hard. Copying notes and listening to extended exposition (in the absence of teacher-student interaction) are examples of activities which keep students busy.
2. Infuse explanations, presentations and demonstrates with questions. As well as getting students to think hard, asking questions helps to (1) check for understanding, (2) check students are paying attention, (3) break-up teacher talk time, (4) get students to learn from each other, (5) drill-down into deeper student thinking.
3. At every opportunity, use strategies to make all students’ learning visible. Asking a question to one student will make the learning of one student visible; asking a question to a whole class and then choosing one student to answer will make the learning of one student visible; asking a question to the whole class, choosing one student to answer and then asking other students what they think about that answer, if they agree or disagree with it and why, will make the learning of a few students visible; asking a question to the whole class and asking everyone to write an answer on their Show-me board will make the learning of all students’ learning visible.
The more your teaching is informed by these principles, the closer to the ‘perfect lesson rainbow’ it will get.
*Robert Coe has suggested that students ‘thinking hard’ is useful proxy for learning: https://www.ibo.org/globalassets/events/aem/conferences/2015/robert-coe.pdf
Education is full of ‘gaps’. People often talk about the ‘attainment gap’ or the ‘achievement gap’. However, the most important gap for teachers and school leaders to be thinking about is the ‘teaching-learning gap‘.
What is taught is not necessarily learned. In fact, what is taught usually isn’t learned, at least not straight away or as well as it needs to be. The best teacher presentation, explanation or demonstration in the world does not necessarily lead to the student learning we are aiming for. Such things might lead to some student learning or to the learning of some students, but is that good enough? Do high-quality presentations, explanations or demonstrations equal high-quality teaching? I would argue that no, they don’t, at least not in themselves. High-quality presentations, explanations and demonstrations are features of high-quality teaching, but high-quality teaching is about a lot more than this. High-quality teaching involves frequent checks for student learning. It is teaching which focuses on the teaching-learning gap.
As teachers, we need to be relentless in measuring the gap between what is taught and what is learned, and on closing this, so that what is taught is learned. It isn’t enough for us to think that learning has happened – we need to know that it has. We can know this if we generate evidence of this. The key to doing so is assessment. Assessment bridges the teaching-learning gap:
‘Assessment’ does not necessarily mean tests and marking (although it can mean these things). Assessment is about much more than this. Really, ‘assessment’ should be thought about as ‘check‘ or ‘find out‘. Tests can, and should, be used to check student learning, but they are but one small part of a broader assessment spectrum.
When you ask students questions, you can check their learning. When you get them to write or draw something on a Show-me board, you can check their learning. When you ask them to ‘chat to a partner’ and listen to what they are saying, you can check their learning. When you get them to practise something, you can check their learning. When you give them short quizzes, you can check their learning. All of these activities are assessment activities. If you use them to get information about student learning, they are formative assessment activities. The same is true if you use them to give feedback to students. Minute-by-minute checking of student learning is integral to high-quality teaching:
As important as checking student learning while content is being taught is checking student learning once content has been taught. Use of Exit Tickets towards the ends of lessons allows you to do this. So too does starting a lesson with Daily Review, or ending a week with Weekly Review. Setting frequent retrieval practice homework also allows you to do this. Lesson-by-lesson checking of this kind can be used to assess student learning over a broader body of content:
The more you use assessment in this way, the more you can check the size of the teaching-learning gap, and the better placed you are to do something about it. Monthly Review and End-of-topic tests also support this, assessing student learning over an even broader content range:
If you are interested in making your teaching better, focus on the teaching-learning gap. Doing so will improve your teaching and, crucially, improve student learning. A focus on the teaching-learning gap will help to close it.
Teachers across the country are tying themselves in knots with learning intentions and success criteria. Some are using them well; some are not. Some aren’t using them at all.
So why isn’t everyone using them and using them well? A significant factor it is because many teachers are unsure about what these should look like. This Five Minute Guide aims to address that.
Learning intentions are statements which summarise the purpose of a lesson in terms of learning. A useful acronym is WALT: ‘What we Are Learning Today’.
In writing them, it is usually useful to include the terms ‘know’, ‘understand’ or ‘be able to’, which helps communicate that the learning will relate to knowledge, understanding or skills, respectively.
An example might be:
We are learning about the structure of an atom, specifically to know about:
- The sub-atomic particles which make up atoms
Over the course of several lessons, the class will be learning about the structure of an atom. For that reason, this statement will appear as part of the learning intention in lessons which follow. In this particular lesson, the specific focus is on the sub-atomic particles which make up atoms. The learning intention for the next lesson two lessons might be:
We are learning about the structure of an atom, specifically to understand:
- Nuclide notation
- The electron arrangements of the first 20 elements
Because every lesson is about learning, every lesson should have a clear learning intention, whether this be for students to learn something new, to consolidate their learning (through practice or revision) or to demonstrate their learning.
Learning intentions should make clear what students will be learning about, not how this learning will be achieved, that is, to the activities and tasks of the lesson. For example, ‘Complete all of the questions on page 45 of your textbook’ is not a learning intention – it is a statement about an activity. Learning intentions should be about what is to be learned.
Communicating learning intentions
It is important that learning intentions are clearly communicated with students. Good practice is to do this both verbally and visually. However, saying this is very different from saying that students need to copy down the learning intentions (and success criteria) for lessons. Some schools insist that teachers get students to do that, but students learn nothing from doing so and it just wastes valuable learning time.
Revisiting learning intentions
It can be useful to revisit learning intentions during lessons, reminding students of the learning focus. By the end of the lesson, something should have changed: students should know something that they didn’t before, they should be able to do something that they couldn’t before, or they should have improved at something. Every lesson should impact on learning; every lesson should count.
Success criteria relate to the evidence you are looking for to determine if students have learned what you intended. A useful acronym is WILF: ‘What I am Looking For’.
Success criteria can take different forms, including:
- ‘I can…’ statements
- Key features
The principal purpose of success criteria is to support assessment and feedback. When assessing learning, it isn’t enough for a teacher to ask, ‘Have you learned this?’ and then just to accept ‘yes’ as an answer. There needs to be evidence of learning; students need to prove it. Success criteria can make clear what that evidence should be. In this way, success criteria become tools to support teacher assessment, peer assessment and self-assessment. Without being clear about what you are looking for, meaningful assessment and feedback is not possible.
‘I can…’ statements
When success criteria are written as ‘I can…’ statements, they include verbs which make clear the evidence required to demonstrate learning. Rather than being about ‘knowing’, ‘understanding’ or ‘being able to’ – which is the language of learning intentions – they should be about what you are looking for in order for students to demonstrate that they have learned what was intended.
If students can ‘state’, ‘write’, ‘describe’, ‘explain’ or ‘draw’, this can evidence learning. Saying that ‘I know’, ‘I understand’ or ‘I am able to’ doesn’t evidence learning. While it might be true, it isn’t evidence. Success criteria should make clear what evidence of learning needs to be produced.
To appreciate this, consider the learning intention used earlier:
We are learning about the structure of an atom, specifically to know about:
- The sub-atomic particles which make up atoms
Possible success criteria are:
- I can draw a labelled diagram of an atom, showing the arrangement of the three sub-atomic particles which make it up
- I can state the charge of each of the sub-atomic particles
- I can state the mass of each of the sub-atomic particles
Occasionally, I hear people argue that success criteria shouldn’t be quantified. For example, if success criteria relate to being able to identify advantages and disadvantages of something, teachers shouldn’t specify how manyadvantages and disadvantages. The rationale is that, by quantifying, you limit student learning. However, I would argue that, if success criteria are going to be used to assess learning and to guide feedback, they need to be as specific as possible. Sometimes, this will mean quantifying them. The way to get around any issue of ‘limiting learning’ is to include the phrase ‘at least’ in front of the quantity (for example, ‘I can identify at least two advantages and two disadvantages of…’)
Sometimes, rather than writing success criteria as ‘I can’ statements, they are better written as ‘key features’. This tends to be when they relate to ‘Be able to…’ learning intentions. For example, a learning intention might be:
- Be able to present data in a table
Success criteria could be that:
- It has two columns
- Each column has an appropriate heading
- Each heading has correct units
- The data has been entered correctly
- It has been drawn with a ruler
Confusing learning intentions and success criteria
A common mistake I see teachers make is that they confuse learning intentions and success criteria. Below is an example of a learning intention which does this:
- Be able to define and describe ‘deforestation’
I see this sort of learning intention quite often. In writing it, the teacher has confused the learning (which relates to deforestation) with the evidence students need to produce to demonstrate their learning. A far better learning intention would be:
- Understand what ‘deforestation’ is
This is focused on learning.
Possible success criteria could be:
- I can write a definition for ‘deforestation’
- I can describe three causes of deforestation
These are focused on evidence of learning. In checking that students understand what deforestation is, the teacher would be looking to see evidence relating to each success criterion.
1. Use Show-me boards in every lesson
2. Start lessons with Daily Review
3. End lessons with Exit Tickets
4. Say ‘Everyone think about that’ and ‘Chat to a partner’ after you ask questions
5. Build Active Assessment Activities into instruction
Use Show-me boards in every lesson
Show-me boards should be as integral to lessons as jotters. Their use:
- Makes every student commit to an answer to every question
- Makes every student’s thinking visible to the teacher
- Builds thinking time into questioning (because students can think as they are writing)
- Removes ‘rabbit in the headlight’ moments (whereby students freeze when they are asked questions) and helps address the embarrassment/shyness that some students experience when answering out-loud
- Helps the teacher to see where there are common areas of strength and weakness in the class, supporting them to make whole-class teaching points
- Helps teachers to home-in on particular aspects of individual answers, highlighting strengths and areas to improve
Start lessons with Daily Review
‘Daily Review‘ is where a lesson starts with a short recall (retrieval) quiz. Students are asked to recall knowledge from recent lessons (perhaps yesterday’s lesson, or the one the day before) and/or less recent lessons (perhaps a lesson from last term or last month).
There are two key benefits to teaching and learning:
- The teacher can find out what students have learned (or not). Using the information they get from Daily Review, they can give whole-class feedback and/or adjust their teaching to address any issues.
- Student learning is improved, because the act of recalling information strengthens the memory of it.
End lessons with Exit Tickets
‘Exit Tickets‘ are Post-it notes which students complete towards the end of a lesson. Rather than allowing students to ‘self-report’ learning (“Did everyone understand this?” or “Use green/amber/red to indicate how well you could do this”), the teacher asks students to write down specific things which prove whether or not students have learned what they were supposed to.
So, for example, if a success criterion is to be able to write a definition for something, an Exit Ticket would be used to find out if students can do this. If students are being taught how to solve a particular type of problem, an Exit Ticket would be used to check who can do this and who can’t.
Used in this way, Exit Tickets provide invaluable formative information to the teacher about the extent to which what has been taught has been learned.
Say ‘Everyone think about that’ and ‘Chat to a partner’ after you ask questions
When teachers ask questions, they want every student to be thinking about these. One, two or a few students isn’t good enough – everyone needs to be thinking. Making this expectation clear to students by saying, ‘Everyone think about that‘ supports this. Similarly, asking students to ‘Chat to a partner‘ for 30 seconds, a minute or a few minutes helps to get everyone to think. It also supports students to learn from each other.
Build Active Assessment Activities into instruction
Students are passive when they are aren’t thinking; they are active when they are thinking. In great teaching, we are aiming for all students to be active in their learning. This means that we are aiming to get all students to think. This is what Active Assessment Activities are all about. They include:
- True or false
- Odd one out
- Deliberate mistakes
- Multiple choice questions