Feedback: Focus On ‘Useful’, Which Means Focus On ‘How’

While learning can happen without feedback, it will always tend to be better when feedback is involved. The less expert anyone is in any area, the more important is feedback from an expert.

Feedback is top of the list of the Education Endowment Foundation’s practices that make the biggest difference to student learning.1

The practice–feedback loop

My golf doesn’t tend to improve for two reasons. The first is that I don’t practise enough. The second is that, when I do practise, I often practise things I think are right, but actually aren’t. I groove faults. I would do far better if I had access to a professional coach who could guide my practice and give me feedback.

A teacher is a professional coach. Creating practice opportunities and being on hand to support students as they practise is an essential part of any teacher’s job. From what they observe, they can give feedback, which informs practice. This practice-feedback loop is essential to propel learning forward:

Like every other aspect of our teaching, the purpose of the practice–feedback loop is to develop long-term memory.

Feedback opportunities

At the risk of stating the obvious, to be able to give feedback to students, there has to be something to give feedback on. Students have to ‘do something’. Lessons as lectures do not lend themselves to feedback. Neither does any activity that fails to produce evidence of learning.

Negative feedback

The fact that feedback can help learning should come as little surprise. It would actually be more surprising if research told us feedback didn’t impact on learning positively. Well, prepare to be surprised! Research suggests that there are times when feedback can have a negative impact on learning.2

The right amount

One of these times is when we give students too much feedback. Despite what some people believe, more feedback does not necessarily mean more learning. Just as we can overwater plants, we can ‘over-feedback’ students. Giving them too much in too short a period of time will overload their working memory and, metaphorically, drown them. Feedback needs to be chunked. Little and often isn’t a bad rule of thumb.


Other times when feedback can have a negative impact on learning is when it isn’t useful.3 Useful feedback is that which students:

  1. Understand
  2. Know how to act on.

If feedback isn’t perceived as useful, it can demotivate students. Hence, it impacts negatively on their learning.

‘Accurate’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘useful’

A common misconception that teachers and school leaders have is that ‘useful’ means ‘accurate’. However, that’s not necessarily true.4

To appreciate this, consider the student who is given feedback that says, ‘You need to improve your use of semi-colons.’ This might be accurate, but if the student doesn’t know how to do this, it’s not particularly useful. If they knew how to do that, they probably would have done it already.

Current state vs goal state

Related to this point are the concepts of ‘current state’ and ‘goal state’.5 If feedback is to be useful to students, it needs to make clear where they are (current state), where they need to be (goal state), and how to get there:

The importance of specificity

Specificity is an important principle when it comes to making feedback relating to the current state and goal state clear. Although, as we shall see shortly, specificity isn’t enough in itself to make feedback useful, it is a necessary feature. Vague feedback is a sure-fire route to misunderstanding.

For example, if we are giving a student feedback to improve their front crawl in swimming, telling them to ‘improve your front crawl’ isn’t particularly specific and, therefore, isn’t particularly useful. If, instead, the student is told to ‘improve your breathing during front crawl’, this is more specific and, therefore, more useful (certainly, it is starting to be).

The feedback could be made even more useful if it is made even more specific. For example, telling the student to ‘improve your breathing during front crawl’ could mean:

  • They aren’t breathing often enough.
  • They are breathing too often.

Just because the teacher understands what was meant doesn’t mean the student does. We need to be as specific as we can, to help avoid misunderstandings.

Focus on how

As we have just discussed, specificity is important. However, if this specificity doesn’t include how to move from the current state to the goal state, its usefulness will be limited, to say the least.

Returning to our front crawl example, if feedback has told a student that they aren’t breathing often enough, the current state and the goal state are clear – the current state is they aren’t taking enough breaths; the goal state is they need to breathe more often. But how do they get to the goal state? This isn’t specified. It might be that they need to:

  • Hold their breath for two seconds.
  • Exhale slowly, using their mouth and nose.
  • Pause for one second before taking a new breath.

It is detail of ‘the how’ that is most useful. Also useful would be to show them good examples of ‘the how’ in action.

Taken from The Teaching Delusion 3: Power Up Your Pedagogy by Bruce Robertson, published by John Catt Educational. Available at:

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  1. learning-toolkit#closeSignup
  2. Hendrick, C. and Macpherson, R. (2017) What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
  3. Wiliam, D. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  4. Christodoulou, D. (2016) Making Good Progress?: The Future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  5. Wiliam, D. (2011) Embedded Formative Assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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