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.