As every teacher ought to already know, feedback and formative assessment are the most powerful, most effective things you can be doing. This means we need to be taking every opportunity to let our students know, “where they are going, how they are going there and what they might go next.” Obvious, isn’t it?
Well, maybe not. Here are a few interesting points I have gleaned about the effective use of feedback from Visible Learning for Teachers. Hattie says that feedback should be: ‘just in time’, ‘just for me’, ‘just where I am in my learning process’, and ‘just what I need to help me make progress’. Sadly, it usually isn’t.
As teachers we tend to be more concerned about whether we give feedback rather than whether students receive it. One study found that 70% of teachers felt that they gave detailed formative feedback but only 45% of students agreed with their teachers’ claims. Here are some of the many pitfalls:

  1. Feedback is most often accepted when it confirms existing beliefs; where beliefs are challenged, feedback is often rejected
  2. If you give feedback to the whole class students think it must be directed at someone else and no one ‘receives’ it.
  3. Most feedback is poorly received and not usually acted on
  4. Students often find teachers feedback to be “confusing, non-reasoned and not understandable”
  5. Even when they do understand, they’re not sure how to apply it to their learning
  6. Most feedback is related to tasks rather than processes
  7. Most feedback comes from peers and most of that is incorrect
So, what can we do about it?
Well, first we need to understand a couple of basics. Hattie identifies 4 types, or levels, of feedback:

Product – this is the most common type of feedback offered in classrooms and is focussed on the task or outcome which students are working towards. It’s most effective when dealing with factual information and yes/no queries. It tends to be specific and concerned with what needs to be done differently.
Process – this level of feedback is about getting students to unpick the processes they’ve used to create a product or complete a task. It’s about getting students to identify strategies they could use to spot their own mistakes and think about how they could approach their learning differently.
Regulation – this is about students’ ability to monitor and regulate themselves. If students are going to be able to effectively self assess themselves and become independent learners then it’s vital that our feedback encourages them to develop these skills.
Self – this is feedback directed at the actual student. Often it’s about praise and is most often seen in meaningless comments like ‘Well done!” I’ve written about the problem with praise before and we need to be mindful that while praising students is important for all sorts of reasons, it dilutes the effects of any feedback we give because it can draw attention to the fact that succeeding or failing is tied up with who the student is If we want them to be comfortable making mistakes and learning through failure we need to leave them out of it and focus on what they’re doing.
As with anything, there are no magic formulas that will ensure that your wise words don’t fall on stoney ground. But if we’re aware of the problem, we’re half way to becoming more effective at giving feedback and hence, better teachers. For feedback to be any cop, these conditions have to met:

1. Students actually need some feedback
2. They get some useful feedback and the time to act on it
3. They’re prepared to act on the feedback

The first one’s easy: students always need feedback don’t they? Well, yes how do you know what on? In order to recognise their need we have either observe their learning or mark their books – neither of these things are guaranteed to be happening regularly in many classrooms.
Then, we’ve got not only give them some useful, understandable feedback, we’ve also got to give them time to put it into action. This is bit is so often missing. Look back through a set of beautifully marked books: how often is there evidence that the comments that teachers have lavished on students work has been anything other than ignored? We absolutely have to design schemes of learning and lessons which allow student the opportunity to improve.
Finally, the pesky students have to be inclined to make this improvement. And for this to happen there has to be a culture in our classrooms which welcomes mistakes and sees errors as opportunities.We also need to be aware that feedback which seems to be critical can often be unwelcome. That’s not to say that we should gloss over obvious mistakes, but we need to present our feedback in a way which affords students the chance to discover for themselves where they went wrong. I’ve been experimenting with dialogic questioning to get students to think about their work rather than simply accept or reject my appraisal of it. This means that instead of saying things like, “You’ve done X, but you should have done Y.” I’m saying, “Why have you done x? What else could you have done?” This also helps to move feedback away from the product and onto the process of learning. This takes some training and some time (see point 2.) A good starter activity is to get them to answer these questions before writing an agreed target for improvement on inside cover of their book.
Hattie offers the following checklist which is invaluable for making sure you’re done all you can to be sure that not only has the horse been led to water but that the bugger’s also been forced to drink:

  • be more concerned with how students receive and interpret feedback
  • know that students prefer to have more progress than corrective feedback
  • know that when targets are more challenging students are more receptive to feedback
  • deliberately teach students to ask for, understand, and use feedback
  • recognise the power of peer feedback and deliberately teach students to give appropriate feedback to each other.