It is commonly and widely accepted that feedback is the best, brightest and shiniest thing we can be doing as teachers, and the more of it the better. Ever since Prof Hattie published Visible Learning in 2009 we have had conclusive proof: according to Hattie’s meta-analyses, feedback has the highest effect size of any teacher invention. QED. And this has led, unsurprisingly, to an avalanche of blogs (many of which I’ve been responsible for) on how to give feedback more efficiently, frequently and effectively. Teachers the world over have rejoiced.

But perhaps we’ve been a little uncritical on just how best we should be thinking about feedback? I reported recently that there are some causes for concern and caution when it comes to trusting the ‘effect sizes’ produced by meta-analyses, and, as yet, No one’s come up with a defence that makes much in the way of sense. But forget such mathematical minutiae for just a moment. Take a look at the abstract for Hattie’s 2007 paper The Power of Feedback:

Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative. Its power is frequently mentioned in articles about learning and teaching, but surprisingly few recent studies have systematically investigated its meaning. This article provides a conceptual analysis of feedback and reviews the evidence related to its impact on learning and achievement. This evidence shows that although feedback is among the major influences, the type of feedback and the way it is given can be differentially effective. A model of feedback is then proposed that identifies the particular properties and circumstances that make it effective, and some typically thorny issues are discussed, including the timing of feedback and the effects of positive and negative feedback. Finally, this analysis is used to suggest ways in which feedback can be used to enhance its effectiveness in classrooms. [My emphasis]

That’s rather startling, isn’t it? Although feedback is hugely powerful, it’s “impact can be either positive or negative.” Maybe just giving feedback willy-nilly is something to be avoided; perhaps we need to be a bit more mindful about what we’re doing? AfL guru, Dylan Wiliam also reminds us that giving feedback can often backfire and have startlingly unintended consequences:Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 20.14.27This table illustrated just how easy it is to get it wrong. How often might our feedback result in pupils making less effort, aiming lower and abandoning goals? Too often. Clearly, there are cases where no feedback at all might be preferable.So, baldly stating that giving feedback is always desirable misses much of the nuance in Hattie’s research. Consider this:Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 20.20.59Seven of the studies on feedback analysed by Hattie actually have effect sizes below his ‘hinge point’ of 0.4, although the average effect size is 0.79 (It’s worth reading one of my previous blog posts for explanation and critique of effect sizes.)So, as Hattie himself acknowledges, some forms of feedback are more effective than others. He offers us this list of ‘feedback effects’:Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 20.36.15Right at the top is ‘cues’. Now, it comes as absolutely no surprise to me that using cues will boost pupils’ performance. How could it not? But as I’ve already explored at length, increasing performance is not the best route to improve learning. At number 2 is the unhelpfully labelled ‘feedback’. How is ‘feedback’ a feedback effect? All Hattie tells us is, “Those studies showing the highest effect sizes involved students receiving information feedback about a task and how to do it more effectively.” Clear?Worryingly, when we start interrogating the body of the text, Hattie finds the following:

[F]eedback is more effective when it provides information on correct rather than incorrect responses and when it builds on changes from previous trails. The impact of feedback was also influenced by the difficulty of goals and tasks. It appears to have the most impact when goals are specific and challenging but task complexity is low. Praise for task performance appears to be ineffective, which is hardly surprising because it contains such little learning-related information. It appears to be more effective when there are perceived low rather than high levels of threat to self-esteem, presumably because low-threat conditions allow attention to be paid to the feedback.

Let’s just sum that up. In order to be considered effective, feedback should:

  • only provide information on correct responses
  • only be given on simple tasks
  • avoid praising performance
  • make you feel good

So as long as kids do simple tasks and get all the answers right, feedback will be effective? What’s the point in that?Fortunately, Hattie proposes a somewhat more sophisticated model for effective homework:Screen Shot 2014-01-21 at 21.43.10

This model has gained some traction in schools and has been widely, if unknowingly, adopted. But what does it mean, and does it actually enhance learning (and not just performance)?Well, here’s some of the interesting stuff. While Hattie acknowledges that there have been lots of studies that have found problems with the timing of feedback, he says that they’re flawed because they don’t take his ‘4 levels of feedback’ into account. He points out that immediate feedback “can result in faster rates of acquisition” but this fails to understand that speeding up rates of acquisition is likely to have a negative impact on long term retention and transfer. Weirdly, one study found that delaying feedback had a negative effect for ‘easy items’ but had a whopping effect size of 1.17 for ‘difficult items’. Now seeing as Hattie sees the job of a teacher is to make work as difficult as possible, this would strongly suggest that delaying feedback might be a concept worth exploring further.So is feedback the answer to all our educational woes? No.

Simply providing more feedback is not the answer, because it is necessary to consider the nature of the feedback, the timing, and how the student ‘receives’ this feedback (or, better, actively seeks the feedback). (p 101)

Quite right. We need to be a lot more critical of being told that anything is ‘the answer’. And moreover

With inefficient learners, it is better for a teacher to provide elaborations through instruction than to provide feedback on poorly understood concepts… Feedback can only build on something; it is of little use when there is no initial learning or surface information. (p 104)

So that’s clear. Whatever we do, we need to make our instruction, our teaching, as effective as possible before we attempt anything else. This is undoubtedly true and I’ve given a lot of thought on how we might design sequences of effective teaching. And guess what? There’s no one answer.

Now at the risk of disappearing down the rabbit hole of research, it’s also worth reading Bjork’s ideas about all this:

One common assumption has been that providing feedback from an external source (i.e., augmented feedback) during an acquisition phase fosters long-term learning to the extent that feedback is given immediately, accurately, and frequently. However, a number of studies in the motor and verbal domains have challenged this assumption. Empirical evidence suggests that delaying, reducing, and summarizing feedback can be better for long-term learning than providing immediate, trial-by-trial feedback. However, the very feedback schedules that facilitate learning can have negligible (or even detrimental) performance effects during the acquisition phase… Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.  (p 23)

Why is this? Well apparently, “feedback that is given too immediately and too frequently can lead learners to overly depend on it as an aid during practice, a reliance that is no longer afforded during later assessments of long-term learning when feedback is removed”. Or to put it another way, giving pupils feedback turns them into crazed feedback junkies causing them to fall to pieces when they’re in a situation (an exam) where they can’t get their fix. If this is true and feedback is ‘merely’ a crutch to prop up performance during the ‘acquisition phase’ of learning, then we could be in real trouble. This absolutely doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ever give pupils feedback on how they’re doing. But it does suggest that judiciously withholding, delaying and reducing feedback can boost long term retention and lead to sustained learning.How might we build this thinking into marking and feedback policies? Andy Day covers similar ground in his thoughtful post What if Feedback wasn’t all it was cracked up to be? and asks the million dollar question about opportunity cost: if teachers are expected to spend ever-increasing hours on marking and giving feedback, what effect will this have on their ability to teach effectively? He makes these 5 very pertinent points:

  1. Feedback can have a negative impact for students who have acquired insufficient knowledge or lack confidence in their ability to achieve goals. Time would be better spent on ensuring they have the requisite knowledge and/or trying to establish viable goals to which they can commit, rather than giving them feedback. Who, in my classes, does this apply to?
  2. Feedback is dismissed by students who don’t commit to the goal. There is no ‘gap’ to be closed. Or they self-select an alternative goal that may not involve learning. I’m increasingly of the opinion that many students who are routinely assigned ‘aspirational’ targets based on FFTD or 4 levels of progress – simply dismiss these. But school accountability systems designed to show inspectors the rigour of the progress data rarely acknowledge a capacity to change them to something more credible in the students’ eyes and re-engage their sense of a purpose.
  3. Feedback can have a deleterious impact if it is too positive in some circumstances. Committed students can interpret it as meaning my expectations of them are too low.
  4. Feedback can be too frequent. There are categories of feedback, and some of them have more impact if they are delayed.
  5. Feedback is the ‘silver bullet’ of the moment to determine quality of teacher performance. Previously it has been ‘sharing learning objectives’, ‘group discussion’, ‘multi-part lesson plans’. They didn’t crush the light out of teachers’ eyes. Feedback is the ‘must see’ totem now – but probably won’t be in four years’ time; something else will have replaced it as it didn’t do what it promised. Only, by then, we will have seen some valued colleagues pack their bags – not with marking – and depart for good.

Related posts

Feedback: it’s better to receive than to give
Is praise counter productive?
Deliberately difficult – why it’s better to make learning harder