In this, the sixth in a series of posts examining the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching And Learning, I cast a critical eye over Principle 6: “Clear, explanatory, and timely feedback to students is important for learning.”

The fact that feedback is important is regularly used to wallop teachers. This has been accepted as a self-evidently truth. And by and large it’s true. There are, however, a few points worth making that appear widely overlooked. Feedback is, for instance, not the same as marking. In the abstract to their seminal 2007 paper, The Power of Feedback, Hattie & Timperley make the point that, “Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement, but this impact can be either positive or negative.” This isn’t something teachers are usually told. Sometimes well-intentioned feedback has the effect of making students decide to give up or aim lower. They explain that simply telling students how to improve isn’t good enough; we need to think about whether our feedback is received in the right way. They also make clear that “feedback can only build on something; it is of little use when there is no initial learning or surface information.” Sometimes we’re better off teaching students again.

While the report’s authors seem to have synthesised their advice from some reputable sources, they appear to have missed out on others which shed a different kind of light. As a result, I’d argue that while much of their advice to teachers is sound, some of it is wrong. The point is made on several occasions that feedback ought to relate to “specific learning goals” by which I assume they mean learning objectives and the like. This is, of course, a central tenet of assessment for learning, which as I explained here is a flawed theory. So, while giving feedback against set objectives and success criteria is not a bad thing, it’s certainly not the only way to go.

The report also makes the point that feedback needs to be specific. Of course it does, but I would also say that specificity is not enough. To avoid the unintended consequences, feedback can have it needs to provide clarification, get students to try harder and aim higher. If you’re interested, I’ve written some suggestions on getting feedback right.

Some of the advice is problematic. We’re told that feedback should, “include providing the correct response when students answer incorrectly”. I’ve often found this singularly ineffective. Students tend to nod and say, “Yeah, I know,” and then carry on as before. There’s real benefit from demanding that students struggle to work out what to do for themselves and that feedback should provide hints rather than complete solutions.  To be fair, the reports does suggest that sometimes, “providing guidance that helps students discover the correct response themselves,” is worth doing.

The big bone of contention I have with the advice in the report is the injunction that feedback be provided “in a timely way (e.g., as quickly as possible after a quiz) assists learning and is usually more effective than providing delayed feedback.” I just don’t think this is true – or certainly not always true. Rapid feedback may well be the best way to improve students’ current performance, but if we’re more interested in the likelihood that content will be retained and transferable to new contexts then the opposite may be better. In their 2013 literature review, Learning vs Performance, Soderstrom & Bjork make this point:

Empirical evidence suggests that delaying, reducing, and summarizing feedback can be better for long-term learning than providing immediate, trial-by-trial feedback. … Numerous studies—some of them dating back decades—have shown that frequent and immediate feedback can, contrary to intuition, degrade learning.

This is difficult for the very point the authors’ make: it is contrary to our intuitions about what should work. But intuition isn’t worth a damn if it’s contradicted by decades of empirical evidence – that’s just wishful thinking. I’ve gone into this in much more detail here. That not to say there’s never a point to providing frequent and immediate feedback – it can be highly motivational to be told you’re on the right track and given specific instructions on how to perform that little bit better. As the report says, “When students are learning a new task or struggling with an existing one, frequent praise following small degrees of improvement is very important, and when progress is evident, encouragement to persist can matter a great deal.” As we saw in our examination of Principle 5, practice makes a great deal of difference and anything which motivates students to practice more is probably worthwhile.

The final point to pick over is one of tone.  The report suggests students “respond better if feedback minimizes negativity and addresses significant aspects of their work and understanding, in contrast to feedback that is negative in tone and focused excessively on details of student performance that are less relevant to the learning goal.” These are emotive terms – no one sane would think it desirable to be dismissive or cruel when giving feedback, so to that extent at least, minimising negativity is obviously a good thing. We should be careful though not to confuse this with a prescription to be overly enthusiastic or transparently positive. Feedback offered in such a way can backfire and end up convincing students you’re either insincere or have very low expectations. The key (if there is one) to all this is the relationship between the donor and the recipient of feedback. If a teacher is respected by their students, there’s a good chance feedback will be well received, if the reverse is true, then God help you.