Increasingly, evidence and research reveal feedback to be perhaps the most critical and powerful feature of teaching and learning (Hattie 2012), something that may exact a greater influence on learning outcomes than any other singular practice or behaviour. However, what is perhaps less clear to some are the reasons for this influence or of best teaching practices surrounding effective feedback, or further, how main-stream summative exams address the role of feedback.
What do you consider feedback to be? As an educationalist, there are probably many possible responses, including comments, clarification, correction, summative scores, confirmation of correct answers and so on. However, when learners address the same question, there is a clearer emergent theme: to help me know where to go next, to help close the gap between my current understanding and intended learning.
In our current context of cognitive and socio-cultural psychology that supports constructivist approaches to learning (Williams. et al, 2015), feedback is considered crucial in leading students to construct meaning fully and accurately, something that does not occur at a singular point. The role of feedback is to guide learners through their errors or omissions to develop meaningful constructs.
However, in many educational environments the ability for learners to receive, process and act constructively upon feedback is often assumed, and consequently, a great deal of feedback is given, in a wide variety of forms, and yet with little or no educational value.
‘That students are taught to receive, interpret and use the feedback, is probably much more important than focusing on how much feedback is provided… feedback given but not heard is of little use’
(Hattie & Clarke 2019)
When receiving feedback, learners will process and respond in different ways, and any feedback will, of course, be filtered and interpreted by the individual. This may involve denying or downplaying more critical aspects, or over-emphasising the positive points and disregarding or reattributing anything negative to forces beyond the control of the individual. Feedback becomes effective when there is explicit dialogue raising awareness of the value of feedback, stating how it is to be given, and how it should be received, and of the response it is expected this to generate.
In the seminal work ‘Evidence-based teaching’, underpinned by meta-analyses of studies on effective innovations in education, Petty expounds the value of feedback and highlights that the most effective feedback includes several elements (Petty 2006):
This combination of clarifying objective, positive reinforcement and guiding input, Petty calls ‘The goal, a medal and a mission’. Clarifying the goal ensures the learner has a correct interpretation of the task, including familiarisation with the assessment criteria. The medal offers task-centred information on what the student has done well in terms of the objectives, but given as comments not grades (see below). Finally, the mission gives an achievable target to improve performance in the task. In other words, the medal shows the learner how far they have come in terms of the goal, and the mission shows them where to go next. When feedback incorporates these elements in combination, it facilitates the learner in building a meaningful construct, as reflected in the intended learner outcome.
It is often assumed that the basis of effective feedback is that provided by teachers to students. However, for teachers to realise effective feedback practices, then it’s feedback from students to teachers that provides the critical foundation.
‘Feedback is most powerful when it from student to teacher. What they know, what they understand, where they made errors, when they have misconceptions and when they are not engaged – then the teaching and learning can be synchronised and powerful’
Effective feedback is a co-constructed process, whereby as teachers we actively listen to what our learners have to say, and in turn use a range of principles to deliver meaningful and effective feedback to students. It is essential, therefore, to ensure learners have the appropriate platform to offer this feedback, and that they are supported in how to do this. There is also a clear role for peer to peer feedback, where students work together and ascertain input relating to their performance in tasks, something that is also evidenced to be highly effective.
Acknowledging and processing feedback from learners is also key to effective reflective practice for teachers, in being able to interpret and remodel our current practices based on feedback gained.
As educationalists it is also important to consider when to give feedback and what type of feedback to give, as this can dictate whether the learner perceives the feedback to be of value and whether it can inform future learning. Hattie and Clarke (2019) state that feedback needs to be aligned to where the student is in the learning cycle, referring to three stages of surface, deep and transfer learning. When the learner is at the initial ‘idea’ or surface knowledge phase of learning, then feedback directed to the correctness or incorrectness of the task is most valuable, usually elucidating how to acquire more information and reflect on how well the learner is working towards accomplishing the task. When the learner progresses and is ‘relating or linking ideas’ or even ‘extending ideas’ in deep or transfer learning, then feedback on process strategies and self-regulation (making own improvements) is more valuable. This would involve alternative approaches to processing the constructs, methods to detect error, self-evaluation and approaches to accommodating feedback.
Famously, Ruth Butler surmised that offering only comments to a student’s work, as opposed to grades or grades and comments, has the greatest positive impact on learning. This was probably owing to learners not reading comments when grades and comments were given, or by accepting a ‘grade only’ as the final judgement of their work. In both of the latter cases, it is clear that this does not contribute to the learning experience (Butler 1988).
Grades further undermine the interests of lower-achieving students, who in receipt of a low grade, without the offer of facilitation to improve performance, feel any learning effort has been in vain. Black (2003) suggests summative grading, in the form of grades or percentages, connotates that ability is innate, and disempowers the learner in the learning process.
This is not to say summative marks are always to be avoided, as these present an essential element of most educational systems, but rather that they might not form the basis of the feedback we as educationalists give in a class or lecture environment. Even so, International examinations boards, such as Trinity, continue to embrace the pivotal role of feedback even within a formal testing environment, and with their high-stakes 4-skills exam, Integrated Skills in English, an extended diagnostic report provides detailed feedback to individual learners relating to sub-skill performance, guiding learners toward areas of self-study for targeted improvement.
There is a further concern relating to comments that might be labelled ‘empty praise’, that is, comments commending a learner’s output without reason or explanation, which has a negative influence on learning. Hyland & Hyland (2006) identify how learners are highly astute at evaluating the authenticity of feedback, and devalue that which is not considered credible. Again, lower achieving or learners with special needs are particularly subject to well-meaning, yet highly ineffective empty praise feedback.
Of course, feedback needs to be an integral part of an overarching approach to effective teaching and learning, and in itself plays one role in a wide and complex set of processes in an educational environment. However, evidenced-based approaches, as documented by research compiled by the likes of Petty and Hattie (Petty 2006), reveal some key principles to help teachers refine their feedback practices. By educating learners explicitly about the role of feedback, and of how to give and receive feedback, and by giving ample opportunities to offer feedback, and then by including key elements to the feedback we as teachers offer, the impact on learning can undoubtedly be very powerful.
For many teachers, this means less is more, where we need to focus on receiving feedback and giving focused, quality feedback in return, to learners that have been made aware of how best to implement this in their learning experience as understand feedback as a vital part of their ongoing learning.
Lead Academic – Language (Europe), Trinity College London