Despite careful planning and checks for understanding during the lesson, students’ work will include slips, mistakes and misconceptions.  Each student will have adopted different interpretations of the task, misspelled different words and reached a different point in a journey towards excellence.  When we come to provide feedback, what will help?

Our feedback will reflect the nature of gaps in student learning.  An error may reflect one of several underlying causes:

“It could be a slip – that is, a careless procedural mistake; or a misconception, some persistent conceptual or procedural confusion (or naive view); or a lack of understanding in the form of a missing bit of conceptual or procedural knowledge, without any persistent misconception. Each of these causes implies a different instructional action, from minimal feedback (for the slip), to reteaching (for the lack of understanding), to the significant investment required to engineer a deeper cognitive shift (for the misconception) (Bennett, 2011, p.17).”

Before deciding how to convey feedback to students, we need to identify what we want them to change.  This is demonstrated by an experiment in which a school adopted comment-only marking (removing grades from students’ work), in line with the evidence.  Students who received comments seemed to make less progress than those who received grades, contrary to the evidence: the authors concluded that giving comments has no effect: it is the nature of the comment which matters (Smith and Gorard, 2005).  First we have to identify what we hope to achieve, only then can we choose an effective way to convey this.

We can clarify our goals by thinking about feedback as targeting different levels of change.  These levels range from making changes to the specific task to changing the student’s approach to learning.  Several reviewers have created different frameworks: the framework below incorporates the work of Hattie and Timperley (2007), Kluger and DeNisi (1996) and Pryor and Crossouard (2010, p.270).

This is a way to think about where our feedback is targeted, not a suggestion that specific feedback is good and general bad (or vice versa): we are likely to want students to make changes at every level at some stage.  Feedback’s effect lies in helping students to focus on a particular level (Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Kluger and DeNisi, 1996).  It helps therefore, to be clear about the different levels, their merits and their disadvantages.

1) Improving the task

We may want students to improve their responses to the current task.  Teachers focus most frequently on helping students improve a specific piece of work by suggesting corrections or stating whether an answer is right (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).  We might suggest:

  • “Try that again, but this time hold your head up throughout the movement.”
  • “Rewrite your answer to question 3 removing the brackets at step 2.”
  • “Paragraph 3 needs more evidence.”
  • “There is a problem with your answer to question 4.”

(The examples above, and throughout, work from what might be said to lower-attaining students, who will benefit from more directive feedback, to higher-attaining students, who nay benefit from and think more about less directive feedback).

This can help students improve the current task, but its effects are limited: students are unlikely to be able to transfer what they learn about one task to another (Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Kluger and DeNisi, 1996; Shute, 2008): people struggle to recognise that they can use the solution to one problem to solve an analogous problem, unless they receive a hint to do so (Gick and Holyoak, 1980).  Task feedback may also interfere with students’ concentration if they are conducting elaborate tasks, learning complex tasks or seeking to follow rules (Kluger and DeNisi, 1996).  We may therefore consider giving more general feedback.

2) Deepening understanding of the subject

We may want to help students deepen their understanding of learning and performing in the subject.  Feedback on more general approaches to the subject may help students to identify and correct errors, use better strategies and process learning more deeply: this should lead to deeper understanding and better transfer to new tasks (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).  We might therefore give feedback applicable to a range of tasks, such as:

  • “Always underline key words in the question, then write a plan linked to them.”
  • “Look back at the original question after each step, to check you are on track.”
  • “Reframe the problem as a diagram.”
  • “Once you’ve completed a design, go back to the brief and see if you’ve met the goals.”
  • “What do we always do first when we identify a problem with our work?”

This should help students to understand underlying features of success in the subject; without specific prompts however, students may struggle to apply these features to the current tasks.

We may also help students understand the subject itself, and the learner’s role within the subject.  We may help students to adopt disciplinary habits, or recognise what being a great scientists requires, by highlighting features of good mathematical thinking, scientific reasoning or historical questions:

  • A good mathematician always checks their working.”
  • “We’ve discussed how a historian develops their argument from many case studies: how would you structure an argument which draws on all the examples we’ve discussed today.”
  • “Great artists steal.”
  • “The questions you’re asking are the kind which professors of English write whole books debating – so it’s good to explore both sides of the answer before reaching a conclusion.”

Again, students may need prompts to apply these general ideas to specific tasks.

3) Improving self-regulation

We may want students to improve their understanding of how they learn.  First, this means helping students self-monitor, recognising how well they are doing, what they know, and what is working; then it means helping them self-manage, planning and adapting in response to their self-monitoring (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).  For example, one experiment which focused on self-monitoring and self-management increased students’ accuracy in assessing their current knowledge and helped them gain higher grades; this proved particularly powerful for lower-attaining students (Casselman and Atwood, 2017).  We may help students to identify their current knowledge, skill and learning gaps – self-monitoring – and to think about how they can respond – self-managing:

  • “How did how well you did differ from what you expected?”     
  • “What do you need to study more to improve in this area?”
  • “Which strategies that you used today worked well?  Why?”
  • “What will you do differently during tomorrow’s practice session?”

Self-monitoring and self-management helps; if it blends into feedback about students directly however, it can have negative effects.

4) Self-evaluation

Feedback about students themselves is less effective than feedback focused on the task, subject or self-regulation (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).  If students receive feedback about themselves combined with feedback about the task, they are likely to focus on themselves, which will distract them from improving their work (Kluger and DeNisi,1996).  Students like praise, and it may help boost self-efficacy, but most reviews find it has little or no positive effect on student learning (because it offers no useful information about how to improve).  Even if praise increases motivation briefly, students may then become dependent on it to keep learning: removing feedback later may then have a negative effect (Kluger and DeNisi, 1996).  So feedback aimed at students directly is likely to distract them from improvement, such as:

  • You are a good/bad/indifferent student.”
  • “You always come up with excellent answers.”
  • You’ve tried very hard at this.”

We can focus on helping students improve their work, rather than offering praise or personal criticism.

Moving between levels

More powerful than feedback focused on any one level may be feedback which links different levels.  Feedback at any one level will be insufficient for success; too much feedback at any one level may detract from performance (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).  Students may struggle to apply specific feedback to new tasks; they may struggle to apply general feedback to specific tasks.  We may therefore offer feedback which links levels, helping students to recognise how feedback about one task may apply to others, or how they can self-monitor better, based on a deeper understanding of the subject.  There seems to be a “powerful interactive effect” between feedback to improve specific tasks and feedback to improve strategies, processes or self-regulation (Hattie and Timperley, 2007, pp.90, 93).  We can therefore help students improve immediately and adopt useful strategies by linking feedback about specific tasks with feedback which develops a deeper understanding of the subject and self-regulation.  The examples below show how feedback focused on one level can be combined with feedback at other levels:

One level Linking levels Goal
Correct Question 2, dividing before adding. Correct Question 2; remember to use BIDMAS. Linking task and process
Change ‘its’ to ‘it is’. Remember to write formally in business letters: check for abbreviations. Linking task and process
Redraft this paragraph: include a quotation for each underlined statement. Redraft this paragraph: justify each claim you make using evidence from the text. Linking task and process
Remember the steps in creating an accurate graph. Remember the steps in creating an accurate graph: you have missed two. Linking process and task
Clearer explanation needed. Clearer explanation needed: describe the effect of this change. Linking process and task
Body position is important. Body position is important: hold your arms straight throughout the movement. Linking process and task
What are the limits to what the evidence allows us to say about this? Historians consider the limits to their evidence: how much can we say with certainty about this? Linking process and subject
Science often advances through testing anomalies. Science often advances through testing anomalies: why did this prove fruitful in this case? Linking subject and process
Great artists steal. Great artists steal: how did you use the examples we looked at to help you here? Linking subject and process

We may not write such lengthy feedback: lengthy feedback is burdensome for teachers and makes it harder for students to understand and respond; the important thing is to remain conscious of opportunities to help students link feedback on one level with other levels, whether in written feedback, verbal comments, or whole-class teaching.

Conclusion

Feedback is hard to get right: if we are intentional about the level of change we are targeting, and make links between one level and the next, it is far more likely to be effective.

What should I read next?

Guiding improvement without giving individual feedback: ways to plan feedback for the whole class.

The evidence on feeedback: a decision tree: a summary of some of the evidence on ways to deliver feedback.

What if you marked every book every lesson?  (Not because you should, but because this post exemplifies targeted, brief marking).

Bibliography

Bennett, R. (2011). Formative assessment: a critical review. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 18(1), pp.5-25.

Casselman, B. and Atwood, C. (2017). Improving General Chemistry Course Performance through Online Homework-Based Metacognitive Training. Journal of Chemical Education. DOI: 10.1021/acs.jchemed.7b00298

Gick, M. and Holyoak, K. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12(3), pp.306-355.

Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), pp.81-112.

Kluger, A. and DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: A historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), pp.254-284.

Pryor, J. and Crossouard, B. (2010). Challenging formative assessment: disciplinary spaces and identities. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 35(3), pp.265-276.

Shute, V. (2008). Focus on Formative Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 78(1), pp.153-189.

Smith, E. and Gorard, S. (2005). ‘They don’t give us our marks’: the role of formative feedback in student progress. Assessment in Education 12(1), pp. 21–38.