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Future of Learning

Learning Progresses With Effective Feedback

By Dr. Karen L. Taylor
Learning Progresses With Effective Feedback

What I like about the image above is the way it conveys a sense of collaborative movement that is up and forward—the direction I believe we want to take as we work together with our students to improve learning, theirs and ours.

In an earlier article (Learning Principle Number 2), I reminisced about a 9th-grade history class and how I announced to parents that there would be no tests, only essays, and that we would be focusing on analytical writing based on our reading of primary sources. I was committed to helping my students discover the richness of direct contact with historical sources. I was equally passionate about helping them to develop skills that could be transferable to other domains; they were going to learn to think and to write. As much as I wished they might all become budding historians, I recognized well that this was not likely to be the case!

When I announced that there would be no tests in my class, I also shared a related policy. All students would be able to rewrite their essays, as many times as they wished but within a given time frame, based on my comments—feedback.

The first questions that always arose from students and their parents were: Will this change my grade? Will the grades be averaged? My answer was that if the student merited a new grade, then that is what they would receive, not an averaged grade. However, they needed to be aware that their grade could also go down.

Feedback vs. grades

The question about grades is significant. Feedback and grades are obviously not the same thing, although there is sometimes a tendency to blur the lines. As Alfie Kohn (1994) famously wrote, “Never grade students while they are still learning” (p. 41). Once students see a grade, they tend to ignore any comments, so better to separate the two components.

As we know, feedback can be about process or product, it can be offered on formative and summative assessments. What is important is growth and development. In an ideal world, feedback and instruction are intertwined and multidirectional, but I will come back to this point.

I wish I could say that my 9th-grade class policies were all grounded in research. The truth is that I was a novice teacher of high school students whose training had been in university teaching. The policies were based on what I believed to be common sense. This was a long time ago, well before Hattie and Timperly’s seminal article “The Power of Feedback' (2007). Since then, research on effective feedback has developed considerably. While I stand by my intuition as a novice, I also now know that there are ways in which I could have improved on the quality of my feedback to students and more aware of the feedback they could have given me.

What I have learned since is how to make sure that the feedback I offer students is focused specifically on how to improve their work and, perhaps most importantly, in the form of questions rather than instructions. Whether we choose to give feedback in written or oral form is less important than

  • breaking down learning into incremental steps and
  • giving students the time to improve their work subsequently.

All those years ago I might have written in the margins of a student essay something like “needs more depth” or “weak phrasing.” Now I would say, “You have described these two sources clearly. Next is to think about how to do a comparative analysis of them. How do the sources differ specifically in perspective? What do they share in common that reflects the historical context?"

In Visible Learning for Teachers, John Hattie (2012) offers a number of useful examples of the kinds of prompts (organizational, elaboration, and the monitoring of progress) that may guide students in moving forward in their learning while leaving them the space they need to develop agency over that learning. "The key with all prompts is not only to get the prompt relative to the phase of learning, but also to know when to remove the prompt—that is, when to fade out, or allow the student to take on more responsibility" (Hattie, 2012, p. 144). Helping students to set challenging mastery goals and to monitor their progress will contribute to their development as autonomous learners.

“Just in time, just for me, just for where I am in the learning process, and just what I need to move forward.”
— John Hattie

Ideally, as educators we skillfully use questioning to move students into their zone of proximal development, that space that is just beyond but not too far from where the student is in their learning journey (Learning Principle 7). In fact, the idea of moving forward is at the heart of the whole feedback process that seeks to support students’ development in relation to these three, key questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going there?
  • Where to next?

The literature on assessment and feedback also frequently refers to four levels on which the feedback may focus:

  • Task
  • Process
  • Self-regulation
  • Self

The first three levels are about students moving through layers of complexity (see Learning Principle 1) as they develop metacognitive skills and strategies that ultimately contribute to their autonomy and agency as a learner. Interestingly, the fourth element—the self—is in some ways the most problematic.

Sometimes we blur the lines between task-specific feedback and praise, for example, when what we should be aiming for is to distinguish between the work and the person in order to provide "task-involving rather than ego-involving feedback” (William, 2011, p. 110).

“Feedback should cause thinking” (p. 127). In other words, what we are looking for is to provide feedback in such a way as to ensure a cognitive response, not an emotional response. At the same time, this is only possible when the classroom culture is one of trust, where each student and the teacher feel secure in acknowledging mistakes and uncertainty (see Learning Principle 4). If we are to collaborate in a learning community comprised of both children and adults, then as educators we need to be able to model what we expect from our students. Do we offer students the opportunity to give us feedback?

As I mentioned earlier, ideally, instruction and feedback are interwoven and multidimensional. This means considering ongoing assessment as feedback for teachers (Hattie, 2012). It also suggests that we consider how peer-to-peer feedback can be just as important—sometimes even more so—as feedback from teachers.

Just as teachers work to hone their skills in asking questions and providing guidance to students, so, too, do students need a framework for providing quality feedback to one another. Well-designed rubrics, giving students the words and the tools to do so, can result in powerful, long-lasting learning experiences. 

Quality feedback is specific, focused, timely, actionable, genuine, and credible

Things to consider (adapted from Hattie, 2012, p. 210):

  • Do I provide feedback in relation to the three key questions: “Where am I going?”; “How am I going there?”; and “Where to next?”
  • Do I consider the levels of feedback: task, process, self-regulation, and self?
  • Am I careful to distinguish between praise and feedback?
  • Do I seek to understand if students are receptive to the feedback I give?
  • Do I check for understanding and modify my teaching in response to feedback from my students?
  • Do I recognize the value of peer-to-peer feedback and explicitly teach my students how to engage appropriately in this?

Useful Resources

Project Zero Ladder of Feedback

Making feedback visible

Gan (2011) Graphic organizer for feedback

Dylan Wiliam, Feedback on Learning (video)

ULP Guide to Universal Understanding (Mastery)

Suggested Reading

Brooks, C., Burton, R., Kleij, F. V., Carroll, A., Olave, K., & Hattie, J. (2021). From fixing the work to improving the learner: An initial evaluation of a professional learning intervention using a new student-centred feedback model. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 68, 100943. doi:10.1016/j.stueduc.2020.100943

Black, P.J., & William, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational  Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5-31.

Bruyckere, P. D., & Willingham, D. T. (2018). The ingredients for great teaching. SAGE.

Harris, L. R., Brown, G. T., & Harnett, J. A. (2014). Analysis of New Zealand primary and secondary student peer- and self-assessment comments: Applying Hattie and Timperley’s feedback model. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(2), 265-281. doi:10.1080/0969594x.2014.976541

Hattie, J. (2017). L'apprentissage visible pour les enseignants: Connai^tre son impact pour maximiser le rendement des e´le`ves. Presses de l'Universite´ du Que´bec.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Routledge.

Hattie, J.A.C. & Timperley, H. (2006) The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.

Hendrick, C., Macpherson, R., & Caviglioli, O. (2019). What does this look like in the classroom?: Bridging the gap between research and practice. John Catt Educational.

The Power of Feedback. (2014). doi:10.4324/9781315813875

Kohn, A. (1994). Grading: The issue is not how but why. Educational Leadership, 52(2), 38-41.

William, D. (2011). Embedding Formative Assessment. Solution Tree Press.

Wisniewski, B., Zierer, K., & Hattie, J. (2020). The Power of Feedback Revisited: A Meta-Analysis of Educational Feedback Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.03087

Dr Karen Taylor serves as Director of Education and the Institute of Learning and Teaching at the International School of Geneva and Associate Professor in Practice at Durham University’s School of Education. Prior to moving to Switzerland in 2008, Dr Taylor taught at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC and in the Liberal Studies Degree program at Georgetown University where she earned her PhD in history in 2000. Dr Taylor’s research interests focus on eighteenth-century French pedagogical writings, Global Citizenship Education, Inclusion, and Plurilingual Education.

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