What Should Feedback Do?


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Outside of formal learning environments, we have countless tools and interactions that provide us with feedback on a daily basis. Each of the following provides information that may, or may not, be useful on its own. Consider what each is actually conveying on the surface:

  • A kitchen timer for a cake

  • A satellite/GPS navigation tool showing remaining travel time

  • A dog barking

  • A drooping plant

To different people, in different contexts, such an event may have different interpretations. Take the example of a kitchen timer for a cake—at face value, the information conveyed by the alarm is simply that the set amount of time has elapsed. However, to an experienced baker, a deeper meaning suggests that the cake may be done.

Similarly, all feedback does not exist in a vacuum. When we seek to share feedback—whether academic achievement or a cake’s doneness—we should consider the person, context, and purpose. For it to be most effective, it should be crafted with each of these in mind. 

Hattie and Timperley (2007) argue that effective feedback addresses these three key points to learners:

  • Where am I going? (i.e. What are the goals?)

  • How am I doing? (i.e. What progress is being made toward the goal?)

  • Where to next? (i.e. What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)

In the same way that a lesson’s activities ought be driven by the learning objectives, so too should feedback align with he purpose it seeks to serve. Does the purpose aim to increase the accuracy of a specific response from a learner, or does it seek to improve their approaches to such a problem in the long term? Would correcting an incorrect response further the learner’s progress, or would allowing it lead to a future desirable difficulty?

These are just some initial considerations that teachers may face when deciding the nature of the feedback they provide. There is no single prescriptive formula to use to decide exactly the type or timing of feedback.

I would argue that Hattie & Timperley’s questions are good starting points for any teacher looking to craft a piece of feedback for learners. However, I would recommend also considering how it will focus learners’ attention. 

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Therefore, for learning to be effective, we ought to ensure that the thinking that results from feedback is aligned to our purpose.
— C.J. Rauch, Head of Teaching & Learning, Evidence Based Education

We know that learning is the product of hard thinking. Therefore, for learning to be effective, we ought to ensure that the thinking that results from feedback is aligned to our purpose.

For example, consider these comments a teacher might write on a student’s essay:

  • “Good”

  • “Spelling”

  • “What do you mean by this?”

  • “This is a strong introduction”

  • “This argument needs more support”

  • “???”

  • “Expand this section”

  • “Make sure you consider transitions between sections”

  • “Nice”

Each of these direct the student’s attention in different areas—and with differing degrees of effectiveness. Does writing “Nice” focus attention on something purposeful and effective? It might (potentially for more expert writers who have developed strong metacognitive skills, particularly around writing); but I would predict that for many students, such vague comments do not activate sufficiently hard thinking to communicate anything meaningful.

Consider again the cake timer analogy. To the more expert baker, the timer focuses the baker’s attention on the cake’s color, springiness, and shape. To the novice, the same sound may solely focus attention on removing the cake from the oven.

A key then to considering what thinking will arise from feedback hinges on a deep understanding of the students—or whomever is due to be the recipient of the feedback. Effective feedback should respond to this understanding in order to prompt the intended thinking.

Whether a bell on a timer or notes an essay, feedback does not exist in a vacuum. For it truly to be effective, it must do more than just recognize this; we must use our understanding of the influencing factors to craft feedback that truly activates meaningful thinking. 

To learn more about effective feedback, join the conversation at the next Moreland Meet Webinar on “Characteristics of Effective Feedback” on January 11th at 9 AM ET. Enroll in no-cost professional development on January 15th at 9AM or 9PM ET on “Strategies to Improve Feedback For Learning.”

C.J. Rauch, Head of Teaching & Learning, Evidence Based Education

Evidence Based Education is a UK-based organization committed to providing excellent-value professional development, tools and services. Its mission is “to improve learner outcomes, worldwide and for good.”

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