The Role of Feedback in the Story of Learning: A Guide For Teachers (Part 1)

Before we begin, it should be made clear that what follows is not a feedback policy. The frequency, type and delivery of feedback will look different in different subjects. How often, how much and how it is delivered should be influenced by evolving learning needs and not by external forces such as school policies or inspection frameworks. A one-size-fits-all approach to feedback is not appropriate and thankfully, schools are moving away from heavily prescribed feedback policies which see teachers crushed under unrealistic expectations. Feedback is important to improving learning but its primary purpose is to serve the student and the teacher for the betterment of learning. 

In the fast-paced and ever-evolving world of education, with new ideas and existing demands, the role feedback plays cannot be understated. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) states that feedback has the potential for students to make up to 6 additional months of progress.1 However, the impact of feedback on progress is highly variable and if done badly, feedback can even have a negative effect.2 Effective teachers have always provided students with feedback on how they can improve. Indeed, the EEF refers to feedback as a low-cost, high-impact strategy. However, there is a cost in terms of teacher time and the challenge for teachers and leaders is understanding the timing, the mode and the content of the feedback so it has the greatest impact on learning, without creating an unrealistic or unmanageable workload for the teacher. Teacher time is valuable. If we鈥檙e spending 2 hours a day on written feedback, what are we not doing? If improving outcomes for our students is the goal then are we sure that this is the best use of our time?

This is part one of a three-part series that takes a close look at feedback; exploring why it matters, what it looks like, and when it can go wrong. We offer some guiding principles and practical strategies to help teachers optimise their time and offer feedback that leads to better learning.

The Bridge Between Learning and Teaching

We teach and students learn. If only it were that simple! Of course, some students do not learn what is taught, some learn a bit of it and others learn a different bit. Not, in fact, simple. Welcome to the fascinatingly complex world of one-to-many instruction. Teachers have an array of devices at their disposal to mitigate this discrepancy in learning: a well-sequenced curriculum; ensuring students have essential prior knowledge; high-quality initial instruction and modelling; ongoing formative assessment; corrective instruction; and plenty of intelligently designed practice, all serve to promote successful learning in all students. Feedback is another of these devices, and when partnered with formative assessment, forms a bridge between teaching and learning. A bridge that is bi-directional and spans the entire learning process.

The Feedback Loop

Several feedback loops are going on simultaneously in effective classrooms, with teachers making decisions all the time based on the evidence they gather from the class. Some feedback loops are short-cycle, involving immediate action and reaction, while others are longer and happen over time. Often, we focus on teacher-to-student feedback but the feedback the teacher receives from the student is equally (arguably more) important as it drives teacher decision-making. 

Feedback Throughout Learning

Feedback loops exist before, during and after instruction. Before teaching a new idea, teachers seek and act upon feedback about existing levels of prior knowledge. This can be done in a variety of ways and allows the teacher to adjust their planning so that the students in the group have a secure foundation upon which to start learning the new idea. 

During initial instruction, teachers seek and act upon real-time feedback on who is listening, thinking, and understanding. Teachers model and communicate explicit success criteria to the students, giving them a clear framework against which their work will be evaluated. Teachers will give corrective feedback to groups and individuals to keep learning on track and seek feedback as to when the group is ready to move to individual practice. All of these actions require skilful use of formative assessment, along with carefully considered planning, to allow teachers to respond to the immediate needs of their students.

During and after individual practice, teachers provide feedback to improve student learning. They create opportunities for students to act upon feedback and importantly, teachers evaluate the impact of the student鈥檚 actions. It is often this third phase; especially after individual practice, where teachers can spend a lot of time and effort鈥攍aboriously collecting and marking assessments or notebooks, writing lengthy and repetitive comments, all the time wondering whether there is something more impactful they could be doing with their time. Post-instruction feedback is probably unavoidable, as at least some students will not have achieved the required standard. However, the number of students and the amount they are short of the standard can be significantly reduced by teacher actions earlier in the learning cycle. Our aim, therefore, should be to minimise post-instruction feedback.

The Core Purpose of Feedback

Constructive feedback is not just a simple acknowledgement of a student’s effort; rather, it is a powerful tool for improvement. Feedback has the potential to close the gap between current and desired performance, allowing for continual progress. Considering the feedback loop and the importance of teachers receiving feedback about student progress, feedback can be thought of as information that is received by the student (and the teacher) about student performance relative to the success criteria which is used to initiate actions that will move student learning closer to the success criteria.

Done well, feedback serves several purposes:

– Informs students about their strengths and areas for improvement.

– Guides the learning, providing clarity on goals and expectations.

– Provides actionable steps students can take that will improve future work.

– Motivates students by recognising their efforts and achievements.

– Encourages students to view challenges as opportunities for improvement.

When Good Intentions Go Bad

The quality of feedback is crucial, and poorly executed feedback can do more harm than good. Generic praise, such as “excellent work” or “fantastic effort,” lacks the specificity needed for students to understand how they can improve and can lead to students aspiring to this type of feedback, feeling they have underperformed if it is not regularly received. Phrases like 鈥測ou鈥檙e a star鈥 also lack specificity but harbour a darker issue – that of ego. There is no place for ego in the classroom but feedback about the learner – as opposed to the learning – is damaging to the learning process. Time-consuming written feedback may also be counterproductive if it overwhelms students or fails to address specific areas for growth. Studies have shown that students will not engage with feedback if it contains too many separate points or if it is written using terminology they are unfamiliar with.3 

To avoid these potential pitfalls, feedback should be:

– Specific and actionable.

– Focused on the work and not the student.

– Timely, providing an opportunity for reflection.

– Aligned with learning objectives and success criteria.

– Balanced, recognising both strengths and areas for improvement.

That鈥檚 all for now. In part two of this three-part series, we鈥檒l discuss the differences between marking and feedback, explore the many modes of feedback at our disposal, take a look at the role feedback plays before, during and after instruction and set out our guiding principles for effective feedback.

Thanks for reading.

References

1. Education Endowment Foundation. (2024, February 21). Feedback: Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Retrieved from https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/teaching-learning-toolkit

2. Kluger, A. N., & 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), 254鈥284. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.119.2.254


3. Winstone, N. E., Nash, R. A., Rowntree, J., & Parker, M. (2017). 鈥業t’d be useful, but I wouldn’t use it鈥: barriers to university students鈥 feedback seeking and recipience. Studies in Higher Education, 42(11), 2026-2041. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1130032



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One response to “The Role of Feedback in the Story of Learning: A Guide For Teachers (Part 1)”
  1. […] This is part two of a three-blog series taking a close look at feedback: exploring why it matters, what it looks like, and when it can go wrong. We offer some guiding principles and practical strategies to help teachers optimise their time and offer feedback that leads to better learning. If you missed it, part one can be found here. […]