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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

In recent years, research has confirmed what most teachers already knew: providing students with meaningful feedback can greatly enhance learning and improve student achievement.

Professor James Pennebaker from the University of Texas at Austin has been researching the benefits of frequent testing and the feedback it leads to. He explains that in the history of the study of learning, the role of feedback has always been central.

When people are trying to learn new skills, they must get some information that tells them whether or not they are doing the right thing. Learning in the classroom is no exception. Both the mastery of content and, more importantly, the mastery of how to think require trial-and-error learning.

The downside, of course, is that not all feedback is equally effective, and it can even be counterproductive, especially if it's presented in a solely negative or corrective way.

So what exactly are the most effective ways to use feedback in educational settings?

Although there is no quick or easy answer to this question, here are five research-based tips for providing students with the kind of feedback that will increase motivation, build on existing knowledge, and help them reflect on what they've learned.

1. Be as Specific as Possible

In a review of the available research titled "The Power of Feedback," University of Auckland professors Helen Timperley and John Hattie highlight the importance of supplying learners with specific information about what they are doing right or wrong.

For example, feedback like "Great job!" doesn't tell the learner what he did right, and likewise, a statement such as "Not quite there yet" doesn't give her any insight into what she did wrong and how she can do better the next time around.

Instead, researchers suggest taking the time to provide learners with information on what exactly they did well, and what may still need improvement. They also note that it can be helpful to tell the learner what he is doing differently than before.

Has a student's performance changed or improved since the last time you assessed her? Let her know about it, even if she still has a long way to go.

2. The Sooner the Better

Numerous studies indicate that feedback is most effective when it is given immediately, rather than a few days, weeks, or months down the line.

In one study that looked at delayed vs. immediate feedback, the researchers found that participants who were given immediate feedback showed a significantly larger increase in performance than those who had received delayed feedback.

Another research project from the University of Minnesota showed that students who received lots of immediate feedback were better able to comprehend the material they had just read.

Of course, it's not always possible to provide students with feedback right on the spot, but sooner is definitely better than later.

3. Address the Learner's Advancement Toward a Goal

Timperley and Hattie note that effective feedback is most often oriented around a specific achievement that students are (or should be) working toward. When giving feedback, it should be clear to students how the information they are receiving will help them progress toward their final goal.

4. Present Feedback Carefully

The way feedback is presented can have an impact on how it is received, which means that sometimes even the most well-meaning feedback can come across the wrong way and reduce a learner's motivation.

Psychologist and author Edward Deci has identified three situations in which feedback could be counterproductive:

  1. When learners feel too strictly monitored: If learners feel that they are being too closely monitored, they might become nervous or self-conscious, and as a result, disengaged from learning.
  2. When learners interpret feedback as an attempt to control them: Learners may sometimes interpret feedback as an attempt to control them or tell them how they should be doing something rather than guidance on how to improve.
  3. When learners feel an uncomfortable sense of competition: Feedback shared in a group setting could cause learners to feel like they have to compete with their peers. This can be another source of disengagement in learning.

To avoid these situations, Deci suggests fully explaining the purpose of any monitoring, and ensuring that learners understand how the feedback is meant to help them compete against their own personal bests rather than each other.

5. Involve Learners in the Process

The importance of involving learners in the process of collecting and analyzing performance-based data cannot be understated. Pennebaker says:

Students must be given access to information about their performance . . . At the broadest level, students need to know if they actually have mastered the material or not. Giving them information about the ways they are studying, reading, searching for information, or answering questions can be invaluable.

When students have access to this information, they develop an awareness of their learning, and are more easily able to recognize mistakes and eventually develop strategies for tackling weak points themselves.

In the comments below, please tell us about how you give your students feedback, and about how it affects their learning.


Comments (15)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

SoonU's picture

Great information about feedback. I see the impact of specific, immediate feedback in small group instruction. When students know what they have done well, it gives them confidence to work on the next skill. I also advertise the success of each student in the group when possible. I find this public, positive reinforcement speeds up acquisition of skills and informs others of the array of strategies available to them.

Veronica Gonzalez's picture

I enjoyed your blog and the tips given are a great help. I like the fact that you are explaining what each tip actually means so we can have a better idea of the consequences when using a certain feedback with the students. Thanks

Veronica Gonzalez's picture

I enjoyed your blog and the tips given are a great help. I like the fact that you are explaining what each tip actually means so we can have a better idea of the consequences when using a certain feedback with the students. Thanks

FluentNeo's picture

I think the two most important things to point out about feedback is that it is specific and immediate. We are a society of instant gratification so the more immediate the feedback the more it will impact the learner.

It is so important to realize that some students may react negatively to feedback, even positive feedback. You make great points about how feedback may cause a student to feel too closely monitored, that it may cause the student to feel as though they are being manipulated, and that it may cause them to feel competitive. In these instances it is important to take a step back and re-evaluate what kind of feedback will be most appropriate for that particular student. Non-public praise/feedback may be necessary. It may also be an opportunity to come up with a secret signal/handwave...that the student will know as positive immediate feedback. The teacher would take a moment to write down the specific reason for the feedback to go over at a later time, so as not to disrupt the student who may otherwise be easily .

Trevor Register's picture

I was reflecting on this last year, and I'm glad to see that I'm on the right track with providing effective feedback!

One thing that's been critical is finding a system that works for me. I hate writing detailed comments by hand, and I've tried forcing myself anyway... to not much avail. Instead, I found a digital way to do it, and it's helped tremendously. I wrote about it at the end of this post: http://tjregister.wordpress.com/2014/04/11/grading-is-feedback/

Thanks for sharing!

ClassroomIQ's picture
Team member at ClassroomIQ (getclassroomiq.com)

One big thing we learned this past year at ClassroomIQ is teachers love giving positive feedback. Not only was leaving individual student level feedback a major functionality request (coming for this school year) but teachers were requesting it so they could affirm what students were doing right. We've also seen a big increase in the turn around time for teachers getting assessments back in the hands of students. It's great to see the experts pushing this topic forward. While students may love getting gold stars it's more important they are getting timely, relevant feedback to push learning forward.

dr.li-marie's picture

The power of feedback is remarkable. I teach at the University level and am amazed at how receiving peer feedback on weekly assignments has improved the writing and thinking skills of my students. I have been using an online peer-assessment tool called peerScholar - it allows students to submit their work and then have a set of their classmates anonymously give feedback. It also allows for self-assessment. The change in quality of work because of the feedback received has been huge!

dr.li-marie's picture

peerScholar is another good way for you to provide comments to your students. It does require that your students submit their work to the tool, but it allows the teacher to give an overall grade (or divided by criteria) and to provide overall comments to the submission. Plus it allows students to give comments to draft work before a final submission is due.

dylanwiliam's picture

Most of the research on feedback is a complete waste of time as far as school teachers are concerned. The studies that dominate the research literature are conducted by psychology professors on their own undergraduates in laboratory sessions that rarely last beyond three hours, in which students are given feedback, not told why they are being given feedback, don't get time to use the feedback, and are tested again. In their magisterial review of every single feedback study conducted between 1905 and 1995, Kluger and DeNisi (1996) pointed out that the only important thing about feedback is what it does to the recipient. Specific feedback can be helpful, but the danger is that it just tells the student what to fix without telling them why they need to fix it. It improves the work, but not the student's thinking.

The article claims that the research shows that feedback should be given as quickly as possible, but Val Shute's review of the research literature, which appeared in the same journal as the Hattie and Timperley review, found that immediate feedback was better for lower-order thinking, but delayed feedback was more effective for higher-order thinking. Feedback that comes too quickly scaffolds the learning too tightly, so that, again, students do not have to think for themselves.

Ultimately, the only thing that really matters in feedback is the relationship between the student and the teacher. Every teacher knows that the same feedback given to one student will make that student try harder, and to a similar student, can make the other student give up. When teachers know their students, they know when to push, and when to back off. And students have to trust their teachers. If students don't believe their teachers know what they are talking about, or don't believe they have their best interests at hear, they will not invest the time needed to take the feedback on board (rule one of feedback: feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor). Ultimately, when your students trust you and you know your students, you can ignore all the rules of feedback. And without that relationship, all the research in the world won't matter...

Arun Shrivastava's picture

I have been using an online peer-assessment tool called peerScholar - it allows students to submit their work and then have a set of their classmates anonymously give feedback. It also allows for

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