Giving effective student feedback

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Effective student feedback is increasingly being recognised as a key influence on learning and student achievement. Matt Bromley offers some ideas to improve your feedback strategies.

An essential part of Assessment for Learning is giving feedback to students, both to assess their current achievement and to indicate what their next steps should be. 

Feedback is also ranked number one intervention strategy in terms of its influence on learning by both Professor John Hattie and the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF): in other words, their research shows that improving the quality of feedback given to students has the biggest impact on learning of any classroom intervention. 

Improving the quality of feedback can also lead to the greatest levels of progress being made by students. Indeed, the EEF suggests that quality feedback can add eight months of extra learning. Prof Hattie, meanwhile, says that feedback has an effect size of 0.73. To put that figure into perspective, the average effect size is 0.4 and the highest is 1.2.

However, traditional forms of feedback – grading every piece of work, rewarding good grades with merits, etc – lead to regression rather than progression in students’ achievements.

In 2000, the University of Bristol’s LEARN project carried out a series of interviews with more than 200 students from years 3 to 13. Students were asked about how they responded to various kinds of feedback. The project’s key findings were as follows:

  • Students were often confused by effort and attainment grades.

  • Students occasionally felt that their effort was not recognised by their teachers.

  • Students preferred regular, verbal feedback to written feedback at the end of a unit.

  • Students were often unable to act on their teachers’ feedback effectively.

  • Students felt that constructive feedback – that which was critical – helped them to improve their performance.

In 1998, Ruth Butler conducted a controlled study in which she gave feedback to students in three groups of a similar age and ability. She gave each group a different kind of feedback: she gave the first group feedback in the form of marks or grades; she gave the second group comment-only feedback; and she gave the third group marks or grades alongside comments. It is worth noting that the third method is the most common form of feedback given by teachers in England today.

The study found that progress (in the form of improved exam results) was greater for students in the comment-only group, with the other two groups showing no real progress at all. 

Even when the comments that accompanied grades were positive, discussions with students showed that they thought the teacher was just “being kind” and that the grade was the real indicator of the quality of their work not the comment.

Marking or grading every piece of students’ work can also cause students to become complacent or demoralised: students who continually receive grades of, say, a B or higher can become complacent whereas students who continually receive grades of, say, a C or lower can become demoralised.

Marks or grades lead students to compare themselves with other students and to focus on their image and status, rather than be encouraged to think about their work and how they can improve it. 

Grades also focus students’ attentions on their ability rather than on the importance of effort, damaging their self-esteem. Grades do not take into account how well students have progressed against the learning objectives, nor do they show the progress students have made as compared to their own past performance.

By contrast, a number of studies have shown that, when feedback is given in the form of comments only (with marks or grades reserved for the end of a unit or module) students’ levels of motivation and attainment go up. 

Comments which focus on how students can improve encourage students to believe that they can improve. And surely this is the kind of classroom culture we should be trying to create: a culture of success in which every student can make achievements by building on their previous performance, rather than by being compared with others. We can promote such a culture by informing students about their strengths and weaknesses and by giving feedback about what their next steps should be.

This is not to suggest that all comment-only marking is effective or preferable to awarding marks and grades. The content of the comments is also central to their success...

In Formative Assessment in the Secondary Classroom, Shirley Clarke suggests that teachers tend to give written feedback on four main elements of a student’s work: presentation, quantity, accuracy of spelling, punctuation and grammar, and effort. 

Although these aspects are important, teachers are guilty of over-emphasising them to the extent that the main focus of the lesson has been side-lined.

Rather than focusing on these four elements, effective feedback involves being explicit about the marking criteria. Suggestions for improvement should be focused on how students can close the gap between their current performance and the performance they are targeted to achieve, and suggestions should also be relevant to the lesson or unit and refer to the learning objectives.

It is important that teachers give students examples of how they can close the gap. In other words, teachers cannot simply say “improve this sentence”, they must explain ways in which it can be improved. 

Moving towards comment-only feedback is not without its pitfalls, of course. Teachers are often reluctant to do so because they fear how students and parents, not to mention Ofsted, might react. 

However, teachers who implement comment-only marking are able to justify their practice because research shows that:

  • Students rarely read comments, preferring to compare marks with peers as their first reaction.

  • Teachers rarely give students time in class to read comments that are written on work.

  • Often the comments are brief.

  • The same comments frequently recur, implying students don’t take notice of them.

Of course, what students do with our comments is also important. Providing students with comments about how to improve and then moving on to the next topic is clearly fruitless. 

In Inside the Black Box, Black and Wiliam found that “for assessment to be formative, the feedback information has to be used”. In other words, students need to be accorded the time and opportunity required to act on the feedback. 

A valuable approach is to devote some lesson time to redrafting one or two pieces of work, so that emphasis can be placed on feedback for improvement within a supportive environment. 

This can change students’ expectations about the purposes of work in class and homework, not to mention the purposes of teachers’ comments. All the research into what makes formative assessment effective also emphasises the importance of involving the student in the process. Therefore, teachers need to model effective marking and feedback strategies so that students can train to be effective self and peer-assessors.

There is an elephant in the room, too: giving feedback in the form of comments rather than marks or grades takes more time, so teachers need to find ways of managing the extra workload. 

For example, teachers might spend more time marking certain pieces of work to ensure that they can provide good feedback. In order to make time for this, teachers might not mark some other pieces, might mark only a third of students’ books each week, or might involve students in checking simpler tasks through self and/or peer-assessment. And perhaps, to save time, most feedback can be given verbally rather than in writing. Giving verbal feedback is not only a time-saver, though, it is also very powerful…

Research has shown that the most influential form of feedback is verbal. However, with the possible exception of practical subjects, teachers rarely get the opportunity to have quality one-to-one dialogue with students during lessons. 

Student-to-student verbal feedback, therefore, is a vital element of classroom feedback. Self, paired and group assessment of work against set criteria – and against level or grade exemplars of students’ work – enables students to analyse work objectively and motivates them to take control of their own progress. 

To be able to self, pair or group-assess work, though, students need to know what the difference between levels or grades is. Without explicit knowledge of what makes, say, a Level 5 and Level 6 piece of work, students are simply guessing at how to make progress. 

So some preparation work needs to be done before you can harness the power of student-to-student feedback. But time spent training students to give feedback will pay off over the long-term.

Finally, in addition to planning for peer-feedback, it is worth teachers planning opportunities for on-going individual dialogue between teachers and students – this is likely to take place at the end of a unit or module. Try to build in some time for one-to-one feedback to students, perhaps while the rest of the class is redrafting work.


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