What does effective student feedback look like? Part 1

Written by: Helen Webb | Published:
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Feedback is continually reported to have significant impact on student progress. In this two-part article, teacher Helen Webb reviews some of the current literature and research to try and understand what makes feedback effective

Synthesizing more than 900 educational meta-analyses, Professor John Hattie (2012a) found that effective feedback is among the most powerful influences on how people learn.

The Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation (2013) also report very high effects of feedback on learning. They indicate that it could have an impact of half a GCSE grade per-student, per-subject.

So, what is “feedback”? The term is often used to describe all kinds of comments made, including advice, praise and evaluation. However, none of these are feedback, strictly speaking.

According to Wiggins (2012): “Feedback is information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal ... Helpful feedback is goal-referenced; tangible and transparent; actionable; user-friendly (specific and personalised); timely; on-going; and consistent.”

Feedback aims to bridge the gap between prior or current achievement and the success criteria. Feedback can “provide cues that capture a person’s attention and help him or her to focus on succeeding with the task; it can direct attention towards the processes needed to accomplish the task; it can provide information about ideas that have been misunderstood; and it can be motivational so that students invest more effort or skill” (Hattie & Timperley 2006, as cited in Hattie 2012b).

In her publication Assessment: Feedback to promote student learning, Spiller (2009) summarises the common issues with feedback familiar to most teachers: “Students may complain that feedback on assessment is unhelpful or unclear and sometimes even demoralising. Students sometimes report that they are not given guidance as to how to use feedback to improve subsequent performance. Even worse, students sometimes note that the feedback is provided too late to be of any use.

“For their part, lecturers frequently comment that students are not interested in feedback comments and are only concerned with the mark. Lecturers express frustration that students do not incorporate feedback advice into subsequent tasks.”

Duncan (2007) notes that “it is commonly reported that students do not read teacher feedback comments”. He proposes that this is because students see feedback in isolation from other aspects of teaching; they cannot see the benefits and comments do not make sense to them.

He states that “this is accentuated when feedback is delivered solely by the teacher and is often associated with students as the marking of what is right and wrong”. Hattie and Timperley (2007) also note that many teachers tend to focus on the correctional rather than the instructional aspects of feedback.

Feedback needs to be effective and clear. As cited in Nicol (2008), Pelligrino, Chudowsky and Glaser (2001) state that “feedback needs to be relevant, and for this to be possible, the teacher would need to know something about the student – her prior level of understanding, her ability to use the feedback advice and, in an ideal situation, something about what emotional reaction the student might have to the feedback”. To ensure this, all teachers should be encouraged to get to know their students, keep up-to-date mark books, record relevant information and build student-teacher rapport.

Smith, Snyder and Handelsman (1982, as cited in Hattie & Timperley 2007), explain that “unclear evaluative feedback, which fails to clearly specify the grounds on which students have met with achievement success or otherwise, is likely to exacerbate negative outcomes, engender uncertain self images and lead to poor performance (Thompson 1997, 1998, 1999; Thompson & Richardson 2001). On the flip side, undeserved success feedback increases outcome uncertainty and can lead to increases in self-handicapping strategies”.

Feedback can be positive or negative. Podsakoff and Fahr (1989) report that “upon receiving negative feedback, individuals become more dissatisfied with their previous performance level, set higher performance goals for their future and perform at a higher level than those who receive positive feedback or no feedback”.

However, Deci et al (1999, as cited in Hattie & Timperley 2007) argue that “positive feedback can increase the likelihood that students will return to or persist in an activity and self-report higher interest in the activity”.

Spiller (2009) advises that “generally, feedback has to be given as soon as possible after the completion of the learning task”. At the same time, in some instances, temporarily withholding feedback is necessary to allow the students to internalise and process the demands of more difficult tasks (Hattie & Timperley 2007).

Hattie and Timperley (2007) say that effective feedback must answer three major questions:

  • Where am I going? (What are the goals?)
  • How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?)
  • Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)

Studies of the impact of feedback show that “feedback is one of the most powerful influences on learning and achievement”.

However, this potential is strongly related to the quality of the feedback and most improvement in student learning takes place when students got “information feedback about a task and how to do it more effectively” and which was clearly related to the learning goals (Hattie & Timperley 2007).

By contrast, the impact of feedback on learning and achievement is low when feedback focuses solely on “praise, rewards and punishment”. Indeed, “praise addressed to students (e.g. ‘good girl’ or ‘great effort’) is unlikely to be more effective because it provides little information that provides answers to any of the three questions and too often deflects attention from the task”.

It should be noted that this kind of praise should be distinguished from praise directed to the performance of the task, which can benefit learning (Hattie & Timperley 2007). The same research also notes that feedback is more effective when it addresses achievable goals, focuses on correct rather than incorrect responses, and does not carry “high threats to self-esteem”. Feedback is “most powerful when it addresses faulty interpretations, not a total lack of understanding”.

The four levels of feedback

Hattie (2012b) explains that “teaching and learning needs to move from the task toward the processes or understandings necessary to learn the task, and then to regulation about continuing beyond the task to more challenging goals”. He states that the three feedback questions listed earlier work at four levels of feedback – corresponding to the phases of learning: from novice, through proficient, to competent. The four levels are:

  1. Task and product level: corrective feedback.
  2. Process level: students developing their own learning strategies.
  3. Self-regulation/conditional level: students improving their ability to monitor their own learning and progress.
  4. Self-level: providing praise, but not in such a way that it dilutes the power of feedback.

In Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning (2012), Hattie provides some excellent prompts and a rubric to aid teachers to phrase, differentiate and target feedback.

James Cook University (2013) suggests a simple acronym for remembering how to give effective feedback called the KSS approach. When giving feedback to the student, organise it in the following way:

  • Keep doing what you are doing right (name the specific behaviour/s).
  • Stop doing what you are doing incorrectly (name the specific unwanted/changeable behaviour/s).
  • Start doing what you need to do to improve your performance (name specific desired behaviour).

Nicol (2008) advises that to be effective it is vital to “ensure that the feedback is consistently linked to the expected learning outcomes and that students keep revisiting the goals and criteria when they try to make sense of received feedback”.

Knight (2002) as cited in Nicol (2008) also advises to give “feedback as ‘feed-forward’, which is advice about improvement in future performance of tasks of a similar type. Examples might include suggesting goals to focus on in future when trying to improve or specific strategies that might be applied”.

Chapman et al (2011) believe that “the most effective way of marking students’ work is verbally and by adopting a variety of marking systems rather that just one”. As such, they suggest in their book Improving Classroom Performance: Practical applications for effective teaching and learning, 16 marking strategies designed to “improve the quality of your marking and, crucially, to reduce the time you spend on it by getting the students actively involved in the process”.

Modelling success and clear criteria

Hattie and Timperley’s (2007) first question for effective feedback, “where I am I going?” relates to goals. This means teachers need to know and communicate to students the goals of the lesson – hence the importance of learning intentions and success criteria. Students need to be actively involved in learning what the criteria mean and in understanding the goals and the purposes of feedback.

Chapman et al (2011) state that “in order to promote high-quality work it is essential that students are absolutely clear what successful work looks and feels like. Make sure they understand what is expected of them before they begin a task, rather than tell them what was wrong with it after it has been completed”.

Particularly helpful in this respect is getting students to “mark” and provide feedback on examples of previous work in relation to the stated criteria and then have a class discussion (Nicol 2008). As such, it is worth teachers keeping an archive of students’ work that could be critiqued prior to students completing their own task.

Nicol (2008) adds that asking students to “rephrase the task goals in their own words before beginning an assignment can increase students’ understanding of the task and in turn the value and relevance of feedback comments”.

Chapman et al (2011) suggest asking the students to articulate in precise terms what the components of a good answer are. They say to “keep making the distinction between specific and non-specific criteria”. They add that “a clear demonstration of an A* piece of work is the best way to clarify for the students what they need to do”.

According to Beere (2011), “working to redraft, improve and amend against success criteria and acting on constructive criticism is a vital part of the learning journey. It gives the students more control over – and responsibility for – the outcomes. It also prevents marking from being a mysterious process that only goes on in the teacher’s head”.

  • Helen Webb is an experienced science and biology teacher with a professional interest in developing CPD for teachers. She works at Lutterworth College in Leicestershire. Follow her @helenfwebb

Feedback: Part 2

In the second part of this article, due to be published on September 15, Helen Webb continues her review of research into effective feedback, focusing on Assessment for Learning, peer and self-assessment, the views of Ofsted, and marking as part of feedback.


  • Beere (2011) The Perfect Ofsted Lesson, Crown House.
  • Chapmen, Garnett & Alan (2011) Improving Classroom Performance: Practical applications for effective teaching and learning, Crown House.
  • Duncan (2007) Feed-forward: Improving students’ use of tutor comments, Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (Vol 32, Issue 3).
  • James Cook University (2013) Optimising Feedback, Strategies for Effective Feedback. James Cook University, Australia
  • Hattie (2012a) Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing impact on learning, Taylor & Francis.
  • Hattie (2012b) Know Thy Impact, Educational Leadership: Feedback for learning (Vol 70, No1).
  • Hattie & Timperley (2007) The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research (Vol 77, No1).
  • Higgins, Katsipataki, Kokotsaki, Coleman, Major & Coe (2014) Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit.
  • Nicol & Draper (2008) Redesigning Written Feedback to Students When Class Sizes are Large.
  • Podsakoff & Fahr (1989) Effects of Feedback Sign and Credibility on Goal Setting and Task Performance, Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes (Vol 44).
  • Spiller (2009) Assessment: Feedback to Promote Student Learning, Teaching Development, Whanga, Whakapakari Ako
  • Wiggins (2012) Seven Keys to Effective Feedback, Educational Leadership. Via http://bit.ly/2bLx5vI


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