Effective teacher-student feedback practices

Written by: John Dabell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Without effective feedback, our students cannot improve and will not succeed. John Dabell offers 12 pieces of practical guidance for effective feedback practices

One of the cheesiest slogans from the world of business management comes from the American author Ken Blanchard, who said: “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”

It is dripping in fromage, but this quote is true, it is Michelin-starred formative assessment that takes us out of our comfort zones and into new territory.

Where are we without feedback? We need to know how we are doing in order to improve. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day because without it we find it hard to keep going. Without feedback, we starve. Feedback gives us the energy to improve, adapt and evolve as better learners. It creates more choices and opportunities to grow and can double the rate of learning.

As Professor John Hattie once said: “The simplest prescription for improving education must be dollops of feedback.”

In the classroom, we often give feedback but the frequency and quality is variable. It should be a loop – a continuous process of dynamic dialogue, but sometimes it can be a bit of a cough, splutter or sneeze.
Rather than a full English, some students get a slice of toast if they are lucky and some unfortunate souls miss breakfast altogether.

Many students point out that feedback is not always provided, which makes learning chaotic. As Professor Bill Lucas says in his chapter in Best of the Best: Feedback (edited by Isabella Wallace and Leah Kirkman): “Without feedback, learning is just a series of random experiences.”

Some teachers are only giving their students a few seconds of feedback in a lesson and peer-to-peer feedback isn’t always reliable, accurate or helpful (as it can be incorrect).

High-quality learning depends on high-quality teaching and high-quality feedback. So how can we ensure that feedback is more effective and students have an appetite for it?

Get on with it

Feedback has got to be timely and any delay only serves to strip away its effectiveness. If you leave feedback too long then it loses its value and importance. It can also send the message that you don’t care. Imagine getting feedback on a maths test two weeks after the event. That’s two weeks wasted learning time.

The greater the delay, the less likely the feedback will be used, helpful or even listened to. Fresh in their minds, thoughtful and focused feedback delivered asap will make a big difference.

Don’t dress it up and no post-mortems

If you have something to say then say it. Feedback has to be specific and to the point with no beating around the bush. Students don’t excel with vague messages – they need to know exactly what it is that they have done and exactly what they need to do next. Every second counts and learning time is precious. You can use the “feedback sandwich” approach of compliment, correct, compliment, but this is unnecessary – just say it!
Hattie and Timperley (2017) argue that effective feedback answers three questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where to next?

We therefore need to get down to business and address those three questions. Feedback that doesn’t lead to change is a waste of time so suggest very clear and detailed action points for moving onwards and upwards. Offer feedback that is specific, concrete and limited.

Hattie and Yates (2014) make the point: “Students are disinterested in past errors and post-mortems but clamour for guidance as to what to do in the future, as defined in terms of the next few minutes.”

Focus on self

One thing we need to do is to circumvent comparisons with other students because this sets up unhealthy competition, potential rivalries and can feed failure. Focus on individuals and their personal bests so that students look at what they can do to improve for themselves, not what their neighbours are doing. We don’t want anxious students, class egos and bitterness – we want students to focus on their own strengths and weaknesses.

Formative feedback delivered with the individual in mind facilitates learning and development and powers self-help and self-improvement. Feedback, when focused on individuals, makes it “hearable”, useable, testable and owned by teacher and student rather than with the rest of the class. The teacher’s task is to progressively coach and build students’ ability to self-correct so focused adjustment can take place.

Get to know students

It can be easy to assume that students know something when in reality they don’t. Professor Dylan Wiliam encourages us to get into the pedagogical pattern of evidence treading and finding out what students already know or can do before planning how to teach them. Trust is a must but you can’t always trust your judgements if the picture isn’t complete.

We need to hold every student accountable for letting us know what they know, what they don’t know and what they partly know. The flow of constant feedback can be maintained by giving each student an object they can display on their desks to show whether they understand what is being taught and we can avoid an empathy gap. Regular “check-ins” are crucial.

Give students time

If we don’t give students the time to reflect on their feedback then they can’t respond effectively and constructively and implement our suggestions. If we give a student three-minutes feedback then we should allow them that amount of time as a minimum to reflect and improve. They can’t close the gap if we don’t give them the time and space to breathe. Learning demands time for review, revision, revisiting, retrying and practice. Feedback should be more work for students than for their teacher.

Empower students

Students don’t have to accept our advice – as decision-makers they can choose to reject suggestions. Prof Lucas advises us to choose our wording carefully and develop a different ethos by saying to students “you might like to...”, rather than “you must”.

It is down to students to decide what they do about the suggested alterations to their work. The “must” culture can create a negative reaction about the feedback process and this makes things very one-sided.

This said, if students reject feedback, they have to justify why and propose an alternative. Students are masters of their own fate and it is their responsibility to make improvements.

To this advice we could add two more words and make it visible to students that we can see their effort. By saying “I notice...” we are acknowledging what a student is doing. For example: “I notice that you have used a column multiplication method to get your answer. You might like to use a lattice multiplication method to check it.”

Feedback with sensitivity

Public feedback has to be handled with care as many students will hate their classmates being party to what they have done wrong or don’t know. Feedback made public can actually make performance worse as it can feel like a public humiliation or attack. Focus your feedback efforts by making them one-to-one, private, and more discreet – whisper if you have to.

We also need to apply praise liberally. A rush of gush does no-one any favours because it can create a false expectation or artificial sense of reality. Praise has to be worthy, meaningful and genuine. It also has to be earned and praising students for something that doesn’t deserve it isn’t helping their learning.

Change mindsets

Prof Wiliam reminds us to keep letting students know that they can change and that ability is not a rigid and fixed condition. We need to teach children that a growth mindset doesn’t accept ability is a fixed quantity that we are born with but that ability is incremental and “the harder you work, the smarter you get”. When students begin to appreciate that they can change then they are more likely to embrace feedback.

Say nothing

Use sticky notes to give feedback. Seeing a comment written out can be more effective than just hearing it. Why not try writing feedback comments on sticky notes and placing the notes on students’ desks or books as you circulate around a class.

Make mistake-making the norm

Most of us don’t like making mistakes and sharing them with others. It can be embarrassing and it can make us defensive. Unless of course you have learnt to appreciate mistake-making as learning. If students belong to a classroom culture where mistakes don’t equal humiliation then this makes feedback 10 times easier.

Mistakes are inevitable and so teach students to be open and honest about them so they don’t become radioactive. Mistakes can be friends not foes because they can tell us where we need to focus and apply more practice.

Phone home

If you have got some positive feedback that’s worth sharing then don’t just give it to the student, phone their parents or send them an email and tell them too. This is an incredibly powerful way of making waves and it is a simple thing to do. Sending an email takes moments and we can easily find a few seconds in the day to make someone’s day.

Use wristbands

An idea from behaviour expert Paul Dix (2017) is to use wristbands for writing on and recording feedback and peer assessment conversations. He explains: “Each child can hold a record of their feedback and carry it with them to the next step of learning.”

He says that these festival type paper wristbands can be used for vital reminders, don’t forget messages, deadlines and they can hold thoughts, ideas, key words and desired outcomes as well as for making connections – they can be made into paper chains of connected ideas.


Please sir, can I have some more? Feedback is the breakfast, mid-morning snack and lunch of champion learners. If students don’t get their daily dollops, they are not going to grow. If they get feedback that is ill-timed or ill-defined, then their performance may drop.

Effective feedback identifies where students are doing well, where students’ areas of improvement are, and offers ideas and suggestions about how to approach these. It is unambiguous, practical and treats student learning as a developmental rather than a deficit problem.

The bottom line is that if feedback doesn’t promote learning and facilitate improvement, then it starves student potential. To be effective, feedback has to feed forward.

  • John Dabell is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer. He has been teaching for 20 years and is the author of 10 books. He also trained as an Ofsted inspector. Visit www.johndabell.co.uk and read his previous best practice articles for SecEd via http://bit.ly/2gBiaXv

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