Feedback that works
October 9, 2019
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

As humans, we get feedback from our environment all of the time, and we use this feedback to negotiate our way in the world. In a learning environment, this is no different. We use the feedback we get as an indication of whether we are on the right track or not, whether we are close to mastery or whether we still have some way to go. When we talk about feedback in the classroom we typically think about formal assessment or assignment marks. However, there are multiple ways in which students get feedback every day. Feedback can be either formal or informal – something as simple as a frown or a nod of approval, a cursory comment or the way in which students are arranged in a classroom,  all count as feedback.


Research shows that feedback is an extremely effective way to consolidate learning. In fact, it is rated by Hattie (2009) among the top 10 influences on student success. If that is the case, it seems obvious that feedback is an easy method to implement for improving student results. However, what the research also showed is that not all feedback is created equal, and as a result, not all feedback has the desired effect. So what distinguishes successful feedback from the rest?


Usually, students only get an indication of whether an answer is right or wrong with a number next to it. Sometimes the marks are accompanied by a few notes and comments, but this is not usually the case.  At most, this kind of assessment mark only gives a rough indication to a student of where they are in relation to the goals they need to master. To be fair, it is often not a teacher’s intention to provide this kind of feedback – they typically do not have the time to provide more detailed feedback. This is quite unfortunate because feedback provides teachers with a great opportunity to improve learning and mastery. If it is planned properly, it can actually be quite effective and time-efficient. 


According to research done by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, good feedback (i.e. feedback that improves learning) ensures that students have the answer to the following questions: 


  • What are the learning goals?
  • Where do they stand in relation to these goals?
  • How do they close the gap between where they are and where they need to be?


This is very different from the way that a typical exam, test or formative assessment is marked, but it is certainly not impossible to achieve. Teachers are typically quite good at providing students with the goals they need to master for a test. A great way of showing students where they stand in relation to these goals is the use of formative assessments – accompanied by detailed and timeous feedback. Delayed feedback is wasted feedback, because students tend to lose interest and because it either prevents the erasing of incorrect memory traces or the consolidation of valid learning. Finally, once students know how far they still need to go in order to meet the desired goals, teachers should explain what they can do to close this gap. Popular and proven strategies to do this include the following:


  • Revising prerequisite material.
  • Retrieval practice exercises, such as working through quizzes, creating mock papers, etc.
  • Adoption of brain-friendly learning practices such as spacing and interleaving rather than cramming.
  • Metacognitive strategies such as “What am I busy with?”, “How does it differ from previous work?”, “Is this the best strategy?”, etc.


Like everything else in education, feedback is not a magic wand, but if used thoughtfully, it becomes a powerful tool to improve mastery and consequently results. 


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