Making feedback effective

How can teachers ensure students learn from feedback?
Image: Jacobs Foundation
Image: Jacobs Foundation

Providing learners with feedback on their work is an important part of the learning process. But teachers should not expect students to simply be passive receivers of feedback. To get the maximum impact, teachers should give clear comments, and enter into a dialogue with students to help them incorporate actions in their future work.

A really important, but perhaps underappreciated aspect of teaching and learning is feedback. Giving students feedback can have a positive impact on their learning. To have the greatest effect, this feedback needs to be much more than a tick or a ‘well done’ on a piece of work.

Further, feedback shouldn’t simply be a one-way message from the teacher, it should be a communicative process – an ongoing discussion between the teacher and the learner, where both are active. High quality feedback is specific and clear, pointing to what was good and why, providing guidance on actions for improvement, and highlighting why the work was better than previous pieces of work.

“Individualising feedback – tailoring it to suit each learner – may help students to engage appropriately.”

But not all students react to feedback in the same way. Comments on how to improve might lead to an emotional reaction in some students who feel that they have done something wrong, while others might be confident about integrating the feedback into their next piece of work. On the other hand, comments that focus on the positives might lead some students to believe they have done so well that they don’t need to engage fully with the feedback. Individualising feedback – tailoring it to suit each learner – may help students to engage appropriately.

A strategy to use in conjunction with individualising is to explicitly teach students what to do with feedback. In other words, teachers can develop learners’ feedback literacy – their ability to understand and act on feedback. Students do not necessarily intuitively know how to use feedback, so teachers can explicitly teach this, through highlighting how important feedback is to learning and encouraging students to talk with teachers about the feedback on their work.

“Teachers can develop learners’ feedback literacy – their ability to understand and act on feedback.”

Feedback literacy development can be facilitated by allowing classroom time for students to read and discuss their feedback with the teacher, ideally with one-to-one conversations where possible. To guard against potential negative effects of feedback, teachers can emphasise to students that all feedback is to help them learn – whether the comments focus on what was done well or how to improve. It is important that students are aware they need to put work in to implement feedback for maximum effect on their learning and future work.

Conversations with individual learners about their work gives the opportunity for students to ask questions, to seek additional feedback on areas that weren’t commented on, and for teachers to explain any comments that were not clear to the student. This dialogue ensures feedback is genuinely a two-way conversation.

“High quality feedback from the teacher is an important part of the picture but learners also have a key role to play.”

Effective feedback is more than the simple transmission of information from teacher to learner. High quality feedback from the teacher is an important part of the picture but learners also have a key role to play. Students need to be explicitly encouraged to actively identify areas for improvement from the feedback provided. Conceiving of feedback as a communicative process, an ongoing dialogue, will help students understand and act on feedback, ultimately improving their learning.

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