Over the last couple of academic years, I’ve been reflecting on the role feedback plays in our classrooms. Feedback is a pivotal part of the teaching process. Whether it be verbal or written, we are immersed in the act of giving and receiving some form of feedback every lesson, every day. In my experience, when we give pupils feedback, the aim is to shine a light on their performance and provide guidance on whether they need to re-tune or restructure information that has been stored in their memory. And yet for many years I’ve never felt that my investment in giving feedback had an impact on learning. The amount of time we invest in giving feedback doesn’t necessarily equate to improving learning. All too often the quantity of feedback is confused with the quality.
Hattie and Timperley’s definition of the purpose of feedback provides a useful starting point for how we can apply a more effective approach in our classrooms:
‘To reduce discrepancies between current understandings/performance and a desired goal.’ (Hattie and Timperley, 2009)
For this blog, I’m referring to reducing this discrepancy as ‘the middle step’ in the teaching process. Ultimately, this is what we are aiming to do as teachers. We have an end in mind through our curriculum stories and we use feedback to bridge the gap between what we have taught and what gaps might be missing from the original intended goal. So, how can we reduce this discrepancy between pupils’ current understanding and the desired goal? Hattie and Timperley indicated that we could do this in two ways: looking at it from the perspective of us as teachers, as well as the pupils themselves.
We want to reduce the discrepancy as much as possible when setting up a task for pupils to complete so that the middle step between their performance and the desired goal is as little as possible. This is because when the middle step is deemed too difficult to achieve, we get pupils pushing back against our feedback. I’ve learnt this the hard way in the past. I used to believe giving pupils extensive feedback that detailed numerous next steps was the gold standard. Falsely supported by the more written feedback teachers provided, the more praise this received when it came to a ‘book look’. However, this glossed over the purpose of giving feedback. If we want pupils to feedforward and action the feedback we give them, it needs to be seen as attainable. The more we give feedback to ‘look good’ the more we divert away from the purpose. This is something I have previously expressed:
‘The continued reliance on the use of marking as a proxy for teacher performance leads to questionable impacts on learning. The more teachers come to resent the process of marking, the greater the variability in its effectiveness, reducing it further when it already has a low overall effect size.’
When it comes to our role as teachers in initiating effective feedback, the first step is all about how as a teacher we set up the task that we want pupils to complete to demonstrate they have understood/ performed as we had intended. In my classroom, this is all about sharing the success criteria and being explicit about what I want them to do. For example, if I want them to explain the processes that occur at plate boundaries, my success criteria will indicate the following:
SC1. Direction of plate movement
SC2. Processes causing plate movement
SC3. Processes that cause specific hazards to happen
SC4. Location detail
Sharing this success criteria and being explicit about what success looks like is a crucial step because we want pupils to know the ingredients and have in mind what the concept of quality will look like. Alongside knowing what success will look like for the work that you want them to complete, they also need to know the disciplinary traits for what success will look like in the subject. Prior to completing the task, I will explain what success looks like by modelling this with my pupils. In the example of explaining the processes that occur at plate boundaries, I will have already taught pupils the processes that take place at the different boundaries so that when I model this success I will model this on a different plate boundary to the one that the pupils will write about.
Once pupils have completed their response following the movement from guided to independent practice, I will share my feedback through a whole-class feedback template like the one below. The initial focus here is on how they performed based on the initial success criteria.
When I give pupils this feedback, I will go through what I’d seen from their responses and discuss the misconceptions. I will often have a further model based on the question I wanted them to answer for reflection as they look at the next steps to feedforward. The improvement statements will be written on their work so that they know what the next steps are with this piece of work. Thinking back to a ‘less is more’ approach, I give fewer concise targets for the next steps. I will then give pupils time to reflect on their individual next steps.
The power of feedback is determined by the power of the follow-up. So, the next stage is about feeding forward and not merely looking to improve this piece of work. Instead of improving that piece of work and moving on, I will get pupils to write an answer using the same success criteria but in another context. In this example, it would be another plate boundary.