Providing effective feedback: lessons from research (I)

Providing effective feedback to students has always been one of my biggest concerns as a university lecturer and teacher trainer. In fact, it goes hand in hand with the task-based approach to instruction that I have written about lately in this blog.

In the Spring of 2020, I was lucky enough to have been given the opportunity to teach a short course on precisely this topic as part of Universidad Autónoma’s In-service faculty training program. The course was entitled The Power of feedback: Responding effectively to student work – a title that directly echoes the influential article on feedback published by John Hattie and Helen Timperley in 2008.

This article, written to support the second edition of the course (March 2021), provides a summary of some of the main research findings on feedback and, moreover, suggests some practical implications for university instruction.

LESSON ONE: Not all feedback is effective. Contradicting early behaviorist understandings, research has demonstrated that feedback may be accepted, modified or rejected (Kulhavy, 1977). Teaching implication: Feedback should be carefully planned, considering questions such as who, when, how much and how it will be used.

LESSON TWO. When effective, feedback is VERY effective. (Effective) feedback has been found to be in the top 5-10 influences on student achievement (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). To contextualize this impact, other factors with a similar impact include teacher clarity, reciprocal teaching and students’ prior cognitive ability. Teaching implication: Be sure to make room for effective feedback as one of your instructional strategies.

LESSON THREE. Powerful feedback is related to task achievement. More than comments or grades on quizzes or exams, feedback has its greatest effect when it involves students receiving information about a task and how to do it more effectively. In other words, it is interesting that feedback address procedural knowledge more than declarative knowledge.

Moreover, there are two significant related findings. The first one is that praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards (e.g. marks) are not especially effective – basically, because they contain little or no information. Secondly, feedback on task achievement is at its most effective when it provides information on correct responses and when it builds on previous trials (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

Teaching implications: Set meaningful and relevant tasks and projects as part of formative assessment. Be sure to comment on what students did well and not just focus on correction.

LESSON FOUR. Feedback must be specific and comprehensible. As we have seen, grades and scores provide little information. So do comments that rely on general, “final” language: great, poor, satisfactory… (Race, 2016). Teaching implication: make your feedback specific by

  • Stating clear goals and assessment (success) criteria, included in rubrics, checklists, model assignments or worked examples. Crucially, review the assessment criteria and tools with the students before completion of the task, assignment or project.
  • Using specific language of constructive criticism: I really like your use of…./ Why don’t you….? / Consider including…
Example of an analytic rubric used by my colleagues and I with 4th year teacher trainees.

LESSON FIVE. Feedback needs to have the ability to be acted upon. Feedback is not synonymous with “information” – the data provided must be fed back into the system in order to improve the outcomes (Carless et al., 2016; Boud & Molloy, 2013). Teaching implications: Two stage tasks or assignments have been found to be more useful than one-off tasks. Other possible strategies include rewrites, similar tasks for different topics / contexts, portfolio tasks, reflective writing…

Source: (Pearson, 2016)

References and suggested readings

Askew, S. & Lodge, C. (2000). Gifts, ping-pong and loops – linking feedback and learning. Feedback for learning. London; New York: Routledge/Falmer

Boud, D., and E. Molloy. 2013. “Rethinking Models of Feedback for Learning: The Challenge of Design.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 38 (6): 698–712.

Brown, S. (2015) Learning, teaching and assessment in higher education: global perspectives. London: Palgrave Teaching and Learning.

Carless, D., D. Salter, M. Yang, and J. Lam. 2011. “Developing Sustainable Feedback Practices.” Studies in Higher Education 36 (4): 395–407.

Hattie, J., and H. Timperley. 2007. The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research 77, no. 1: 81–112.

Kulhavy, R. W. (1977). Feedback in written instruction. Review of Educational Research, 47(1), 211–232.

Pearson. Higher Education Services (2016). Providing Educational Feedback. White Paper. https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/one-dot-com/one-dot-com/us/en/pearson-ed/downloads/Feedback.pdf

Race, P. (2016). Fourteen Ideas for making Assessment and Formative Feedback more Effective and Manageable. Presentation given at the University of Huddersfield, 1st December, 2016. https://phil-race.co.uk/2016/12/university-huddersfield-school-education-1st-december/

Sadler, D.R. 1989. Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science 18, no. 2: 119–44.

1 Comment

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One response to “Providing effective feedback: lessons from research (I)

  1. Pingback: Providing effective feedback: lessons from research (II) | Alfonso López-Hernández

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