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Providing effective feedback: lessons from research (II)

This post is the second part of an article that summarizes the main lessons of research on the power of feedback as an instructional strategy. You can read the first five lessons here.

LESSON SIX. Timing is important. The moment in the assessment period when feedback is provided can be of utmost importance. On the one hand, to feedback to summative assessment (say, a final exam paper) will be virtually useless for most students. Moreover, in many cases, students will deal better with feedback when the task is fresh in their minds. Teaching implications:

  • Don’t leave the tasks until the end of the semester. Setting them for earlier moments will facilitate asking for rewrites or improvements, reflections on the learning process – in other words, acting upon the feedback received.
  • In presentations, oral reports etc. try to provide oral/written feedback within the first 24 hours (Race, 2016).

LESSON SEVEN. Multi-modal feedback strategies work well. Learners are different, and so applying a variety of strategies will allow feedback to reach more learners more effectively. Teaching implication: Consider implementing a variety of feedback strategies and tools, such as:

  • Feedback to the whole class as well as individual feedback
  • Oral and written responses
  • Comments, but also checklists, rubrics…

LESSON EIGHT. Peer (student-student) feedback has its unique benefits. One of them is that peers may be better at explaining certain concepts or skills (largely, because they just mastered them!) Moreover, reviewers also learn, through (a)exposure to models; (b) having to understand the success criteria in order to provide feedback. Teaching implications: Consider in what specific moments and for what purposes can peer comments be effective.

You may be in doubt about your students’ ability to offer constructive criticism in a way that doesn’t affect classroom atmosphere negatively. Using the language of constructive c

LESSON NINE. Students need to be trained to use, and provide, feedback. Don’t take it for granted that students will spontaneously know how to apply your (or their peers’) advice in order to improve their task. Likewise, depending on their educational and even cultural background, they may not be equipped with the skills to provide effective feedback to their peers without possibly hurting their feelings. Teaching implications and tips:

  • Scaffold the peer review process. This may be done, for instance, by asking students to complete a rubric or checklist. To facilitate the task even more, you may ask reviewers to focus on one or two specific aspects of the assessment tool.
  • In on the spot feedback (presentations, oral reports), one practice that I have found useful is to ask peer reviewers to share examples of good practice, and leave the suggestions of improvement to the teacher. This has the value of enhancing the modeling effect of feedback on task achievement, and generally contributes to a positive classroom atmosphere.

LESSON TEN. Effective feedback practices must be sustainable in the long run. Feedback is resource intensive (time, effort) so its efficiency should be maximized. University programs are increasingly placing a premium on continuous assessment, leading to a higher number of assignments which in turn demand feedback. Therefore, if feedback strategies are not carefully planned and reviewed every year following a return-on-investment logic, instructors who were initially providing extensive feedback may, in the course of time, get to a point where they just don’t provide enough. Teaching implications and tips:

  • Considering what will be the target of your feedback after each student task: what is important and can be acted on by the student, what can be left out.
  • As we saw in the first part of this post, a larger assignment with several steps is generally more effective than several independent smaller ones. A useful suggestion is to provide the quality, abundant feedback in intermediate stages of the product, and simply grade the assignment at the end of it.
  • Make sure you are offering suggestions, and not spoon-feeding students with right answers.

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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.

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Back to paper: supporting university student learning in the age of screens

Two years ago I had a particularly revealing experience in one of my classes. As I walked around monitoring student work, I noticed that at least two thirds of them were using their lap-top computer for purposes unrelated to the class. It was March, and many of them were editing drafts of their TFG (end of degree dissertation). Others were chatting on Whatsapp. Many were doing both.

Laptops abound in class!

Students sometimes come to class with the idea that they can sit through the session minding their own business and somehow make up for it at home, just reading through the Powerpoint presentation. That may be so in cases of traditional lecturer-centered instruction, but it is misled in the kind of student-centered learning scenarios recommended in this blog. And even more so when students are trying to process concepts and ideas in a foreign language, as in many EMI settings.

That same year, I visited PH Zug, in Switzerland, where I was initially surprised by my Swiss colleague’s use of a course package much resembling the ones I used in my student time in the 1990s. A paper package in the age of Moodle and e-campuses?

Sample pages from an ELT Methodology package used at PH Zug, Switzerland

Looking at its contents, I noticed that it offered a nice combination of theory, tasks and, perhaps more importantly, space and boxes for students to record their notes. I shared this with my colleagues back at Comillas and, while not moving away from Moodle-centered documentation, we have lately been handing out a number of worksheets such as the one below:

The rationale is simple. In an age in which students are reluctant to take notes, worksheets help students to have an outline of the class, as well as an opportunity (if not an obligation) to keep a record of their tasks and discussions – and this without the need to open the laptop. And even if the students choose to complete the worksheet in digital format (also available), the task-oriented nature of such documents help them stay focused, instead of drifting off.

Further, in EMI settings, we have found that the worksheet approach helps to scaffold group work, peer discussion and, especially, speaking in the foreign language during feedback stages.

As perhaps the most obvious con, this approach uses more paper…so let’s make sure our paper is recycled!

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Filed under EMI, Higher education, Pre-service teacher education (EFL and CLIL)