While the classroom is a busy environment, being able to offer specific and timely feedback to individual students goes not only a long way toward building rapport and demonstrating interest and care, it helps to create independent and engaged learners.
While there are a range of theories around the best way to deliver feedback there are basic critical points that will ensure any feedback you deliver is going to have the most effect.
The most important things to keep in mind, according to researchers John Hattie and Helen Timperley, are that effective feedback needs to answer three key questions: Where am I going? How am I going? Where to next?
That is, what is the objective of this learning? Where am I up to with it (have I got it? Do I need some extra help? I don’t understand it at all)? And, how do I build on this knowledge?
Once we clearly understand the purpose of feedback – what is designed to do – we can more effectively articulate what a student needs to do next.
And this is important; students are rarely interested in a post-mortem about their work. What they are really looking for is a way forward, advice or suggestions on what to do next time.
The following are things to consider when offering students verbal or written feedback.
- Feedback must be timely. Delays in delivering feedback significantly reduces its effectiveness as context heightens its value and its meaning for students. For example, feedback given during the production of work has most effect as it allows students to critically assess what they are doing in that moment of production and analyse their processes.
- Feedback must be specific and to the point. Vague messages or suggestions do not help students to improve, especially if they are already struggling with the concepts being taught. Instead, students need to know exactly what it is they’ve done (achieved or missed) and exactly what they need to do next (revise, rethink, retry, expand the application of their learning). Providing explicit examples, observations, and suggestions gives students the chance to have a conversation with you about their thinking in coming to the answer they have, as well as an opportunity to ask for extra guidance or clarification if needed.
- Feedback needs to focus on individuals and their personal progress. Students need to have their attention and focus on their own strengths and weaknesses rather than on comparisons with their peers’ work. Personal bests’ are a greater motivator for students who may be anxious about being compared to others’ and minimise the risk of students ‘giving up’ because they’ll never be as good as someone else. Offering feedback on a one-to-one intimate level as opposed to in front of the whole class helps to build bonds between teachers and students and protects students’ egos and sense of self. Constructive feedback delivered with the individual student in mind assists learning and development and empowers students to become more proactive in their learning. It’s about coaching individual students’ to own their learning and their mistakes and to be empowered by making progress and seeing change.
- Part of this ownership comes from teacher’s using language that empowers students to make choices on how they will approach improvement. For example using suggestions - “you might like to...” or “you could try…”, rather than demands - “you must”, can give students a sense of control over their learning. It allows them to think through your suggestions and assess the best way forward for them.
- While praise for the things students do well is a necessary part of the feedback process, it shouldn’t be contrived or artificial. Just as constructive criticism needs to be specific and explicit, so does praise in order to be useful and empowering.
- Acknowledging with students that learning is a process, and a lifelong one at that, helps them to overcome the idea that they might be stuck in their ability level. Adopting a philosophy of a growth mindset means that students can see and appreciate their own efforts, progress and development. It also encourages them to pay more attention to feedback and to take your suggestions on board.
- While no-one likes to make a mistake it is the way we learn and creating an atmosphere where mistake making is not only acceptable but a trigger for conversation and discussion around the sharing of these experiences can make a huge difference in students’ learning. Mistakes are inevitable and even a necessary part of the learning process, so encouraging students to be open and honest about them reduces the stigma attached to mistake-making. Alerting students to the role of mistakes as a tool for telling us where we need to focus and apply more practice – creates space for students to be more open to seeking help and guidance when they are unsure or confused and to being open-minded and thoughtful about the feedback that is offered.
Essentially, feedback needs to be targeted to the individual, explicit, and offered with the intention of opening up discussion about what is known and unknown.
It not simply about pointing out errors or offering a ‘thumbs up’ for a job well done, but is instead a process of encouraging critical thinking and analysis of the work a student has produced and whether or not it meets the prescribed outcomes of the task.
Creating an environment where feedback is sought after rather than feared goes a long way toward creating a mindset of self-improvement and achievement.