This case study is written by Adam Boxer, a secondary science teacher and Head of Department.
As you read this case study, reflect on how the teacher uses various approaches to make feedback effective. Take some time to think about what the teacher does, how they do it, what they might do differently and how this might influence your own practice in your own subject or context.
Feedback, perhaps more than any other teaching technique, sits on a knife edge. Without good feedback, progress is slow, stunted and piecemeal. Students will make mistakes and worse, embed those mistakes and “learn” incorrect information. Corrective feedback is therefore crucial in preventing mistakes and maximising performance and indeed is a crucial part of “deliberate practice” – or the optimised process of improving performance (see for example Ericsson, 1993). However, all that glitters is not gold, and there are vast swathes of literature showing that feedback can also impede learning. In a seminal study on the topic, Kluger and DeNisi (1996) established that in fact around one third of feedback interventions decrease learning.
Establishing the exact parameters for effective feedback is far beyond the scope of this case study, but it is possible to draw on a few central ideas that might help you in delivering effective feedback to your students, with the below summarising the principles that have been most useful to me.
Task, not self
Kluger and DeNisi argue that one of the important axes predicting effective feedback is how much it is focused on the task and how much it is focused on the self. For example “you aren’t very good at word equations” is focused on the self, “you need to make sure you use an arrow not an equals” is focused on the task. Unsurprisingly, the latter is generally more effective and most teachers wouldn’t use the former. More subtle examples are harder to pin down and certainly more pervasive; for example giving a student a grade on a piece of work sends them a signal about their performance in this subject: how good they are at it. It gives them feedback about this particular task too, but by using a grade the message sent and the message received are not one and the same.
General feedback like “pay better attention in class” is unlikely to lead to the student paying better attention in class. If feedback isn’t tied to a concrete action, odds are good it won’t be followed. If you have a student who struggles to pay attention, perhaps give them a self-report card with a number of simple targets – put my hand up to answer five times in a lesson, answer all questions or complete at home, ask three questions in the lesson, put my pen down when sir is talking – for students to self-tally in class. It might not work, but it has a better chance of success.
Fade and pitch
Different students will need feedback delivered in different ways and at different times. If a student for example is running a P = E/t calculation and has got the unit for power wrong, then you have a range of options for delivering feedback:
- Saying “you have made a mistake”
- Pointing at the answer and shaking your head
- Saying “I think you should check your units”
- Saying “you have written a unit of J when you should write W”
These are sequenced from the least invasive to the most invasive. A student who is generally doing pretty well in the equation work should have less invasive feedback. A student who is already struggling should have more invasive. It is crucial to keep a certain level of challenge (a “desirable difficulty”) or learning will not occur (Bjork and Bjork, 2014).
Faded feedback is where you wait a little bit of time before delivering the feedback, introducing spacing and the opportunity for the feedback to act as retrieval as well.
Don’t praise baseline compliance
If a student is doing the bare minimum, avoid praising them and giving them positive feedback for this, unless couched with a rejoinder to work hard and go beyond the baseline expectation. Otherwise the feedback the student receives is “Sir thinks it’s ok for me to do a very small amount of work” (Boxer, Forthcoming).
Make sure they act on it
All too often feedback is delivered and then not acted upon (Kirschner and Neelen, 2018). This manifests itself in the classroom as:
- Marking comments not being acted upon (e.g. “rewrite this with x and y” and then it not being rewritten)
- Feedback being unactionable (like point 2 above)
- Students hearing and understanding the feedback, but not embedding it. For example, a teacher realises that a class don’t understand something (good), reteaches it (good), but does not then provide students with follow up work
Don’t waste your time
This is not the place to dwell on marking or feedback given to individual students (for a more thorough treatment see Boxer, 2018), but a good principle is that the more students you deliver your feedback to in one go, the better use of your time. Gather data on student performance, then bring your class back and deliver feedback to the group as a whole for example through Show Call (Lemov, 2014).
Boxer A (2018) Markaggedon! Available at https://achemicalorthodoxy.wordpress.com/2018/02/18/markaggedon/ (accessed 13 April 2020)
Boxer A (forthcoming) Student motivation. In: Chartered College of Teaching (ed) The Early Career Framework Handbook. London: SAGE Publishing.
Bjork E L and Bjork R A (2014) Making things hard on yourself, but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher and J. Pomerantz (Eds.) Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society (2nd edition). (pp. 59-68). New York: Worth.
Ericsson A (1993) The Role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review. 100. 363-406.
Kirschner P and Neelen M (2018) No feedback, no learning. Available at: https://3starlearningexperiences.wordpress.com/2018/06/05/no-feedback-no-learning/ (accessed 13 April 2020)
Kluger A N and DeNisi A S (1996) The Effects of Feedback Interventions on Performance: A Historical Review, a A quantitative study design used to systematically assess th..., and a Preliminary Feedback Intervention Theory. Psychological Bulletin. 119(2):254-284. March.
Lemov D (2014) Teach Like a Champion 2.0. John Wiley and Sons