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Feedback literacy: The building blocks for effective feedback in schools

Written by: Ngozi Oguledo
10 min read
Ngozi Oguledo, Lead Practitioner, Ortu Gable Hall School, UK

Assessment is the planned or unplanned process involving the review of learning and the utilisation of the outcome for varied purposes. Identifying and closing learning gaps is one of the rationales for assessment. Feedback serves as a bridge, as it plays a crucial role in communicating the gaps and the gap-filling mechanisms. As Race (2014, p. 97) maintains, if ‘assessment is the engine that drives learning, then feedback is the oil that lubricates the cogs of understanding’. Hence, there is a place for feedback in teaching and learning. Variations exist in the understanding of feedback, ultimately resulting in varied feedback models in schools. I will draw on evidence and experience to discuss the characteristics of effective feedback, review the different feedback models in schools and highlighting the implications for teachers and students.

What is feedback?

Feedback in schools is generally viewed as the information presented to students on the account of their work. Hattie and Timperley (2007, p. 81) view it as the ‘consequence of performance’. They describe it as that which is presented by an agent such as teachers, peers, parents, self, book or experience to show one’s performance in or level of understanding in a given concept or process (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). This indicates that some form of observation precedes feedback. It cannot exist in isolation; rather, there has to be a learning context that it addresses (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

The information presented to students as feedback is aimed to support the learning process. It is, as Winne and Butler (1994, p. 5740) describe, the ‘information with which a learner can confirm, add to, overwrite, tune, or restructure information in memory, whether that information is domain knowledge, meta-cognitive knowledge, beliefs about self and tasks, or cognitive tactics and strategies’. Essentially, feedback addresses the whole aspect of the learning process and therefore a fundamental part of that learning process.

In recent years, the role of student agency in the feedback process has become more pronounced in the educational setting. There is a body of research to support the characterisation of feedback as a process by which students engage with feedback information from different sources, and use it to develop their work and enhance their learning (Carless, 2015). In other words, student agency is important in the feedback process and their role determines whether information presented as feedback can be classified as such.

Inferring from the above discussion, feedback can be described as that which students receive from others or themselves with the aim of identifying their current level of performance, identifying the areas in need of improvement and understanding the steps that can be implemented to achieve this.

Characteristics of effective feedback

Providing effective feedback will positively affect students’ learning and performance. Understanding the features of effective feedback would enhance teachers’ feedback literacy. But what are the characteristics of effective feedback?

Brookhart (2017, p. 2) argues that powerful feedback should give a ‘double-barrelled’ effect, addressing both cognitive and motivational issues. Students receive the feedback that helps them to understand the gaps in their learning and the next steps – the cognitive factor – and students feel equipped to make the necessary changes to their learning – the motivational factor (Brookhart, 2017). Clearly, effective feedback should develop or facilitate this double-barrelled effect. In other words, effective feedback should encourage students’ active engagement with feedback – their ‘proactive recipience of feedback’ (Winstone et al., 2017: 17). This means that students are able to understand the feedback content and effectively act on it to address their learning needs.

To discuss the characteristics of effective feedback, one key factor to be considered is the type of information presented to students. For feedback to be effective, it should consist of information on progress made by the students and further steps to take (Hattie and Timperley, 2007; Brookhart, 2017). Such information should focus on the task and not the students (Shute, 2008), but should be actionable by them (Henderson et al., 2019). Effective feedback should address the following questions, as proposed by Hattie and Timperley (2007, p. 86): ‘Where am I going? (What are the goals?), how am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)’. Importantly, it should be an episode for learning for both the teacher and the student (William, 2018). This implies that the clarity of the aimed-for goal for an activity is key to the delivery of effective feedback. Such a characteristic enables teachers and students to identify where the learner is in relation to the goal.

Another factor worth considering is the amount of information delivered and the modality of delivery. Effective feedback should have the appropriate amount of essential information presented to students in a clear and concise manner. It should be provided to students in the most appropriate mode (Brookhart, 2017) and tailored to the type of learner (Henderson et al., 2019). The chosen modality, be it verbal, written or demonstration, should present information that students can easily comprehend. Arguably, this will vary depending on students and the nature of work. For instance, facilitative feedback, which offers suggestions and clues to guide students’ review of their work, will be more beneficial for high-achieving students – unlike their low-achieving counterparts, who will benefit from directive feedback, which specifies what students need to fix or revise (Shute, 2008). Similarly, presenting elaborated feedback in small chunks and providing scaffolding for the less-able students can aid its comprehension and improve learning (Shute, 2008).

Also of similar importance is the time-scale. Effective feedback should be given in a timely manner (Brookhart, 2017). Timely feedback will help students to reflect on the work whilst they are still mindful of the learning goals (Brookhart, 2017). Late feedback, on other hand, may limit the relevance of the feedback content, especially when it is done at the end of a topic/unit and students have moved on to a new one. Deciding on a suitable time-frame will, however, depend on the type of activity. Difficult tasks will benefit from immediate feedback whilst simpler tasks will benefit from delayed feedback (Shute, 2008).Whilst the former will allow misconceptions or the hitch in learning to be addressed promptly, delayed feedback can serve as a form of retrieval practice, given that another opportunity to revisit learning is created.

Drawing from these features, it is evident that these characteristics of effective feedback require teachers’ sound understanding of the topic of interest, its learning goal and learning progressions, and knowledge of the students (Brookhart, 2017). For this reason, the promotion of effective feedback lies more with teacher agency.

Application of feedback in schools

The existence of different assessment regimes in schools and variations in teachers’ feedback literacy have led to the existence of different feedback models, which are discussed below. There is no one-size-fits-all model for all learners (Shute, 2008). Despite the variations in these models, they are all underpinned by the presentation of some form of information by either the teacher or student (peer or self) – the feedback source.

Whole-class feedback

Whole-class feedback is a model that emerged in recent times and is becoming popular. Although variations exist in how it is implemented in different schools, this model generally involves the teacher assessment of students’ work, identification of common areas of weaknesses and presentation of feedback on those areas. It can take the form of feedback information on the board or a sticker, or verbal feedback to students. This feedback model provides the opportunity to address general misconceptions or gaps identified in students’ work (Haynes, 2020). It paves the way for feedback to be given on important learning goals, and for further instruction when identified gaps necessitate such (Fletcher, 2018). This is important, as when gaps in learning result from a lack of necessary knowledge rather than faulty interpretations, further instruction should supersede feedback about the task (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). Whole-class feedback also allows a more efficient use of scaffolding to support students’ use of feedback. Teachers can share model answers, including the steps to completing them, criteria, common mistakes, etc. In addition, the absence of individual feedback in this model saves teachers’ time and impacts positively on their workload, as well as freeing up more time to be spent on planning (Haynes, 2020).

Despite these advantages, whole-class feedback may not address the individual weaknesses identified (Morgan, 2019), and consequently limits the effectiveness of feedback. The model limits the opportunity for the dialogic nature of the feedback process to be achieved between the teacher and student. There would be difficulty in answering individualised ‘where am I going?’ and ‘how am I going?’ questions as there could be variations in the work presented by students, resulting in different answers to the questions. Students’ recipience level of this feedback may be limited due to the generalised form in which it was given (Morgan, 2019). Nevertheless, the benefits of this model to both teachers and students suggest that there is a place for it in schools.

Teacher-led individual feedback

In this model, teachers assess students’ work and give individual feedback. This can be written or verbal, given at the end of or during instruction or a topic, during book marking or in class. Arguably, this model provides a better episode of learning for students, as personalised information tailored to their needs is likely to be presented using this model. Addressing the ‘where am I going?’ and ‘how am I going?’ questions will be more effectively carried out. In addition, the clarity of the feedback information is better ensured in this model, leading to positive outcomes. For instance, when carried out as verbal feedback, it has been found to lead to enhanced student engagement, performance and improvement (UCL Access and Widening Participation, 2019). This model, however, can impact negatively on teacher workload, especially when written feedback is used (Elliott et al., 2016). One may suggest that it runs the risk of focusing on the students rather than the task, especially when the limitations in students’ work may be attributed to the students’ effort. Furthermore, this model increases the chance of feedback overload, especially when the feedback information relates more to correcting elements of the task. This impedes learning, as excessive feedback within a level (be it task, process, self-regulation or self) may detract from performance (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). Despite these disadvantages, there continues to be a place for this feedback model in schools.

Peer and self feedback

In instances where peer- and self-assessment are carried out in the classroom, there are opportunities for peer and self feedback to be given. Sadler (1989, p. 122) describes it as ‘self-monitoring’, as the students are the source of the evaluative information. Often, this is used in the classroom for corrective feedback, such as in assessing quick quizzes, short tests and extended writing tasks. The practice allows students to engage in metacognitive activities that boost their learning (Topping, 2018). It often reduces the turnaround time between the completion of tasks and the generation of feedback. It also positively impacts on teachers’ workload, as less time is spent on marking (Topping, 2018). On the downside, students may not be equipped to ascertain where they are and the next steps to take. If the presentation of effective feedback requires sound knowledge of the content, then it is logical to suggest that this may be limited in this case. Arguably, this feedback model may lack robustness. However, the process itself can have a beneficial implication, as the key to developing students’ abilities to make good judgements about their work is providing them with the opportunities to construct and present feedback as expert assessors through peer assessment (Sadler, 2010). Hence, there is a role for peer and self feedback in schools.

Conclusion

Feedback, though sounding like a simple statement of facts, becomes useful when it has been received and acted upon by learners. Effective feedback should facilitate the students’ recipience of feedback and its use in improving their learning experience. Irrespective of the feedback model, the student and teacher agencies are crucial in the emergence of positive outcomes from feedback. Teachers require knowledge of the standards necessary to achieve, skills in comparing criteria, and the ability to demonstrate what is required and how to improve work (Sadler, 1989). Students, on the other hand, require knowledge of the standards necessary to achieve, and need to be able to compare their work with the required standards and be able to engage in appropriate actions to close the gap (Sadler, 1989). As this can be promoted through peer- and self-assessment, teachers should provide opportunities for students to engage in authentic and well-guided peer- and self-assessment and feedback so as to develop their self-regulatory/self-monitoring skills. Teachers should also aim to develop their knowledge of feedback techniques so that they are able to give concise, timely and transferable feedback.

References

Brookhart S (2017) How to Give Effective Feedback to your Students. Alexandria: ASCD.

Carless D (2015) Excellence in University Assessment: Learning from Award-Winning Practice. London: Routledge.

Elliott V, Baird J, Hopfenbeck T et al. (2016) A Marked Improvement? A Review of the Evidence on Written Marking. Oxford: Education Endowment Foundation.

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Shute V (2008) Focus on formative feedback. Review of Educational Research 78(1): 153–89.

Topping K (2018) Using Peer Assessment to Inspire Reflection and Learning. Abingdon: Routledge.

UCL Access and Widening Participation (2019) UCL Verbal Feedback Project report 2019. Available at: www.ucl.ac.uk/widening-participation/sites/widening-participation/files/2019_verbal_feedback_project_final_4_print.pdf (accessed 10 January 2021).

Winne P and Butler D (1994) Student cognition in learning from teaching. In: Husen T and Postlewaite T (eds) International Encyclopaedia of Education, 2nd ed. Oxford: Pergamon, pp. 5738–5745.

Winstone N, Nash R, Parker M et al. (2017) Supporting learners’ agentic engagement with feedback: A systematic review and a taxonomy of recipience processes. Educational Psychologist 52(1): 17–37.

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