Tracey Feil, Teacher-researcher, Birmingham City University (Denbigh Teaching School), UK
Hattie and Clarke promote the role of feedback in ‘reinforcing success, correcting errors, helping to unravel misconceptions, suggesting specific improvements, [and] giving improvement advice for the future’ (2019, p. 5). Whilst there is convincing research evidencing the contribution of feedback to attainment, few studies have focused on primary school learners’ perspectives (Hargreaves, 2013; Dann, 2015). As Wilson states, this means that ‘we do not know how our feedback is understood by the learner, or what meaning they make of it’ (2012, p. 15). Feedback is also variable in impact; understanding the learner’s perspective may help us to unravel why some feedback is powerful and some is not.
I reviewed an approach to feedback introduced in 2017 to a large urban primary school with children from a wide variety of social and economic backgrounds. The original feedback approach had a strong focus on dialogue and peer feedback. However, multiple changes in leadership in the school over the last 18 months had resulted in some ways of working, such as peer feedback, losing focus.
I had previously carried out a project to discover teacher perspectives. However, the learners’ views were crucial if we were to ascertain what it was that made feedback effective. Children had to make meaning of and attend to the feedback given by their teachers and peers. How might their perceptions inform our development and understanding of effective feedback approaches? An exploration of this question would provide classroom practitioners with insights that could refine feedback practices so as to improve attainment.
The research project
I used an interpretative research approach with 10 Year 4 participants working at age-related expectations. The research included use of:
- a Likert-scale questionnaire to provide a starting point for discussion
- graphic elicitation to capture children’s wider views (see Bagnoli, 2009)
- focus group interviews.
Producing a drawing allowed the children time to reflect on the topic, and the drawings themselves were useful as openers during interviews and to inform question formulation.
I used thematic analysis to identify prominent themes from the qualitative data. The voice of the child was clear in both the research process and the findings. Responses were mixed: differences arose both between the 10 children who participated and within each child’s different contributions. For example, one child might say that he did not find peer feedback helpful; later, he would say that friends gave helpful ideas. The variation appeared to depend on their shifting sense of what they needed at that time to help them. In such a small-scale project, the single voice of a child has value. Generalisation is unwarranted, as there are as many intangible realities about feedback as there are learners constructing them (Cohen et al., 2018).
Full ethical approval, informed by guidance for working with children, was granted prior to the commencement of this study and underpinned the research itself.
What did the research reveal? Implications for practice
Prompts that help
Children articulated the prompts that help them. These were categorised as:
- Reminders: children knew that they forgot things, so reminders were necessary to produce work of high quality.
- Explanations: they found explanation particularly useful where there were faulty interpretations, as it led to better understanding and ‘correctness’. Often, children valued teacher support with one or two of the steps of a process that would lead them to a better or more accurate outcome.
Children talked about the importance of helpful prompts when they were struggling. This illuminates Hattie and Clarke’s claim that feedback is ‘most powerful when it addresses faulty interpretations’ (2019, p. 27). Children rarely mentioned feedback about successful responses. When they did, it was for the purpose of adding a third type of prompt:
- Challenges: these prompts made work harder or took the child deeper into their learning when children said that they found tasks easy or were getting ‘everything right’.
Children seemed to consider specific directions worth responding to because they had confidence in teachers who ‘knew best’; following the direction would make their work ‘better’. For example:
‘I think it is a command because when… you haven’t put enough adjectives and if they want you to put more adjectives in, they think it is going to make your writing better.’
– Child R
Alternatively, options or suggestions were sometimes given that children felt they had some choice about. For some, this gave a sense of empowerment over their own work and learning, which they appreciated. For example, one child told of a discussion with the teacher about her story, which gave her options as to how to proceed. As the author, she could decide. A list of adverbs was provided to another child, which he said helped him to decide.
Understanding of feedback
Children did not always understand the teacher feedback prompts offered. The participants acknowledged this yet also described actively seeking further interactions to promote understanding.
‘I ask the teacher again… They might explain it and give me a different method or… an example and I can pick which is easier for me.’
– Child X
However, not all children actively sought this support. Only one participant said that she would ‘pretend’ to understand and not seek help. However, she may be representative of other children who had a similar approach in the classroom. Dann also found that not all children are ‘actively looking for all the advice and direction they can find to improve their learning’ (2015, p. 6).
Motivated to respond?
Overwhelmingly, children said that they wanted to ‘do well’ or ‘get better’ and mostly believed that the teacher feedback that they received enabled them to do this.
‘I’m motivated to do my feedback because… I want to know more and what I can do, and the feedback makes me improve not just one piece of work but lots of other pieces of work.’
– Child X
Children suggested that the feedback given during the lesson was well utilised because it enabled them to reach better understandings or achieve ‘correctness’ at the time at which they most needed it.
However, the research also indicated that there might not be a shared understanding of quality. For example, one child felt that she was doing well; a teacher’s unexpected intervention and feedback therefore confused her. Another child said that he felt his work was good enough and so might reject further feedback.
Feedback for me
Most children were happy for feedback to be shared with them as part of a group as long as they saw it as being personally useful. However, some children, notably those working at depth within the age-related expectations, preferred direct, individualised feedback.
‘I do like being in groups because… it helps me with my work but I feel it isn’t always feedback for me… It’s for the other people.’
– Child S
Feedback to and from other learners
Two common reasons were given by children to explain why they scored peer feedback negatively on questionnaires.
- Given the answer only: ‘I don’t actually want the answer because I need to figure it out by myself but I just need a little bit of help.’ (Child V)
- Faulty help: ‘Sometimes it is not useful because they don’t actually know what they are doing.’ (Child T)
Whereas most did not seem to value peer feedback as strongly as teachers might like (Berger, 2003), some were able to give examples of times when feedback from other learners had been of benefit to them, suggesting that a shared discourse enabled clearer explanations.
‘Sometimes the kids help you more than the teacher because they explain it really well.’
– Child Z
What both viewpoints had in common was the need to trust the feedback given. They desired feedback to be of good quality – that which helped them to understand and did not just provide a correct answer. It requires skill and understanding to be able to give meaningful feedback; training to enable learners to be good appraisers of each other’s learning may be needed to enable it to be utilised with greater efficacy.
Feedback for self-regulation
There were indicators of strategies for self-regulation such as self-checking, help-seeking and setting up challenges. Children used instrumental help-seeking approaches (Hattie and Timperley, 2007) to gain the support they identified that they needed next. Some children commented on ways in which they seek clarification by approaching other children or by listening in to teacher feedback interactions not meant for them.
‘I was doing my work on the table and I heard the teacher [working on the floor with a group] and it helped me do some stuff on my sheet too.’
– Child V
Children thought that they knew when they needed further input and sought support from those whom they trusted to help them.
‘I didn’t really get it. So I came to one of the small groups where [the teacher] was… explaining it in more detail, but I was supposed to be getting on with it.’
– Child U
Many were also able to review their own work, using similar prompts to those used by teachers – for instance, the reminder prompt.
‘Maybe the teacher said, “Use subordinating conjunctions”, and then you forget and you give yourself feedback and make sure you do it again.’
– Child X
Implications for pedagogy: ‘Take time to talk with me’
‘I like it when they explain it to me… not when they stand and hover over me talking to me, I mean actually take the time to sit down and explain things with me. Be patient with me and if I get it wrong, tell me again… or tell me in a different way… or try to make me by doing it in a fun way. If you just write in my book… I might get the wrong idea. But, if they actually sit down and take the time to talk with me, then… I understand.’
– Child W
To conclude, pervading every theme outlined above was each child’s deep appreciation of dialogue as a means of helping to unravel misconceptions and reconstruct understanding. Child W clearly echoes the literature, which suggests that feedback should be conceptualised as a dialogue between teacher and student where meaning is constructed (Dann, 2015).
These interactions provide the opportunity to enable the teacher to more closely attune the feedback to the exact point of error/misconception and ensure that the child understands. In addition, the feedback could be adapted in the moment to provide coaching to enable the learner to become ‘unstuck’, whilst also providing strategy and challenge.
In light of these findings, I have prioritised feedback dialogue between children and teachers as the main approach and increased opportunities for children to join small groups dealing with misconceptions and providing further support. Enabling learners to be good critiques of each other’s learning is also needed so that children can trust and make effective use of peer feedback.
It would be valuable to find out how children not yet working at age-related expectations perceive the role of feedback in their learning journey. Are they as confident to ask for help themselves? To what extent do they understand the feedback shared? A study such as this would add to and enrich the perspectives shared by the children here and further inform classroom practice.
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