Teachwire Logo

What Every Teacher Needs To Know About…Feedback

David Didau explains how your guidance can go from giving students the crutch of a SatNav, to equipping them with map-reading skills

  • What Every Teacher Needs To Know About…Feedback

The effects of feedback are more complex than we often realise. While expertise and mastery is unlikely to develop without it, it’s certainly not true to say that giving feedback results in expertise and mastery. Every teacher gives feedback and yet not all teachers’ feedback is equally effective.

Education professor John Hattie has pointed out that although feedback has a powerful influence on learning and achievement, this impact can be either positive or negative. Indeed, in 38% of the most robust studies, giving feedback has a negative impact on outcomes.

This seems to be borne out by the recent PISA results. Students were asked how much feedback they felt they received and this ‘index of perceived feedback’ was mapped against outcomes. Weirdly, the more students felt they got, the worse their performance in the tests. So what’s going wrong?

Instant responses hinder progress

Research in the field of cognitive psychology indicates that giving lots of immediate feedback might be a mistake. This might seem on first reading to contradict your lived experience.

After all, as every teacher knows, if you give students feedback on how to improve their tennis backhand, essay writing or the process by which to solve quadratic equations they will then make these improvements. There is no doubt that giving feedback improves students’ performance initially, but sadly this does not mean that these improvements will be retained over time. In fact, there’s compelling evidence that giving students cues and prompts to improve performance in the short term actually reduces the likelihood that these improvements will be sustained.

To understand, it might help to consider the analogy of navigation. Using a map is effortful; it’s easier to memorise routes than to have to map read your way to every destination, especially if you intend to go there more than once.

A SatNav, on the other hand, is the perfect machine for giving feedback: its GPS knows exactly where you are, you tell it exactly where you want to go and it provides immediate feedback on your progress. If you make a mistake it adapts and provides new instructions to compensate for the error. Navigation becomes effortless and memorising routes is hardly worth the trouble.

When we compare this to the way feedback is given in schools it’s no very great stretch to see how students might become dependent on their teachers for feedback. If teachers give too much feedback too quickly, it’s hardly surprising that students avoid taking the trouble to memorise procedures and processes.

From SatNav to map reading

So, does this mean that the only feedback we should give is of the map reading variety? To answer this question we need to understand that feedback has two potential effects: it can promote learning and it can also promote confidence.

The trouble is, these effects are often at odds. In order to promote learning, feedback needs to be like map reading, but to promote confidence it should be designed to encode success and give students the belief that they can successfully tackle a problem. Too much struggle may end up encoding failure with the result that students believe that they ‘can’t do maths’ or that they’re ‘crap at French’.

Instead, we should adapt the type of feedback we give depending on where students are in their studies. If they’re at the beginning of a course they’ll lack the knowledge to successfully perform a task without carefully scaffolded feedback.

Being shown how to perform well and being given ‘SatNav feedback’ will motivate them to see that they can be successful.

Then, as students become increasingly confident, they will start to be able to cope with some setbacks. Having to struggle helps students recognise that it’s worth the effort to memorise how to solve problems and to internalise procedures.

Once these things have been internalised, students no longer depend on teachers’ feedback and performance becomes increasingly effortless. And by the end of a course there should be little need for teachers to give feedback at all, as students ought to have learned everything they need to be successful.

David Didau is based at Swindon Academy as an in-house consultant. He blogs at www.learningspy.co.u and is the author of several books, including What If Everything you Know About Education Is Wrong?; you can follow him at @DavidDidau

Sign up here for your free Brilliant Teacher Box Set

Make sure your assessment is effective with these expert insights.

Find out more here >