The importance of effective feedback is well known and recognised amongst educators. The Education Endowment Foundation reports feedback can have a “very high impact for very low cost based on extensive evidence” (EEF, 2021). There are a variety of ways teachers can give feedback to students. This includes verbal or written comments, grades and scores, whole class feedback and the use of technology. The teacher can also monitor and guide peer assessment and self-assessment. Regardless of the mode teachers use, the key aspect to any form of feedback is how the students respond and act on it.
Dylan Wiliam has stated “the main purpose of feedback is to improve the student and not the work”. A piece of work can always be improved—but more importantly, the learners needs to make meaningful progress. For example, digital software can provide a spelling and grammar checker that can improve the piece of work, but not necessarily the students’ literacy skills. Wiliam also adds, “The only thing that matters with feedback is the reaction of the recipient. That’s it. Feedback—no matter how well designed—that the student does not act upon is a waste of time” (Wiliam & Leahy, 2015).
The Great Teaching Toolkit: Evidence Review (2020) addresses this with Dimension 4: Activating Hard Thinking. The evidence review explains that great teachers give students actionable feedback to guide their learning. It is the collective responsibility of the teacher and student to ensure no feedback opportunity is wasted.
Wiliam and Siobhan Leahy (2015) are credited with the detective strategy. In this strategy, the teacher will provide feedback but the students have to act as the detective to find and fix errors in their work. Instead of a teacher pointing out which answer is incorrect, they will inform the student one of the five answers are incorrect. The student might initially be frustrated with this and would probably prefer the teacher to tell them exactly which response they need to correct! However, the detective approach encourages students to self-check and correct all five questions and find the error independently. If they fail to find the mistake, they could seek the support of a peer before returning to ask the teacher. The teacher can add further cues and prompts without telling students exactly what they should do next.
Another way for students to act on feedback is to redraft or redo their work, but again the focus must be on improving the learner, not the work. Potential mistakes students can make when redrafting is to not act on feedback; therefore the second version is very similar to the original. A redrafted piece of work should demonstrate considerate and visible improvement.
The teacher could alternatively make the feedback into an actionable task. Image a situation in which students write basic responses to a prompt. The teacher could respond with generic feedback such as “add more detail,” (which may or may not be acted upon in the future). To make a more actionable form of feedback, a subsequent task could be set to extend and elaborate on the original basic statement. Students might be asked to include more specific examples and supporting details, for example. Teachers can model and show examples of detailed paragraphs in contrast to generalised and brief answers.
When students complete a quiz or test it can be tempting for them to focus on the score and grade, neglecting any comments. A problem results when students may know their score, but not find out where they were successful, unsuccessful, or where knowledge gaps remain. As a result, they may continue to make the same mistakes. To avoid this, students can make a note or keep a record of incorrect answers, so they are aware of errors and less likely to repeat them again. Students can be tasked with repeating a quiz again (in class or at home) until they are able to answer all questions correctly.
We know that learning is the product of “hard thinking,” and actionable feedback is no different. Feedback which does not occupy students’ thinking is feedback that will not lead to learning. In order for students to attend to, engage with, and respond to feedback, time must be provided. For the learner to understand their next steps and how they can improve, the feedback from the teacher must be clear. The teacher should also monitor the progress of the learner to ensure feedback is not being ignored or neglected, but instead acted on to improve.
Effective feedback is a powerful tool that teachers hold—actionable feedback hands that tool over to students to increase their own learning.
Key questions to reflect on:
- What types of feedback do you provide to your students?
- Is time provided in class for students to engage with feedback?
- What opportunities are provided for students to act on that feedback?
- How do you make it clear that students are engaging with feedback and therefore making progress?
Coe, R., Rauch, C. J., Kime, S., & Singleton, D. (2020). Great teaching toolkit: Evidence Review. Evidence Based Education. https://evidencebased.education/great teaching-toolkit/
Education Endowment Foundation. (2021). Teacher feedback to improve pupil learning: Guidance report. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/evidence-reviews/feedback-approaches
Wiliam, Dylan., & Leahy, S. (2015). Embedding formative assessment: Practical techniques for K-12 classrooms. Learning Sciences International.