What should feedback do?

Outside of a formal learning environment, we have lots of tools and interactions that provide us with feedback on a daily basis. Think about each of the following. What information does each convey? In what ways are each of them useful (or not useful)? What can we do with the information they each provide?

  • A kitchen thermometer for cooking
  • Password reminder hints for logging in
  • A satellite navigation system for driving
  • A rejection letter for a job application
  • A pet’s reaction for attention

Clearly, certain pieces of information are actionable and useful in some contexts, but not in others: you wouldn’t take the temperature of your food with a satellite navigation system! In the classroom, we need to match the type and timing of feedback with the purpose and context in which it is experienced.

Effective feedback questions

The feedback we provide to students can provide the same sorts of information. Hattie and Timperley (2007) say that effective feedback addresses these three key points to learners:

  • Where am I going? (i.e. What are the goals?)
  • How am I doing? (i.e. What progress is being made toward the goal?)
  • Where to next? (i.e. What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)

In the same way that assessment ought to be driven by its purpose, so too should the feedback align with the purpose it seeks to serve. Does the purpose aim to increase the accuracy of a specific response from a learner, or does it seek to improve their approaches to such problems in the long term? Would allowing an incorrect response further the learner’s progress, or would allow for a future desirable difficulty?

These are just a few considerations about the purpose that teachers may face when deciding the nature of the feedback they provide. There is no single prescriptive formula you can use to decide exactly the type or timing of feedback. Instead, you will have to make a decision drawing from your knowledge of the evidence, your understanding of your students and the context, and your professional judgement.

Ultimately, however, it should communicate these three points to students, just like a car’s navigation system. This allows the learner to bring the information to the centre of their working memory, to understand their own understanding of the concept, and to consider the next steps to better encode the concept.

In our Assessment Essentials course, we dedicate a whole unit of learning to the power and potential of feedback. Try a free sample of the course here.


  • George Lilley

    There are a lot of peer reviews questioning Hattie’s methods & his interpretation of the research. The main feedback study Hattie used was Kluger and DeNisi. Harry Fletcher Wood summarises Ekecrantz review of this -“First, Kluger and DeNisi focused on the way feedback affects behaviour – not how it affects learning…

    Second, Kluger and DeNisi included a range of studies – including those testing the effect of feedback on workers’ use of ear protection, hockey players’ body checks, and people’s extra-sensory perception (apparently feedback helps). Only nineteen of the 131 studies included were in schools and most focused on changing classroom behaviour – not learning…

    Just one study looked at students aged 15-18: it examined the effect of feedback on high-achieving students. It didn’t help”


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